A refugee family’s journey, bridging digital and language divides (OUR MONTCLAIR)
By DIEGO JESUS BARTESAGHI MENA
This article reflects just part of the conversation in the latest episode of “Our Montclair,” a video and podcast series featuring the art, the activism, the outreach and the connections among people in Montclair. Chat with Our Montclair host and producer Shane Paul Neil and reporter Diego Jesus Bartesaghi Mena LIVE during the "Our Montclair" video premiere, Wednesday, Sept. 15 a 7 p.m., at Facebook.com/MontclairLocal
Find Our Montclair:
- Listen on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts or your favorite podcast app.
When Maria Delgado and her daughters, 13-year-old Camila Andrea Chavarría and 14-year-old Isabella Risash Chavarría, arrived in Montclair in June of 2019, they had to readjust their lives.
They’d come to join Delgado’s husband, Roger Chavarria, an engineer who got to Montclair a few months earlier, fleeing what he described as political persecution from the Ortega regime in Nicaragua. They stayed in the Immaculate Conception Roman Catholic Church for a few months before finding an apartment.
They needed to learn to navigate a new transportation system, so Delgado could get to a restaurant job in New York City. She needed to know how much fare to pay. Where to buy groceries. How to register the family’s children for Montclair schools.
And for many people, that would mean turning to a familiar and readily available resource — the internet, maybe on a home computer.
In Nicaragua, the family had been accustomed to paying a few dollars at a time for a small trickle of internet access, on an as-needed basis. They came to America with smartphones, but not computers; unlimited data plans were a new luxury.
Another challenge: Family members’ English proficiency varies. While some systems were readily available in Spanish, that wasn’t universal.
“I think I am speaking for both of us when I said that when we arrived, we felt like everyone was staring at us. Like the new kids, you know?” Camila said.
Their challenges aren’t unfamiliar in Montclair. In 2017, the Montclair school district served 31 students classified as English language learners, according to figures provided by the district to the Montclair Fund for Educational Excellence and shared with Montclair Local earlier this year. At the end of the 2020-21 school year, there were 75 such students.
Their growing presence has prompted initiatives like the MFEE’s Navegadores Escolares program, to help Spanish-speaking immigrants make their way through the school system and gain access to other resources.
In many ways, Delgado’s family’s journey in America has been one of slowly bridging the so-called “digital divide” — the term used to describe gaps in access to technology and related resources. They’ve purchased computers, and gotten help from Montclair schools’ own technology distributions. With assistance, they’ve worked through language barriers that made use of technology difficult.
But mostly, Delgado said, they’ve made do with what they had — building their own resources one step at a time.
Unfamiliar systems, unfamiliar language
Having unlimited internet access on phones was, in itself, a big help, Delgado said. The family members used Google Translate when they could, but still found it confusing to navigate around the area. Delgado said she got lost seven times heading to New York.
“Sometimes you get tired and frustrated, but you have to deal with it and you have to get over it and move on,” she said.
Things got a little easier as time went by. The family members signed the lease to their current apartment online, and started using the internet to pay bills.
The next challenge: Enrolling their daughters in school.
When Delgado came to the Montclair schools administration for help registering her daughters, she worried no one would understand her. She found workers at the Montclair Board of Education office helpful and accommodating.
But she was confused when they told her she’d need to register her daughters through “Genesis.”
“And I said, ‘Genesis who?’ I didn’t know,” Delgado said, laughing.
Genesis is the information management system Montclair schools use. It’s an entry point to schedules, attendance records, report cards and more. Board of Education office workers walked her through the system, but when the time came to log into Genesis a couple of weeks before the start of the 2019-2020 school year, Delgado was still confused.
“I arrived to the school and told Mr. Major Jennings [who was the assistant principal at the time] that I didn’t know how to use Genesis,” she said. “He was very kind and told me not to worry. He said, ‘Leave the names of your daughters and my team will take care of it. I will tell you which bus to take, their schedule and everything.’”
