By Hilary Corrigan
Triplicate staff writer
Hilda Yepes-Contreras says the words slowly.
"Quarter. Queen. Quail."
The nine women sitting around tables in the back office of a Smith River church repeat them, sounding out the letters.
"Everybody at the same time. Queen,'" Yepes-Contreras urges. "Everybody at the same time. Quail.'"
Then she focuses on each student, prompting them to pronounce the syllables. She asks the group to define the terms in their native Spanish, giving hints by drawing pictures on a dry-erase board.
Each of the women take turns reading a story out loud, slowly working their way through the English language.
"Wonderful, wonderful," Yepes-Contreras says after Catarina Perez reads a paragraph.
Perez, a Crescent City resident and Guatemala native, can speak English but could not read or write before starting the class last year.
"Gracias," Perez replies, smiling. "Thank you."
The class meets two nights a week, part of Plaza Communitaria. But the community effort that Crescent City resident Rene Quintana started about seven years ago offers much more.
Del Norte County hosts more than 5,000 Hispanic residents. With nearby Curry County, Quintana estimates more than 6,500 Hispanics live in the area, many coming to work in the lily bulb fields and on ranches.
"Their needs are very diverse, from child care to immigration issues," Quintana said.
The plaza aims to meet some of them. Besides English classes, it offers free computer use and courses for farmers who have never used the machines, along with information on immigration and U.S. citizenship. A mental health counselor works with those suffering from depression. Meetings and celebrations take place there, too.
On a weeknight, a Mexican man stops Quintana in the computer lab to review the title and papers for a car that he bought.
"They didn't have any place before. There was nowhere they could go for information," Quintana said.
I see the poverty'
Quintana started by buying classroom supplies at Dollar General stores, collecting donated tables from Rural Human Services, partnering with the United Methodist Church in Smith River for space in the back of the church.
"My doctor gave us that skeleton," he said of the teaching aid in the classroom. It comes in handy for those studying for the GED that includes a section on anatomy.
This year, Quintana plans to finish setting up a nonprofit Manos Unidas, or United Hands to expand services.
"I see the poverty and the need," he said.
Yepes-Contreras seeks to partner with other area groups so that the plaza can offer classes on depression, drug abuse, health, nutrition, domestic violence, parenting skills, politics, AIDS prevention.
Many of the immigrants come from rural Mexico and lack any schooling.
"They need a lot of education on everything," she said. "Anybody who's willing to bring services."
In the past, Hispanic immigrants stopped in the area to work on local farms, then moved on with the growing season, following a migration route to work on farms in other regions.
Now, Quintana said, they stay to raise families.
And families have more needs, said Celia Perez, who works for Del Norte County Mental Health and counsels farmworkers.
"Kids need dental, they need physicals, they need nutritional information," Perez said.
Yepes-Contreras, who works with the Open Door Community Health Center in Crescent City, helped the Arcata-based nonprofit open a branch in Smith River about six years ago.
"I always had a dream about having a clinic in Smith River because I lived in Smith River all my life," Yepes-Contreras said, noting the area's distance to Crescent City and the lack of transportation for many of its residents.
Perez likes the way Hispanic residents have grown more visible in the area, recalling her own childhood in Del Norte County as one of the few Mexicans in her classes.
"We were very invisible," she said.
Still, the county lacks minorities in leadership roles and higher status jobs, Quintana said. In some cases, it lacks services for those who speak only Spanish.
"It lets me know that there is a serious problem," he said. "That's what bothers me."
Quintana hears the arguments against immigrants who enter the United States illegally.
"The reality is that we do have migrants coming in every minute of the day," he said. "Are we going to have a wall like the Great Wall of China?"
This year, he aims to grow his nonprofit, increase the meeting space for Plaza Communitaria, attract more partners and reach more immigrants.
"We're here. We just want to make sure we're noticed and part of the community, to make them feel welcome," Quintana said.
And on a snowy Thursday evening, he serves hot chocolate to the group of women studying English as Yepes-Contreras reminds them to review words starting with A, B and C for a spelling test next week.
"They're inspiring, really," Quintana says. "I see them really trying to make something of themselves, really aspiring to better themselves."