When 25-year-old Lucia Montas moved to the City of Chattanooga, it was the first time in her life to live in a multicultural place where the Hispanic people and the Latino culture were not the majority in the population. As she described, it was the first time that she experienced the diversity, the culture clash and felt that she was living in the United States.
Lucia had lived in Miami with her mother and grandmother until age 10, speaking only Spanish in the home because her grandmother didn’t know English. Her Puerto Rican mother had come to Miami in the 1980s because there was a need for bilingual workers to help with the rush of Cuban exiles arriving on American soil. From age 10 on, Lucia’s life became defined by consistent moving, resettling and recreating ‘home.’ At 10 years old, Lucia moved with her mother and older brother to the Dominican Republic to live with her father. “It was a clash of civilizations and life-changing in all aspects,” remembers Lucia. Her family lived without electricity or water, and Lucia had to adjust to living with her father for the first time in her life.
Five years later, she moved to the city with her brother and mother so that they could go to high school because there was no high school in the coastal beach town where her father lived. She completed only her freshman year before her father got a new job, and the family moved to yet another third-world country, Nicaragua. Here Lucia experienced extreme culture shock and witnessed a poverty that she’d never seen before. “There is poverty in the Dominican,” she said, “but people were starving to death in Nicaragua.”
In her work as translator for her church for mission groups coming from the States, she remembers sleeping on cots made of garbage bags and washing her clothes in the river. “All these things,” she said, “opened my eyes to the realities of Latin America, and it was a way my language skills could really make a difference and connect those people from the States coming to help with those people in Nicaragua, in the Latino culture, needing help.”
At age 18, her family moved yet again, this time due to political reasons in Nicaragua. She completed her senior year of high school in Miami and graduated in the top 10% of her class of about 2,000 students, mostly Cuban exiles and teens from Haiti. Upon leaving Latin America, however, Lucia recalled that it was the time spent there that reaffirmed her love for Spanish and made her know and understand even more from where she came. Due to the proximity of other countries, she was able to visit several other neighboring Latin American countries, including Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.
When she moved back to the States, Lucia claims that she was a different person than when she left eight years ago. “My world view had changed since I’d been gone,” she said. “I’d seen and done things I probably wouldn’t have experienced if I had stayed in the States, and I learned to appreciate the smaller things in life, such as a toilet, clean water, and food on the table.” She credits this new-found perspective from the fact that she’d lived in another part of the world.
It is such “realities” that she strives to convey to her university students, many of whom are the same age as she was when she experienced life first-hand in Latin America. As Spanish professor at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, Lucia feels she is indeed opening her students’ eyes to another, bigger world through her teaching.
“When I first came to Chattanooga,” she said, “I had to change my teaching style because the students here viewed Spanish in different way. Unlike in Miami, they are not surrounded or immersed in the language, and therefore, I had to break many stereotypes and start from the beginning. I had to bring in my life experiences of culture clash.” She shared with them her life in Latin America and her cultural diversity experiences.
After only one year as professor at UTC, Lucia feels that she is teaching cultural diversity and making a difference in the university community. As faculty advisor to the Spanish club on campus, Lucia emphasizes the importance of getting involved and letting the students experience the language outside in the community through organizations like La Paz. According to Lucia, after only one year, almost half of her students have now decided to minor in Spanish, and many are showing interest in diversity and traveling abroad.
Yet for all her students, regardless of whether they travel across U.S. borders, Lucia gives them their own travel abroad experience right inside her classroom walls.
By Laurie Cook Stevens
The Mission of La Paz is to empower and engage Chattanooga’s Latino population through advocacy, education and inclusion.
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