Swain teacher fills vital role for Latino students

By Michael Beadle

Editor’s note: This is the second in a two-part series on some of the issues faced by new Latino immigrants to this region.

Cristina Heath, a native of Mexico and a Spanish teacher at Swain County High School and Middle School, has mixed feelings about the growing number of Hispanic immigrants in Western North Carolina.

On the one hand, she sees families coming to the area looking for better job and educational opportunities, eager to work hard for the American dream. On the other hand, she says, Hispanic immigrants who pay as much as $5,000 per person to enter the U.S. illegally soon learn they don’t have access to that dream since, without proper documentation, they cannot apply for things like bank accounts, insurance and driver’s licenses. And with illegal documents, families live under the fear of being discovered and deported.

If you’re going to come into this country, you should go about it the right way, Heath says. Otherwise, you could encounter what some of her Hispanic students have had to face as illegal immigrants — no proper documentation, no scholarships to college.

According to Heath, one of her students this year — a hard-working senior who wants to go to college — doesn’t have proper documentation as a legal resident, so, although he’s been accepted to college, he won’t be able to afford the exorbitant cost of tuition as a foreign student. Apparently, the senior had only learned this year that he was an illegal immigrant. His parents had kept telling him everything was fine and to go ahead and apply to college. Now, Heath says, faced with the impossibly high cost of tuition, he’ll have to find an alternative.

“Something has to be done,” Heath says. “These are kids that want to study. They are wonderful students.”

After telling her students, “You can do it” and “Follow your dreams,” it’s hard to sound encouraging when the reality sets in that students who work hard are not always rewarded.

“It’s been very difficult to see that,” Heath says. “We need to be honest with our kids.”


Building support networks

Though the Hispanic population is relatively small in Swain County — Heath estimates about 35 to 40 Hispanic students, mostly from Mexico — Heath says there’s a growing need for English as a Second Language programs. Heath proudly admits to being the first Hispanic teacher hired in the Swain County school system.

“They are getting used to me,” she says with a laugh. At first it was a little awkward, her thick Spanish accent in a Southern Appalachian setting, but now she feels like the students and faculty have welcomed her with open arms.

One of her colleagues, Kathy deCano, also teaches Spanish at Swain County High School and also once lived in Mexico. When the two met, Swain High School Principal Janet Clapsaddle said, it was like two long lost friends meeting.

“The two of them are great resources for our county,” Clapsaddle said.

Shirley Grant, assistant principal at Swain Middle School, said having Spanish-speaking teachers is an invaluable resource when it comes time to have conferences involving Hispanic parents or students.

“I can’t sing their praises enough,” Grant said.

If there’s ever a teacher or student issue involving a Spanish-speaking student, Grant will bring in Heath as a translator to make sure the student feels comfortable to talk. Though Swain Middle only has five enrolled Hispanic students this year, there are a number of resources available for them, Grant explained, citing tutorial programs and bilingual materials.

“We want them to be successful,” Grant said. “They’re learning English at a phenomenal rate.”

Heath used to see Hispanic students enroll for a month in August then leave to follow their migrant families to Florida. Now, she says, more and more are deciding to settle down in the area.

According to Heath, most Hispanics in Swain County live in trailers, sometimes two or three families per mobile home. She knows; she visits them. They work at local farms and Mexican restaurants, some in construction, others for Con-Met, a plastic moldings factory in Bryson City.

Apart from her school work, Heath mentors two local Hispanic students through the Big Brothers/Big Sisters program and is sometimes called upon to be a translator when people in the Hispanic community — perhaps relatives of her students — need to go to the hospital and can’t speak or read enough English to fill out forms or navigate through the health care system.

“Someone has to help them,” she says, and she doesn’t mind offering assistance. “I know what it takes to come to another country.”


Latina Tar Heel

A native of Mexico City, Heath came to Warrenton in Eastern North Carolina several years ago as part of a program to bring Spanish-speaking teachers into rural areas in the Tar Heel state. Just two months before she intended to return to Mexico — airline ticket in hand and housing all taken care of — she met her husband, Charles Heath. The two got married and settled down in Bryson City, where Charles runs an art gallery that exhibits his photography and paintings sold all over the world.

It was quite a process getting Cristina’s permanent residency papers, Charles explains. There were three or four trips to the immigration office in Charlotte, lots of forms to fill out and fees for each application. Now, according to Cristina, all the naturalization forms and information are set up through computers, so immigrants who don’t have access to the Internet or don’t know how to use computers will have a tough time going through the process.

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