Mexican children find place to learn in Mott Haven

Mexican-American children from Mott Haven getting help in their homework at MASA.

Student alliance strives to make up for schools’ shortcomings

Guadalupe Herrera breathed a sigh of relief as she looked at the walls filled with children’s paintings in the basement of St. Pius V Church on East 145th Street.

Finally, she can help her son Victor, a first-grader at P.S. 179 at 140th Street, with his schoolwork, she said in her native Spanish.

“I used to pay $25 dollars a week to have someone translate my kid’s homework from English to Spanish in order for me to help him,” she said.

Mexicans are the fastest-growing immigrant group in New York City, and many parents who speak only Spanish face the same dilemma of how to help their children succeed in English-speaking classrooms.

The Mott Haven church has become the headquarters for an organization that works to help these families. MASA, the Mexican-American Students Alliance, provides mentors who help children with homework and school work and helps parents build bridges to their children’s schools.

In the program, children get help with homework and take art classes. For older students, there are workshops to help them prepare for college. Parents have access to ESL classes.

Although MASA welcomes students from any ethnic background, its focus from the beginning has been helping children who are either immigrants from Mexico or the U.S.-born children of Mexican immigrants.

Mexicans have the highest high school drop-out rate in the city, according to Francisco Rivera Batiz, a professor at Columbia Teachers College. Close to 60 percent of Mexican New Yorkers aged 25 years or older had not completed high school in 2000, more than double the percentage of New Yorkers generally.

The school system itself is partly to blame, believes Angelo Cabrera, a founder of MASA. “Our guess is because they have a Spanish surname or because their parents don’t speak the language, they are put in schools with very limited resources,” he said.

“We cannot change their legal status or change their financial situation, but we change their education,” said Cabrera. “We are not looking for outstanding students; we are trying to help out those who are flunking out.”

Martha Castellanos’ 8-year-old son Rony was one of those children. Last year Castellanos got a call from Rony’s teacher telling her he was going to be left back. That spring, at the Cinco de Mayo Festival, she heard an announcement about MASA. She’s been bringing Rony and his 4-year-old brother David to St. Pius V ever since. Now Rony participates actively in spelling bees and has won many achievement awards, which are displayed on the walls of MASA.

All the classes and workshops are conducted by volunteers who serve as mentors.

The program looks for “college students or high school students who are college bound, interested in the well-being of the community” says Gregory Tull, 23, the coordinator of volunteers.

Margarita Verastegui teaches art. Originally from Spain, she has been a volunteer for a year and a half. Through art, she says, “Kids develop a different type of skill sets. They are more confident as well.” Mothers joined Verastegui in art class last Christmas to teach their children how to make piñatas.

Parents also work to help the program as a whole succeed. Last September 15, MASA parents celebrated Mexico’s Independence Day by putting together a sale of typical Mexican food to help raise funds for arts and crafts materials.

Fernanda Rico, a psychology student from Iberoamericana University in Mexico City who is currently doing a four-month internship with MASA, believes the parents’ involvement is a mark of success.

“They come here and you see them put up the tables, tidy up and clean. That is a testament of them wanting to be here,” she said.

“Something is working here. Part is the help with school work, part of it is a sense of belonging to MASA, and that’s something very valuable.”

A version of this story appeared in the Winter 2009 edition of the Mott Haven Herald.