In a few days, Delgado said, Jennings visited the family, still living at the church. He helped fill them in on the girls’ schedules, on the free lunch program — and let them know they were already enrolled.
In early 2020, Delgado’s husband bought a secondhand computer, the first the family owned during its time in America. It proved useful … some of the time. Delgado said it had a habit of malfunctioning.
At the time, the family’s children were attending school in person, and didn’t rely much on the computer for schoolwork. It was useful enough, when it was needed.
When the coronavirus pandemic hit and schools shut down for in-person learning, everything changed.
“Some programs, you cannot download them in the phone. We had to do it in the computer,” Delgado said.
The scramble to get Montclair students Chromebooks in the spring of 2020, and then the fall of that year, was one schools Superintendent Jonathan Ponds has described to Montclair Local as “whack-a-mole.” Well into the fall, Montclair and other districts faced severe supply-chain challenges.
One district survey, in August of 2020, found 726 of 6,569 respondents said they had no computers or Chromebooks available for their children at all — the situation Delgado’s family found itself in when they first arrived in America. About 2,900 said they had no second devices for students, as was the family’s case by that point.
District technology director Chris Graber described the surveying effort as a challenge itself, in particular because many of the families with the most need for computers or internet access would be, by definition, the most difficult to reach.
“Everything was uncertain,” Delgado said. “We didn’t know what was going to happen, right? We only had one computer at home. And the school started saying that the students won’t be coming back to classes, that everything will be online.”
During that time, Delgado said, school officials kept working with the family — making sure the girls still had access to free lunch, and getting a Chromebook in their hands.
At first, she said, the Chromebooks the district provided didn’t work very well.
“They were too slow, and it would turn off on its own,” Isabella said. “It had a lot of issues with the webcam and the audio.”
Graber and Ponds, too, acknowledged they took several reports, in particular early on, of computers that didn’t quite seem to work right, or that didn’t always work with the platforms in use. They worked over several months to iron out those issues.
“I think [in 2020-21], the school was like, this is happening and we are ready for it,” Camila said. “Sometimes Google Classrooms would crash down and we didn’t have classes and stuff. But now it doesn’t. They know what to do if it does.”
‘We’re going to get there’
Delgado said teachers made sure the girls stayed engaged with classes — calling them to ask how they were doing with online classes, and how they were doing overall.
Eventually, the family purchased a new computer, to replace the secondhand one that had never worked very well.
“We are still sharing. It’s difficult, but when you have that situation, you have to manage to figure out how many hours the kids have the computer, my husband or me, sometimes my oldest daughter uses the kids’ computer,” Delgado said.
She had another concern in the lockdown — that without face-to-face interaction with teachers and other students, her daughters wouldn’t be able to practice their English or continue their involvement in extracurricular activities.
Heading into the 2021-2022 school year, the district connected the family with the MFEE Navegadores program. She became more familiar with Genesis, and she connected with a larger community of Spanish speakers.
“That is so wonderful for everybody because you are so lost, really lost, to get to know a different language, different technology. We don’t have that in our country,” Delgado said. “So, that’s something very, very new that you have to learn a lot, how to do it, how to get involved in that, how to answer all the questions — all the things that you have to do in that portal.”
She said the family is grateful for the assistance its members have received from the school and the community.
“A lot of people have more things than us, but I think that doesn’t make a big difference because you come from a country that is very bad, the economy, the situation, jobs. Sometimes the food is limited. Everything is limited,” Delgado said. “So, we’re going to get there. My kids are going to get there, too.”
The interviews in this news story were a collaboration between “Our Montclair’s” producer and host, Shane Paul Neil, and Montclair Local news staff members Diego Jesus Bartesaghi Mena, Louis C. Hochman and Talia Wiener. Portions of the interviews reflected here were conducted in Spanish and translated into English.