They are grizzled men with cold-chapped hands and paint-splattered sweat shirts. They are wise in the ways of the world, experienced in the art of survival. They are also kindergartners, starting from scratch.
"Attention, companions! Here we go. Va, ve, vi, vo, vu."
That's Roberto Villaroel, the teacher, pointing with his plastic ruler. He, too, has work-scarred hands and wears a hooded jacket. He, too, spends his good days hammering drywall and his bad days killing time outside a 7-Eleven. But he has something many of his fellow Hispanic laborers lack: an education.
The students hunch over their writing tablets, the kinds that have triple lines for capital and small letters. They grip their pencils too firmly. They frown in concentration, forming the unfamiliar stems and circles of the alphabet. No spitballs. No snide comments.
"We do not make fun of each other in this class. We are all equals," Villaroel reminds them at the start of each class.
Jose Rivera always sits in the front row. He is 51, graying, old enough to wear reading glasses. He has three children, all educated in the United States. Most mornings, he rises at 4 and drives to his construction job, even on icy winter days.
But two nights a week, along with 20 other men, he reports to the free Spanish-language literacy class at the Woodrow Wilson Library in the Culmore area of Fairfax County, sponsored by a Methodist church.
"I can't write my letters very fast," Rivera says with an apologetic laugh. His tablet is half-filled with the word paquete, or package, copied on line after line. Younger men on both sides of him have already filled their pages.
"Don't worry; take your time," Villaroel reassures him. In another life, he taught sociology back home in Bolivia. He has a college vocabulary, a dignified demeanor and a passion for change. He organized the class with a Guatemalan friend, Leonardo Garcia, and they share classroom duties.
Along with Spanish, these teachers try to impart self-respect to men who are often alone and far from home, scratching out a living at the margins of a society that is deeply ambivalent about their presence.
The teachers pass out fliers and cards at day-labor sites, urging workers to come to class, but they say many are too shy or ashamed to attend. According to private literacy program directors in the region, thousands of Hispanic immigrants in the area are past school age but have no formal reading or writing skills. Becoming literate in Spanish first, they say, paves the way to learning English.
"Let's try the letter Q. That's Q, as in ri-que-za na-tu-ral," Villaroel says, rolling the Spanish R and whistling the Z. "Who can tell me what that means?"
Now the spelling lesson becomes a lecture on environmental conservation. "Natural wealth is the trees, the oceans, the animals. It is us, the world, the equilibrium of nature," he explains. The men listen, spellbound. "Sometimes factories poison the earth or ships spill oil and poison the oceans, and then all of life is affected."
Jose Sanchez raises his hand, nodding in recognition. "I have seen paintbrushes being washed in water drains. Then it all goes into the rivers," he says.
Sanchez always sits in the second row. He is a leathery Mexican of 45. His workbook is full of words copied in elegant script, with a special flourish on the A's. In the margins are other, longer English words he has looked up in the dictionary. Successful. Portfolio. Heather.
Sanchez grew up in a village with no school, and he picked up a smattering of written Spanish as an adult in Mexico City. Now, he says, he wants to improve his formal Spanish so he can eventually learn English.
"I work in a restaurant," he explains. "When a customer asks me about something on the menu, I always have to excuse myself and go in the back and ask."
The house in Springfield is brand new, all polished stone countertops and cathedral ceilings, even a Jacuzzi. There are hints of family roots: the hammock strung across the master bedroom, the
sack of tortilla flour in the kitchen, the photos of a teenage girl in a frilly white quinceañera gown.
Rivera gives the grand tour, beaming with pride.
"Would you ever think this is the house of someone who cannot read or write?" he asks, filling a tumbler at the ice maker.
It has taken him a lifetime of toil to get this far. Planting corn in El Salvador as a boy of 8, cutting sugar cane in Mexico, picking tomatoes in Texas, working construction in Virginia. Along the way he got married, had children, became a legal permanent U.S. resident. There was never time to study, until now.
"My life has always been about surviving, and it has been a difficult journey," he says, trying a few sentences in English. "I go school, pero no read, no write." He laughs, switches back to Spanish. "That's why I tell my kids to study hard."
Rivera's wife, Reina, 42, never learned, either. She was too busy raising children and cleaning other people's houses for a living. She still cleans houses all day, still comes home to pat tortillas for supper -- but now she does it over a stainless steel island range.
"My father's house had mud walls and a straw roof," she says. "To me, this is like magic."
The Rivera children speak English with no accent. Jose Alberto, 10, gets straight A's in math and wants to be a lawyer. Eduardo, 8, is into soccer and video games. Karina, 16, has a cellphone and a room with pink walls.
She spent her adolescence translating at PTA meetings for her parents. Now she is taking formal Spanish at school, partly at her mother's insistence. Her vocabulary homework is on the dining room table. Amistad. Infierno. Feliz. Several words are the same ones her father is learning.
"I want her to learn our language," Reina says.
"It's an easy A," Karina shrugs.
Another bitter winter night. The library classroom is empty. Villaroel lays out pencils and rulers, confident the students will appear. Several young men shuffle in, all in baggy
jeans and sweat shirts, ball caps twisted backward to give them confidence.
"Any preparation?" Villaroel asks politely. They shake their heads. One shy, sinewy man mumbles that he can write a few numbers, but that's all. "The school was so far from my village," he explains sheepishly. "Is it true this class is free?"
"Even the pencils," Villaroel answers.
The students pull up chairs around a small table. They will spend the entire class in silence, laboriously copying letters into workbooks. Standing by the quick-erase board, Garcia is teaching the letter J tonight. J as in Julia, justo, jaula, jornalero, he says. The last word means day laborer.
J as in mujer, which means woman, he adds.
Again the lesson takes on a larger dimension. Garcia tapes up newspaper photos of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Rigoberta Menchu, the Guatemalan rights activist. "Your wives need to learn to read and write, too," he says. "That way they can provide more moral support and help the family succeed."
Johnny Reyes, a gangly man of 32 from El Salvador, wants to tell a story. He applied for a driver's license but could not perform the written test. While he was working, he would call his wife on the cellphone, and she would practice the questions with him, over and over. "I passed the test, and now I have been driving for four years," he says proudly.
Rivera, sitting in the front row, bends over his writing tablet, adjusts his reading glasses, scratches his head. He is still struggling with the letter Q. Instead of writing querer, to want, he writes guerra, war.
"I'm stuck," he confesses, laughing at himself. His dream is to become a U.S. citizen, but he has failed the test twice because his English was not good enough.
"Don't worry," Garcia says. "You have all the time in the world."