Paola Diaz is a familiar face at the Locust Valley Library. She’s not only been working there as a library clerk since 2013, but also has taught English as a Second Language classes for the past six years.
Originally from Chile, the Locust Valley resident came to the U.S. in 1991. She didn’t speak English and her journey was difficult, but she persevered. Now Diaz is a proud citizen of the U.S., committed to helping others master the English language.
“Everyone who takes my class has different needs,” she explained. “Some need to learn English because they have children and want to help them with school, some because they want to become independent and learn American culture. To become a citizen, you have to speak and write English.”
Diaz began her pilgrimage to the U.S. in a Honduran jail cell. It didn’t matter to the officials that she had a visa. They didn’t believe that the 20-year-old was from Chile, suspecting instead that she was from Cuba, a communist country. They were suspicious.
She spent 24 hours in jail with others who were also trying to make their way to the U.S. before a “coyote” — someone who smuggles people across the U.S. border — paid off the Hondurans with electric shavers.
“I was scared,” Diaz, now 46, said. “[The officials] said I had to go back to Chile and they didn’t want to see me again.”
Undaunted, Diaz continued her three-week journey with the others. No matter what, she was ready to withstand any dangers because she desperately wanted a better life.
Unsure of which way to go, Diaz paid a Honduran teenager $50 to lead the group through the mountains on the Honduras-Guatemala border.
“It was night when we started, and by 3 a.m. he said he was lost,” she recalled. “We all laid on the ground and held each other. We were cold and it was drizzling.”
When the sun came up, the teenager realized where he was and the group continued to make its way to Guatemala. Diaz remembers two little girls who brought them coffee in cans when they finally made it to Guatemala. It was a kindness she will always remember.
“Every time I see anyone from Guatemala, I remember the generosity of the people there,” Diaz said. “That family was so poor, but they still shared with us.”
The group went to a hotel in Guatemala and met the coyote once again. He made the arrangements for passage to the Mexico-Guatemala border. For some it was easier than it was for others. Diaz’s sister had paid $5,000 to get her to America.
“I was lucky to cross the border by car because I had money to give the coyote to pay for me to do so,” she said. “But the other people there had to cross by the river and carry everything above their heads.”
Diaz was then driven to California and boarded a plane to New York, where she met her sister. She was hired as a housekeeper in Port Washington.
“When I got to New York, I had a 7-year-old nephew who translated everything for me,” she said. “I’d use my hands a lot to communicate with people. Then I went to night classes in Port Washington and then to Queens College to learn more English.”
Eventually Diaz went to Great Neck Learning Center to get her gradate equivalency diploma. And it was during this period that her employer arranged for her to get a green card.
“People were more tolerant of people coming here than they are now,” she said. “Now, because there are so many easy ways for people to communicate with technology, people who don’t know English sometimes don’t think it is not necessary to learn. That causes resentment.”
Diaz said that once she arrived in the U.S., she wanted to do everything she could to become a part of the country. That included citizenship. But she realizes that people come to the U.S., especially today, for many different reasons.
“I came here because my sister was here. I finished high school in Chile and there were no opportunities there,” she explained. “But many people don’t come here for that reason anymore. They come here because their counties are very dangerous and they can’t live there anymore.”
Diaz became a citizen in 2007. After obtaining a certificate to teach ESL, she began to do so at the Locust Valley Library. She is also qualified to teach citizenship classes, having completed a workshop with the immigration service.
Maria Hernandez, 54, a housekeeper in Locust Valley, has been in the U.S. for 20 years. She finds Diaz’s classes very helpful.
“I never went to school for English,” she said. “I learned English from my boss and her children. I’m at Paolo’s class to learn how to write English, which is much harder then speaking it.”
Diaz says it is not unusual for her students to be in the country for 20 years, like Hernandez, and not be citizens.
“I know other people like Maria, who have been here 20 years and they work, work, work so they don’t have the time to learn,” she explained. “I had a student who was from Peru, and it took him two years, but he put his mind to it. He used to come early to practice one-on-one with me.”
The students attending Diaz’s Thursday-night class were pleased to receive a copy of News For You, a publication for people learning English. The newspaper, which publishes a range of articles, also includes information on how to become a citizen — and a crossword puzzle, which Diaz says her pupils love. It’s a great tool for practicing spelling and learning word tenses.
“They can go online to read News for You too so they can follow along and practice their pronunciation,” she said. “In my class, after they’ve had time to read the articles, I ask them questions to see if they understand what they’re reading.”
Christine Kipper, of Germany, will be in the U.S. for two years because her husband has been transferred here for work. After reading the newspaper for a few moments, she raised her hand.
“Trump is expected to ‘face’ — what does ‘face’ mean?” she asks, holding her face with both hands.
There are different meanings of the word, Diaz said, going on to explain them. Several other questions followed, and soon everyone was laughing.
“Students learn from each other,” Diaz said. “And even if they get diverted from the task, like maybe because they’re discussing an upcoming festival, it’s OK. They’re still practicing their speaking and listening of English.”
Kipper said she’s interested in learning about the U.S. as well as the language. “I think to learn about the country is just as important as knowing about the people here too,” she said. “And I want to get to know other immigrants.”
People with green cards can stay in the U.S. indefinitely, as long as they are not incarcerated. But there are privileges like voting that require citizenship.
Ema and Spiro Dajko, of Oyster Bay, are originally from Albania. They became citizens on Nov. 4 after taking classes with Diaz for three years.
“It is the most important thing to become a citizen,” Spiro, 43, said. “There is a big difference between a green card and an American passport. I’m proud to call myself an American citizen.”
Ema, 40, agreed. “Paola helped us so much,” she added. “She is the best. Taking the classes was a good time for us. It was a joy to participate.”
Diaz is married and has two children. It was a proud moment for her when her oldest graduated from Locust Valley Intermediate School.
“When I did the Pledge [of Allegiance] it was like ‘I’m a part of this,’” she said. “When you become a citizen it makes a big difference in your life.”
ESL beginner classes are offered on Mondays, and intermediate classes on Thursdays, from 7 to 8:30 p.m. at the Locust Valley Library, at 170 Buckram Road. Class size is approximately 10. Registration is required and ongoing, and the classes are free. For further information, call (516) 671-1837.