The article below originally appeared in the Half Moon Bay Patch and is being reprinted with permission.

Ninfa Patino reading a book by one of her favorite writers, Isabel Allende.

Ninfa Patino reading a book by one of her favorite writers, Isabel Allende.

When I was little, my dream was to come to this country and learn to speak English. A lot of the people in my hometown, Apaseo el Alto (in the state of Guanajuato, Mexico), worked in the U.S. Many local people also carved saints out of wood, and lots of American people would come to visit to buy these objects. For me, seeing the people was interesting, and hearing them talk in an unfamiliar language intrigued me. I didn’t know that the language was English, but I wanted to know what the language was. My mom didn’t like it — she said they were making noises.

When I came to the U.S. I babysat as my first job. I lived with a family from Guatemala. The lady who I worked for asked me to take the children to school. People at the school tried to talk to me, but I smiled and walked away instead because I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t understand what they were saying to me.

I talked to the lady who I worked for and asked her what to do. She taught me how to say “I don’t understand English.” Those were the first words that I learned. When I went to pick up the children from school, the people still said hi to me every day. It was hard because I wanted to talk to them, but I couldn’t, so I felt like I had to hide from them instead. Then I figured out the best time to come and pick up the kids so I didn’t have to talk to anyone. It was very hard for me not to be able to communicate. But I hid because I couldn’t respond and I felt bad when I couldn’t respond and people were talking to me.

I still wanted to learn English, and I still liked the way the language sounded, so I watched TV on my days off. I picked out certain words and memorized them but I memorized them the wrong way. For a long time I didn’t know the right word for something, but then I’d see the word again and learn the correct word. Learning the English language this way was like creating my own language. The first word I learned on my own was “luck” or “lucky” — I can’t remember which of these words it was exactly. Then I learned “yes” and “no.”

I continued to learn more words through watching English language TV shows. One of my favorite shows was a program about the music from Texas. I liked rodeos and also was fascinated by the clothes they wore on the show – cowboy boots, jeans, and special belts. There was a lot of music and dancing, and some of the ladies wore cowboy hats. They were also teaching people how to dance. The show looked like it was set in a nightclub and the host used to talk to different people on camera. Other shows that I watched were cartoons with the kids before they went to school, and then soap operas.

I also memorized words that I heard people saying in public. Later I would ask my cousins what a certain word meant. When I was on the bus, I remembered that I saw a young boy say to some girls “Sit down, ladies.” I wondered what the word “ladies” meant and I kept that word in my mind. When I asked my cousin what it meant, she said “It means muchacha, señora.” It was years later when I actually learned that the exact word in Spanish that had the same meaning as “lady” was dama.

I also learned more words in English by asking my neighbors what they meant. I didn’t know at that time that there were dictionaries that explained what words meant in other languages. I also didn’t know that a person could check out books like dictionaries at the library.

After I was in the U.S. for eight months, I went back to Mexico when my daughter was four months old. I was there for two and a half years more before coming back again. In that time, I forgot much of the English that I had learned, but one thing that stuck in my mind was the Sunny Delight Orange Juice commercial because I had memorized that the song, so it stuck with me for a long time. The other thing I remembered was the word “lady.”

When I came back after the two and a half years, I watched a lot of English-language TV on my days off. I would watch children’s programs with my daughter in the morning. The children’s program is where I learned how to say “couch.” Sesame Street also helped me to learn words because they talk slow on that show. I also learned more words from watching soap operas later in the day.

When I moved to Half Moon Bay, my boyfriend at the time told me that I was always watching TV and that I was wasting my time. “You can’t understand anything,” he said to me. I didn’t care what he said and I kept watching TV. I thought I was able to understand the people based on their movements.

Two years later, I tried to go to school to learn English at Cunha Intermediate School through the Cabrillo Unified School District Adult Education Program. When I applied, they told me that they were full and they had no evening care for my daughter. They said they would call me when they had an opening but two years passed and no one called.

I was scared to learn because I thought that English was so hard that I couldn’t learn it. I think I wasn’t confident enough that I was smart enough to learn another language. Then one day my daughter came home from school and she asked me to help with her homework. At that time, I said to myself “I will not live like this. I need to learn English to help my daughter.” So I took the initiative to call the school to ask if I could enroll in the English class. I told the teacher that I didn’t have anyone to take care of my daughter, so I said “Can I bring her?” He said yes. That was 12 years ago.

