That belly pain. Could it be lack of language proficiency?

It is that time of the year. Little boys and girls starting kindergarten or first grade coming in for that school physical required to be accepted into a school. Nena
Ana’s mom tells me she has been complaining of abdominal pain since the open house visit at school last week. I ask the child why she thinks she has pain: “Me da miedo porque no se inglés” I am afraid because I do not speak English. “Entonces mi pancita se pone toda durita y me da ganas de vomitar” “Then my belly gets all hard and I feel I am going to vomit.” The little 6 year old says.

I ask more questions, raised in a Spanish language- only environment, little Ana felt lost at the first day of open school. There were many other kids in her situation in our diverse community… But then I notice Ana is going into first grade…

“Did you do Kindergarten last year?” I ask. She says she did, but she was not able to learn her ABCs in English. Fearing for a developmental delay, I ask more questions, and seeing and hearing a bright and motivated Spanish-speaking child I get a book out, it is a large book with pictures and words in English and drawings, ABCs, numbers and colors to match. And Ana does exceedingly well. Her confidence rising, we end up singing the ABC in English together. And she smiles, and gives me a hug. I give her the book, and tell her she can use it everyday so she can prepare for school on Monday. Her belly pain will be relieved with a sense of security and belonging to her classroom. Her sense of security needs English language.

I am left with questions: Are we doing enough for these children? If she already passed Kindergarten; shouldn’t she had learned more English? What local community organizations exist that I can engage with and support in order to improve the lives of these kids and families?




Heard at a focus group with Latino immigrants:  

“Doctora, usted tiene que decirle a los doctores güeros, para que ellos sepan, para que ellos nos entiendan… Nosotros no hablamos de depresión… Nosotros…(atragantándose en lágrimas)… Nosotros dejamos nuestro corazón en México”

retrato“Doctor, you need to let the white doctors know, so that they learn, so that they understand us… We do not talk about depression… We… (choking in tears)… We left our hearts in Mexico”



My nine year old son and I are heading to school when a program on the radio catches our attention. It is a story about a Native American man describing how as a boy he was sent away from his home in a reservation to live with a white foster family. He describes the challenges of his life, from living in a teepee to waking up inside 4 walls, from being surrounded by the love of his family and community to starting a life among strangers. He speaks about difficulties growing up, the trying to figure out who he was, the sense of loss and the lack of belonging… We arrive to school and I sit in the car in silence. My son asks to learn more about what happened to that man when he was a boy… We talk, I speak  – tears streaming down my face –  about injustice, the difficult life of minority children misunderstood by a system that thought that it was doing what was best for society… We get off the car and head into his elementary school… As we walk into the building, the last phrase in the story,The difference between running away and running home is whether you are running in the direction you belong” is still resonating in my heart…

The school secretary calls my attention: “You speak Spanish!!! I need you… I don’t know what is going on. She doesn’t speak English. I need you to speak to this woman”. And grabbing my arm she walks me out again towards a car parked at the curve. A woman is outside the car, begging someone inside to get out. Inside the car, holding herself curled up in in a ball is a young Hispanic girl. She looks my son’s age. The woman tells me in Spanish: “I can’t get her out of the car, she won’t come to school. Every day is like this. I can’t get her out of bed, can’t get her into the car, I need help. She needs to be in school, they are going to send the police if she does not attend school”. I introduce myself and tell her “I was just asked to help because I speak Spanish, I do not work for the school, I am just a mom. Is there anything I can do to help?”

The woman looks at me and with a sad face says “Gracias, it has been like this since her father left”. I open the car door and ask the girl if she is willing to talk to me. She keeps her eyes shut. I speak softly, and sit beside her in the back seat. I tell her I mean no threat, I want to know if I can help. She opens her beautiful brown eyes but shows no expression. Only for a few seconds her eyes make contact with mine… Hollow, no fear, no dare, no shine. I am trying to recognize whether this is pain or grief, or severe depression. She looks at the distance and walks out of the car. She does not say a word. She does not cry. She stands and looks away. The school secretary tells the girl “Your mom is right; the law says you must be in school”

I tell her mom that I will not translate this to the staff: “Al padre, lo hicieron irse? (Her father, was he made to leave?” ” Si”, the woman answers “lo deportaron” (yes, he was deported)”.  I talk to the girl and offer to hear her if she wants to tell me how she feels, I offer to walk with her into the school. The woman says she will “get fired if she continues to arrive late to work… This is happening every morning”.  I say to the girl: “Let’s help mom get to work”. The woman adds “I have been trying to find them, I have talked even with the Mexican embassy, and nobody can help me. No one knows where they are. I can’t deal with this. I love her, but she wants to run away to her family.”

“But.. you…” I start. “All of them were deported”  the woman adds. “I was their neighbor, I took her in. They asked me to keep her and give her a better life. She is the only American citizen in the family. They were all deported. But all she wants is to see them. Every day is the same. She wants to run home to them”…