Many teenagers would agree that high school is a challenge. The physical and emotional changes of adolescence, social pressures from family and peers, the desire for independence, and worries about the future can combine to make school a tough experience. However, the difficulty is even greater for newcomers to Canada, who must adapt to a completely new culture and language. According to an alarming study conducted by the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, the problem is especially severe for Hispanic youth in Toronto, 40 per cent of whom drop out of school before their graduation dates.However, after the study was published, a small but dedicated group of Hispanic community leaders got together with the goal of changing these disturbing statistics. In 2009, Pilar Gonzalez, a Colombian-born teacher, and Sonia Patricia Mesa, a lawyer and community engagement worker, founded Teach 2 Learn, an independent tutoring program geared toward improving the academic experience for at-risk Hispanic youth.
Article by Jeannine Pitas
“As a mother, I know it's not easy for young people to adapt to Canadian society without losing contact with your own culture,” explains Mesa, who cites her experience raising her 18-year-old son as her main impetus in co-founding the program. “One of the big problems our kids face is the lack of references to Latin American culture in their school curricula as well as in the media; often in their history and geography classes they see little more than a caricature of themselves, which quickly results in a loss of interest in school.”Though the program has remained small, several students and tutors have participated in it since 2009.“We've had some George Brown students help out with the program, and soon a group from York University will be joining us,” Gonzalez explains. “However, we also encourage the students to help one another—sometimes an older student newly arrived to Canada might be able to help a younger one with math, while the younger student can help the older one with English. We want to create a collaboration in which everyone gives help as well as receiving it.”Uruguayan-born Matías de Dovitiis, an assistant to Councillor Anthony Perruza (Ward 8, York West) who helps out with the program, cites another goal as raising community awareness about the experience of immigrant youth in Toronto. “Our program is held in the Jane and Finch region, an area that gets stigmatized and isolated from the rest of the city. Most new immigrants end up living in this and other regions on the outskirts of the city, and they rarely get to see the centre. There so many children who have been in Toronto for years and have never seen Lake Ontario.”From the very beginning, Teach 2 Learn included a theatrical component. “We always begin with an hour of icebreaker activities and theatre games to encourage students' self-expression and to develop a rapport among the students and tutors,” Gonzalez says.In mid-2009, students began creating improvisational sketches about their experiences as immigrant youth in Toronto. This resulted in the creation of a one-act play, Ayer, Hoy y Mañana (Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow)—which addresses three stages of the immigrant experience—life in one's home country; the anxiety of arriving in Canada, learning a new language, and adjusting to a new culture; and acclimation to a new home. Performed by a small group of teenage girls, the play includes the perspective of a recently landed immigrant mother who is struggling to help her teenage daughter adapt to Canadian society, the rebellious daughter who struggles to make the transition, and that same daughter who has changed her perspective after living in Canada for one year.During the play, which consists of a series of monologues, the actresses face away from the audience and look at their image in a large mirror, only occasionally turning around to speak to the audience with sidelong glances. This approach is meant to illustrate disconcerting changes one undergoes during the migration process and the aloneness that both students and parents experience. At the end of the play, the actresses turn to face the audience, finally breaking out of their isolation and integrating themselves into the community.Fifteen-year-old Valentina Ortiz, who is originally from Colombia, got involved in Teach 2 Learn due to her interest in drama. “I'm always looking for acting opportunities, both in school and out,” she says. “The play was written by students, and I really was drawn to that. This is my first time doing drama in my own native language.”The students presented the play last November at Art for Peace in Our Americas, an arts festival organized by Casa Maíz, a community centre which provides a facility and logistical support for various Latin American cultural organizations including Teach 2 Learn. “Casa Maíz was very supportive of us from the beginning, and it was great to be included in their festival,” Gonzalez says. The students presented the play again this past Saturday, April 9, at James Cardinal McGuigan Catholic High School as part of Punto Encuentro, a special event in honour of Hispanic Heritage Month. The all-day event also included a series of workshops on the experience of immigration.Dominican-born Katherine R. Valdez was drawn to Teach 2 Learn due to her desire to become involved in the community. “I heard about it from a neighbour and decided to come and work with the kids. After a while, the people in charge asked me if I wanted to take part in a play.” Initially, Valdez was nervous about performing, but once she got involved she enjoyed it. “Performing in Spanish makes me feel attached to my culture, and it makes me want to share it with others.”Despite the constant lack of funds, Gonzalez and Mesa continue to work toward advancing the program's goals. “One of the big problems is that some of our kids go back to school and then drop out again. We want to stop this from happening. Another obvious goal is to ensure that our students have the chance to attend university if they so choose. We also want to organize field trips to various points of interest around Toronto and help them to feel at home here,” she says.All photos by Nick Kozak/Torontoist.