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Learning the Language

Student tutors and campus janitors share conversation, pizza in late-night sessions.

Rod Searcey

CHAT ROOM: Palomino and Meyer get comfortable.

At 10 p.m. on a recent Tuesday night, the lounge at El Centro Chicano, the Chicano/Latino community center in Old Union, was understandably empty. But three minutes later, students and night-shift janitors were streaming through the front door and plopping down on the mismatched couches.

By 10:05, the computer cluster, conference room and adjoining offices were filled. The conversational buzz could be heard at the Claw in White Plaza—and probably beyond.

Habla La Noche—The Night Speaks—was launched two years ago by students from the Stanford Labor Action Coalition. Two evenings a week, it draws 20 workers to El Centro Chicano for English tutoring during their 10 p.m. to 11 p.m. “lunch break.” Another dozen janitors, mostly women, show up at noon twice a week for a day-shift program run by junior Laura Avina. The ABM Janitorial Services workers use the sessions to practice their conversational skills, unpack English idioms and learn how to write notes to their children’s teachers. Those with more English proficiency work on autobiographical pieces. “Before coming to California I was an art student,” Doroteo Garcia wrote in one recent exercise. “We don’t want to be a burden on this country. We only want honest work.”

Like most of his co-workers, Garcia comes from Mexico. He holds down two jobs and hopes to someday get a driver’s license. As election results poured in on Super Tuesday, Garcia and his tutor, sophomore Alayna Buckner, used CNN bulletins as the evening’s text. “I have often felt like Habla La Noche was the first thing at Stanford that really felt right,” Buckner says. “It’s one of the most comfortable communities in which I am involved.”

In the three years group co-president Paty Hernandez, ’05, has been tutoring, she’s become good friends with her student, Margarita, and gone to her home for dinner. Co-president Eric Eldon, a senior who plays weekend soccer with men he’s tutored, says the work and play “has been a way that I’ve kept from feeling isolated within the privileged Stanford world.”

Each janitor has a notebook with his or her name written on the spine—Lourdes, Erica, Alejandro, Artemio, Rosario—so substitute tutors will know where to pick up with lessons. Alicia Palomino, for example, uses photocopied worksheets to practice verb tenses and vocabulary. “We always spend the first few minutes of the session talking about how our lives are going and what is keeping us busy,” says her tutor, sophomore Lauren Meyer.

They chat again at the end of class, over a quick slice of the pizza that arrives at 10:55 p.m. It is lunchtime, after all.

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