by Cynthia de Castro/Asianjournal.com
LOS ANGELES – Sonam, a new immigrant in New York from far Tibet, could hardly speak English. To help her adjust to her new environment, she enrolled in a class called ESOL (English to Speakers of Other Languages) offered in the community.
Sonam was lonely and uneasy in the concrete jungle of New York, a world apart from her native Lhasa with its snow-peaked mountains and rivers. Her ESOL teacher, Chito Atienza, noticed Sonam’s sad demeanor in class. A naturally warm and caring person, Chito sat down beside Sonam and engaged her in small talk to put her at ease. He asked her about her family in Lhasa and suddenly, tears filled Sonam’s eyes. The kind teacher affectionately tried to lift up Sonam’s spirits and soon, another Chinese student, Gui Feng, also emphatized with Sonam. Sonam looked up with hope in her eyes and told her teacher and classmate that she’s okay.
For his outstanding work teaching English to new immigrants in New York for more than 20 years, Feliciano Jaime “Chito” Atienza was honored recently by The New York Times Community Affairs Department and the Knowledge Network with the 2008 New York Times ESOL Teacher of the Year Award.
Diane McNulty, executive director for community affairs and media relations of The New York Times, said that “The New York Times is delighted to recognize Mr. Atienza” and all ESOL teachers. “Thanks to their commitment, new immigrants are being given the tools they need to build better lives for themselves and their families, continuing New York’s legacy as the city where everyone has a shot at the American dream,” said McNulty.
Atienza was chosen by a selection committee of distinguished ESOL advocates from The New York Public Library, Queens Library, City University of New York, Brooklyn Public Library and the Mayor’s Office of Adult Education. Now in its second year, the program recognizes ESOL instructors who have consistently gone above and beyond the call of duty to help students learn English and develop the skills needed to create successful new lives in the United States.
A Filipino immigrant, Atienza has worked as an ESOL Teacher with the Queens Library’s Adult Learner–ESOL Program for more than 10 years, and with the YMCA International ELESAIR (English Language & Employment Services for Adult Immigrants and Refugees) Project for 22 years.
He is a compassionate teacher whose classroom is characterized by a healing and empowering concept of “skinship” and trust. He possesses a cheerful “can do” attitude and time-tested skills as a teacher trainor, mentor, test giver and facilitator.
Chito told his story to Asian Journal:
I used to live in Sta. Cruz, Manila before I came to the US. I went to college at the De La Salle University in Manila. I have always been a teacher, working at different Catholic schools in Manila and at Adamson University. My interest in language teaching started with the foreign born students at Adamson. They’re from Thailand, Taiwan, Jordan and some other middle Eastern countries. Then it became more formalized as a skill and a career at the Philippine Refugee Processing Center in Bataan, Philippines. The place became the birthplace of ESL (English as a Second Language).
I came to New York for the first time in 1985 before the EDSA revolution. Since I was already trained at the refugee camp, I applied for a new program under the YMCA, the ELESAIR Project. I’ve been working with the program for more than 20 years. The great thing about my job is that I’ve been a witness to the flow of immigrants to this wonderful city. Refugees from Africa, Russia, Afghanistan, Eastern Europe, and now the Latinos of South America and the Chinese.
One doesn’t feel alienated in a city where most of the residents are from other countries or another state. Everybody comes to work harmoniously with people of different backgrounds, national origin, and other differences. There is some kind of tolerance that permeates in the air that we breathe. And people are happy to share the commonalities that they have.
An admitted workaholic, Chito regrets having forgotten parts of his life in his first five years in New York. “I just kept on working in the late 80’s for five years without a social life and a religious life. It’s like ‘Chito is dead and he’s now living in NY’. Then, I told myself ‘hey…take it easy.. bond once again with family and friends…which I did and yes, even with my spiritual life.”
Bonding with his family means going home regularly to the Philippines because his whole family lives there. “I am the only one here. I usually go back to the islands every year. I often visit my parents’ hometown in Lumban, Laguna. Last year I went to Boracay with family and friends— it was fantastic. Shopping is fabulous. We have the best shopping malls in the whole world- Market, Market, Mall of Asia, Tiendesitas, SM, National Bookstore!”
Chito can’t stop gushing about the pleasures of going home to the Philippines. “Foods to die for – pandesal with quesong puti or adobo, fried hito and adobo wrapped in banana leaves. Oh, the cuisine of Manila is something else! “
When in New York, Chito loves to hang out at Barnes and Noble bookstore, in Central Park, Vinieros in the East Village and Cafe de la Artiste in the West Village.
“Or, sometimes I just sit down on a nice day at Washington Square, read a good book and wait for Anna Bayle to go out of her apartment and admire her legendary cat walk. Lots of places you can hang out here,” Chito said.
Atienza admits that he learns a lot from his students too. “My personal hope for peace and goodwill are played out in my classroom everyday. Roles are often reversed. My students become my teachers. They teach me that hope springs eternal, even on political humanitarian issues that even the UN can’t resolve,” he says.
With the ESOL award came fame, as Chito has been deluged with interviews from media. But he is careful to take it all in stride and give the glory to God. He stressed to Asian Journal, “I am the ESOL of 2008 but there is a greater Teacher of all times. And from Him I draw my most important teaching and learning methodologies. His name is Jesus. For me, this great Teacher is the embodiment of hope, trust, and above all of love and compassion. I thank Him for being my role model. He said in John 4:34. ‘My food is to do the will of the One who sent me and to finish His work.’ And that has guided me as a teacher. “
Atienza now looks forward to do something for his homeland. “My future plan is to create projects with the Department of Education in the Philippines that would foster teacher exchange or perhaps student exchange as well to promote immersion in language and culture. I still have to sit and write some kind of a proposal about this,” he stated.
Chito believes teaching is his purpose for being.”I will always be a teacher, an ESOL Teacher. Long after my reign as the NY Times ESOL Teacher of the Year, you will still find me in the safe haven of my immigrant dream, doing the will of the Great Teacher who sent me to continue His work among the New Americans in NYC,” said New York’s Best ESOL Teacher.