Neighborhood’s unofficial watchdog helps in many ways

Elizabeth Montes is the Everett neighborhood’s unofficial watchdog for Hispanic residents.

Families who lack English-speaking skills often shy away from complaining about things that are troubling them, whether it is a bad landlord or a domestic assault. Because they don’t speak English, don’t understand the laws and fear immigration enforcement, these families often allow themselves to be taken advantage of, Montes said.

Elizabeth Montes outside her office at Everett Elementary School, where she works as a Spanish bilingual liaison.

Elizabeth Montes outside her office at Everett Elementary School, where she works as a Spanish bilingual liaison. Photo by Conor Dunn, NewsNetNebraska

And that is where Montes comes in. As a Spanish bilingual liaison for Everett Elementary and eight other Lincoln schools, her work requires her to go to uncomfortable places and have difficult conversations so that non-English speakers don’t have to. Infested kitchens, ruptured plumbing and child abuse – she’s seen it all.

“I would like to see justice, not only for Latinos but for everybody,” she said. “Lincoln is a city with diversity. We have people from all over the world. Treat them fair, equally. I think as a human being we have the right to have a decent life.”

In the Everett neighborhood, the struggles are particularly noticeable. At Everett Elementary, 90 percent of students come from impoverished families, according to the school’s website.

“They come to this area because it’s kind of cheap,” Montes said. “There are families with four, five, six members, and they just make no more than $30,000.”

To create a decent life, Montes said, she believes the disadvantaged one major hurdle to cross – the language barrier.

Montes works to break down that barrier every day.

Clerical helper to chief negotiator

Her job requires her to take on a variety of roles – from clerical helper to chief negotiator. She often helps Hispanic people fill out job applications, school forms and translate any other important documents. If there is something LPS cannot offer a family, she refers them to the appropriate organization.

But she also finds herself handling critical matters for families.

One early morning in October, a car crashed into the two-bedroom apartment of a Hispanic family, leaving a gaping hole in the wall to the outside.

“The owner paid for a hotel for three nights for them,” Montes said. “When they got back, they thought the apartment would be fixed. Instead, the landlord told them to move out.”

So Montes approached the landlord about having the family move into one of the landlord’s vacant apartments nearby. But the landlord declined, saying that a family of five couldn’t live in a two-bedroom apartment, even though the family had lived in his other apartment for eight years and had just paid the month’s rent.

“You will see things like that happen often here,” she said.

Cultural proficiency is lacking

Montes splits her time between two offices in Lincoln. The one at Everett Elementary School, 1123 C St., is a cozy room filled with Spanish and English books, pamphlets and tips for being successful. One poster, which stands out among the rest, reads: “Competencia Cultural” or cultural proficiency.

Montes said she often encounters people who make incorrect cultural assumptions based on skin color.

“Some Caucasian people call us the colored people,” she said. “Even though we look alike maybe, and we speak the same language, we are different.”

Of the 526 students at Everett Elementary, 78 percent are minority students — and many of those moved directly to Lincoln from Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador and Costa Rica.

“People assume that if they look Hispanic, they’re from Mexico,” Montes said.

And so another one of Montes’ responsibilities is to teach the staff at Everett Elementary how to respectfully treat Hispanic students and their families.

About 10 percent of the 2,200 students enrolled in the city’s English Language Learners program attend Everett Elementary, Montes said. The ELL program helps students who have limited English skills so that they can succeed in an English-speaking classroom.

But another program at Everett helps the about 20 parents to master the language. Twelve of those participating in the Family Literacy Partnership are Hispanic, four are from Iraq and Iran and four from Burma. These parents must attend a two-hour class beginning at 8:30 a.m. Monday through Friday.

Everett Elementary School, 1123 C St., was built in 1928. Photo by Morgan Spiehs, NewsNetNebraska

Everett Elementary School, 1123 C St., was built in 1928 and originally housed a junior high. Photo by Morgan Spiehs, NewsNetNebraska

The program helps strengthens the parents’ English skills and, as a consequence, inspires them to become leaders in the school and in the community, Montes said. When they no longer need her help, she said, they feel more comfortable engaging in school activities with other parents.

The program is so popular that it has a waiting list of about 20, Montes said.

“Easily we can have another class,” she said. “But unfortunately we don’t have money to have that happen.”

And there also are many parents who would want to participate but don’t have time. Their first priority is putting food on the table or sending money back to the families they left in their home countries, she said.

Sometimes the stress of keeping a job has forced parents to quit the literacy program. They don’t have time to learn English because they need to work.

“It’s hard when a child is hungry,” she said. “For you it’s more important to be worrying about (what your child is going to eat) when you get home than what the teacher is teaching you.”

Other stories in this series:
NewLOGOTurning the corner: A neighborhood in transition
Changes in Everett neighborhood echo across Lincoln
Neighbors in action: the anatomy of a comeback
The heart of Everett — the business district — has a new rhythm
The people of Everett: ‘All walks of life live down here’

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