A child's English skills are a lifeline for some immigrant families

Marisol Castillo
Marisol Castillo
Image courtesy of Marisol Castillo

Editor's note: Children of immigrants are sometimes the first members of their families to learn English. Because of that, they sometimes have to serve as interpreters for their parents. Marisol Castillo, a 19-year-old sophomore at the College of St. Benedict, took on adult responsibilities even as a child.

I started learning English when I was four years old, when my parents moved to Minnesota from California.

They immigrated from Mexico as teenagers and met at a clothing factory in Los Angeles where everyone spoke Spanish. It was the same when we first moved to Minnesota.

My mom, Marisol Olivar, worked in a plastics factory here. It was one of the few jobs she could get where English wasn't necessary, and it required a big sacrifice.

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"The most difficult part of my life not knowing English was leaving my children with a nanny," she recalled recently. "It made me cry day and night because I had to do it."

Marisol Castillo in the 3rd grade
Marisol Castillo's 3rd-grade school picture.
Image courtesy of Marisol Castillo

Her job required long hours, a long commute and an inconvenient schedule. For about four years when she had that job, I only saw her rarely. That was tough because I'm the oldest of three children and mom and I are very close.

"I believe we have a very strong bond," my mom said. "That was the biggest sacrifice you made, seeing me leave for work."

While mom was at work, I was at school studying English and other subjects. By the time I was six, I was my family's primary English speaker.

My parents started a cleaning business when I was about 12 years old, but their limited English skills were a barrier, so I became their interpreter. I even helped with the paperwork. My mom says my siblings and I were crucial to the success of the family business.

"I have always included my three children in our company," she told me. "But you have designed business cards, you make invoices and sometimes help us on the cleaning sites."

At offices and homes across Minnesota my siblings and I vacuumed, took out the garbage, dusted, cleaned floors and bathrooms and helped with whatever else was needed. Today our business is growing — and I've grown, too. I know how to do nearly all the work in my parents' company. I'm more mature and more confident.

I developed my confidence with support from my family and many teachers.

At New Spirit School in St. Paul, where I was a student for eight years, Peter Verley, my third-grade teacher, saw how hard I worked to learn English.

"It was great to see students learning new ideas, learning new things about language, finding favorite books and just to see that growth," he says. "For a teacher, that's incredibly rewarding."

I wasn't Mr. Verley's only student learning English as a second language.

As recently as the 2013-2014 school year, more than 68,000 students statewide had limited English skills, the Minnesota Department of Education reported. That number has increased by more than 5,700 over the past five years.

Gabriela Hernandez in 4th grade
Gabriela Hernandez enrolled in New Spirit School in Saint Paul when she was in 4th grade.
Image courtesy of Marisol Castillo

My friend Gabriela Hernandez, 18, also attended classes at New Spirit School. Born in Mexico, she came to Minnesota when she was in fourth grade. No one in her family spoke English and she struggled with the language and felt lonely.

"I left behind my family, I left behind my friends," Gabriela recalled recently. "I left myself behind."

At school, Gabriela had a hard time. But we quickly became friends. As she learned English we spoke in both languages. She says speaking with a peer was less intimidating than speaking with adults.

"My biggest struggle was communicating with people," she says. "It was very hard trusting the people that were teaching me. It was hard just being in a place where not much people spoke the same language that I did."

Marisol Castillo and her family
Marisol Castillo celebrates her Quinceañera with her family. A Quinceañera is the celebration of a girls fifteenth birthday.
Image courtesy of Marisol Castillo

I now realize that our struggles paid off.

At the College of St. Benedict, I'm majoring in Global Business. Gabriela is working and plans to go to college soon.

I've been told that I speak both languages, Spanish and English, without much of an accent. That may be because of when I learned them — primarily in my early elementary school years. I feel it may give me an advantage later in my business career, but then again, it may not.

I'm just glad I'm fluent in both languages.

My parents still have their cleaning company. When I'm home on break I see them conduct meetings in English and I feel proud. They don't rely on me as much as before, but if they ever need me I'm more than willing to help.

Whether it's starting a business or learning a new language, the biggest lesson I've learned is that success comes from hard work.

Read more stories from the Young Reporters series at mprnews.org.