I took English classes at Cunha twice a week for five years. I was also learning English through my job at the Old Thyme Inn.

The teacher at Cunha who taught the English class, Mr. James Ward, was very helpful to me and the other people in the class. After I brought my daughter to the class, everyone else started bringing their children, so he got the school district to pay for child care, which my daughter enjoyed.

At the English class, Mr. Ward had a translator come and speak to us in Spanish while he was teaching the class. After a few weeks he told us “Now you have to speak English.” I’m still very thankful to him, because without him and other people that helped me, I couldn’t be helping the community the way I help now.

I learned a lot because I wasn’t afraid to ask questions. At the time, I wasn’t sure if meat and beef were the same thing so I asked the teacher in class. Another student who was about 18 or 20 years old started to laugh at me. Then the teacher said “No one is allowed to be laughing at others, and the more you ask, the more you learn.”

About three or four years ago I ran into the boy who laughed at me. I asked him “Do you remember what you did to me?” He said that he was sorry and that he was young back then. The two of us had a laugh about that. Back then, the teacher’s reply made me feel secure, so it didn’t matter if other people laughed at me. There are going to be people who think it’s funny, I thought to myself at the time, and some people who are going to help you. And I don’t mind if I make mistakes. I just keep speaking.

There was also a program I was enrolled in called EvenStart — one of the Cabrillo School District’s programs to help families new to the country learn the language and how to navigate living in a new country. They gave us recipes for food and helped us apply for different classes, like the English class for me and a ballet class for my daughter. The people who worked for the program let us know where we could buy what we needed, and helped us fill out paperwork.

This program was very helpful for me because I didn’t have any family in the area, whereas other people had relatives that could tell them these things and help them. They had to cut the EvenStart program ten years ago, unfortunately.

I think both in English and Spanish. I don’t choose to think in one language or the other; it just comes naturally to me. I dream in both languages. I don’t feel the difference speaking in either language. I prefer to watch the news in Spanish. I started doing this because I was afraid that I was losing my language.

After five years of English at Cunha, I went to the College of San Mateo (CSM) for two years and took speech classes. I took one class that was so hard I used to cry in the class. The teacher said to me “Why are you so upset? Don’t take it [the class].”

I told the teacher that I didn’t care if I passed the class; I wanted to learn (I ended up getting a B in the class). Overall, I took four public speaking classes at CSM. Two were for beginning English language learners. The next two were very hard. 

In the advanced public speaking class that I took in 2002, only one other person was in the class who was not a native speaker of English. He was from Portugal but he knew English very well.

When I was at CSM, I saw the people from China and Japan and noticed how hard they worked, and how hard they tried. I had a lot of respect for them. I talked to one girl who told me that I would be able to do what I wanted if I studied as hard as they did. I took her advice and my hard work and studying paid off.

In 2001 I read my first book in English, which was a book by Isabel Allende called Daughter of Fortune.  Reading that book took about two months because I translated it with the help of a dictionary. Sometimes I had to read the page three or four times.  But I wanted to read more. I also read more books by Allende — The  House of the Spirits and My Invented Country. This last book has many similarities to my own life.

I think I understood a third of the Daughter of Fortune book. For the rest of it, I made my imagination work and just connected one thing with another. But I never read the book again and I still have nice memories of the book.  It’s special to me that I have my own version of the book in my mind.

In addition to Isabel Allende, I also like writers Sandra Cisneros, Don Miguel Ruiz, and Barbara Kingsolver. I like poet Gary Soto.  I read a lot and have a lot of books that I continue to read.

I feel very lucky to be able to speak English. I think I will always have my accent and first I didn’t want to have one, but I’m happy now — that’s the way I sound.

Everyone around me deserves thanks — from the committee at the school district that helped me, to the EvenStart program that was a very important part of my life. My daughter inspires me a lot to learn and continue to absorb more knowledge. She also inspires me to be a better mother. I’m just very thankful to give back a little bit with community work and service.