“This is ponche,” Rosa Landeros explained as she ladeled auburn-colored, sweet-scented liquid into the waiting foam cup of Katherine Lewis. “Es de México.”
Putting down the spoon, Landeros, a parent liaison at the elementary school in Northern Virginia, smiled as she surveyed the merry, multicultural scene. The late-December gathering marked the second Christmas celebration hosted by From Neighbors to Friends, a parent group — among the first of its kind in Alexandria City Public Schools — that provides language lessons and fosters friendships between English- and Spanish-speaking mothers.
Mount Vernon, with a student body that is 52 percent Hispanic, is a dual-immersion school, meaning students take their classes in Spanish and English, starting in kindergarten. But that mingling rarely extended to parents, according to Landeros, creating a social divide she found troubling.
It’s a challenge faced by an increasing number of schools across the United States. As the country continues to diversify — whites are projected to lose majority status in about 25 years — the nation is witnessing an explosion of dual-language programs. In 2000, 260 such schools existed; as of the 2012-2013 school year, more than 2,000 were operating in at least 39 states, according to studies published by the Harvard Graduate School of Education and the Education Department.
“Parents need to be bilingual, too, they need to be friends, too, in this country,” said Landeros, who helped establish From Neighbors to Friends at Mount Vernon. “Programs like ours create a strong community where everybody feels welcome, no matter where you are, what language you speak, what race you are.”
She added: “And we want to be the example for these kids in coming together — if kids can do that, it opens the world for them, in school and outside it.”
The language-driven division between parents was one of the first things Landeros noticed when she took a job as a Mount Vernon parent liaison two decades ago. It manifested at every school event: English-speaking mothers and fathers huddled in one corner, Spanish-speaking parents in another.
“It was just these parallel lives for so long,” said Mount Vernon parent Jeanne Pecori, 46. “For example: I lived down the road from Rosa for 20 years, and I didn’t know it.”
Landeros, who emigrated from Mexico, first imagined a group like Neighbors to Friends about 10 years ago but made no real progress until October 2018.
That fall, she forged two key connections: She befriended Maureen McNulty, then president of the predominantly white Mount Vernon PTA. About the same time, she stumbled across Megan Reing, another Mount Vernon parent and a part-time English teacher who offered to tutor Spanish-speaking parents for free.
Landeros had long maintained a support group for Spanish-speaking parents, Padres Activos. Now, she and McNulty — with the support of Principal Liza Burrell-Aldana — plotted a merger. They would combine Padres Activos participants with PTA members to form a new club, and they would throw in English lessons, courtesy of Reing.
From Neighbors to Friends was born.
“It was just the right people, at the right time,” Reing said. “Everyone probably had a desire, they just didn’t have the structure to make these friendships happen.”
The original setup was simple: Every Thursday morning, Spanish-speaking parents took two-hour English lessons from Reing. The following Tuesday, the women showed up to the Mount Vernon cafeteria at 8 a.m. to meet their English-speaking counterparts and practice what they’d learned.
Munching on homemade snacks and sipping coffee, the Spanish-speaking mothers paired off with the English-speaking mothers. They spent 45 minutes discussing a topic of Reing’s choosing, selected to reinforce Thursday’s lesson.
A few months after the group launched, in response to members’ demand, Neighbors to Friends began offering Spanish lessons for English-speaking mothers, too. (Though the group is open to all parents, mostly women have joined, Landeros said.)
Soon, Reing found Tuesday classes running long — the women didn’t want to stop talking. Soon, classmates became confidantes.
“You see, it starts in this group, but then it just becomes chatting anywhere, in supermarket aisles, on the sidelines of sports games, anywhere,” Landeros said.
The group started out with 15 parents. At the holiday party this month, Landeros glanced with pride over a roster totaling more than 40.
The holiday gathering offered a chance to pause and take stock, to salute progress and newfound friendship.
“Everyone worked so hard to study and learn this year, whether at English or Spanish,” Mount Vernon PTA President Martha Davis, McNulty’s successor, told the group.
Landeros repeated Davis’s words in Spanish, before adding: “But the most beautiful thing is that you speak from the heart.”
At this, Pecori turned to look at Melba Moran, 44.
A year apart in age, the women live just a few miles away from each other. They sent their children — both have two children — to Mount Vernon. Moran, who works in the school’s cafeteria, served meals to Pecori’s daughter and son for years.
The mothers never met — until Neighbors to Friends.
The friendship formed, both women said, over food: First, Moran introduced Pecori to pupusas, cheese-filled tortillas Moran learned to prepare in her native El Salvador. Then, one Thanksgiving, Pecori invited Moran to her house and taught her how to prepare pumpkin pie.
As they cooked and ate, in warm kitchens or restaurants, their conversation drifted to their families, their childhoods, their pasts. Moran showed Pecori pictures of the sugar cane her father cut in Salvadoran fields; Pecori said it looked just like the kudzu she battled while working as a pool cleaner in her teens. Moran shared stories of the war in El Salvador that led her to immigrate to America — and Pecori spoke of her own family’s emigration from Ireland and Italy generations ago.
“It was different, but it’s not all that different,” Pecori said. “We’re all immigrants. It makes me so sad that people forget that, nowadays . . . .”
Her voice faltered, and Moran — sitting across the table — reached over to encircle her friend’s wrist with both hands.
“I know,” she said. “I know.”