Bilingual Ballpark: Asheville Tourists Teach Spanish Classes

May 27, 2019

 

For Spanish learners, the city of Asheville is plentiful with opportunities to improve their language skills.

For a group of Buncombe County Schools Early College students, that means visiting McCormick Field, where players from Venezuela and the Dominican Republic are holding class.

About 30 students sat at long tables, under a tent near third base. The group is made up of two classes, Spanish II for non-native speakers and Heritage Spanish, a class for students who grew up speaking the language. The day began when their teacher divided them into groups.

Tourists pitchers Raymells Rosa and Alexander Martinez led students in group three. They’re both from San Pedro de Macoris, in the Dominican Republic.

The visiting students shyly shook hands with Rosa and Martinez. The group quietly shuffled behind the players and follows them on a tour of the stadium. Their first stop is the team locker room. In Spanish, Martinez pointed out the individual lockers and the refrigerator with pre-game snacks.

You could feel the shyness in the room. Then student Elsa Arana Funez broke the silence and translated for her classmates.

“This is where all the players have their stuff,” she said.

Arana Funez didn’t go on the field trip anticipating she’d be the de facto translator, but she says it’s a role she’s used to filling.

“Sometimes I help translate at church...sometimes I help my dad translate when he’s talking to a lawyer,” Arana Funez said.

Her family came to the US from El Salvador. That’s why she says she’s interested in hearing the players’ stories.

“Hearing about their life when they play here. How they got to the US to play here,” Arana Funez said.

Aside from the opportunity to practice Spanish with native speakers, the visit is also related to a book the class just read. The biography of Felipe Alou, the first Dominican to play regularly in the major leagues. AB Tech teacher Rachel Rodriguez says Alou’s story is fraught with struggle, like fleeing the violent Trujillo dictatorship in the 1950s.

“But then also about Felipe Alou coming to the United States during segregation and experiencing being a foreigner, but also in a racist society,” Rodriguez said.

Raymells Rosa, who’s 20, says Alou was an inspiration for his own career.

“Whenever I saw him, I wanted to be like him,” Rosa said.

 

Pitcher Alexander Martinez led a group of AB Tech early college students on a tour of the field during a class trip, on May 23. The tour was held in Spanish, so students could practice their skills listening and interpreting a native speaker. Martinez is from San Pedro de Macoris, Dominican Republic.
Credit Luke Shealy / BPR News

And he’s also hoping to work his way up the baseball ranks.  Rosa and his teammates spend most of their days practicing and playing, sometimes six hours a day. Behind the scenes, he’s also trying to learn English.

“The only thing we have for time for in our free time is sleep and rest,” Rosa said.  

That’s why today is particularly special -- it’s a chance for the players to take a break from their routines and connect with other young people around the same age.

“In the classroom, I see my students in a certain context..but seeing them out here interact in their most con...it’s a fun opportunity for me too,” Sherrie Mahowald, who teaches English as a Second Language for the Tourists, said.  

This is the second year the team has held a language-cultural exchange with the Spanish classes. Mahowald says she’s noticed a sort of transformation play out.

“It starts out where people are a little bit shy and afraid to speak, then barriers start to break down, and I’m starting to see those barriers break down as they interact with one another,” Mahowald said.

After the tour, the students returned to the tent and sat alongside the players for lunch -- and conversation.

 

**Editor's Note: The broadcast version of this story identifies the students from AB Tech. They are high school students enrolled in Buncombe County Early College where they are able to take classes on AB Tech's campus for college credit. The web version of this story has been updated accordingly.