English in demand

Go to suburban Framingham, Massachusetts, and you see signs of the Brazilian community just about everywhere. You can shop in immigrant-owned stores, listen to Portuguese language radio, and read Portuguese language newspapers. But Brazilian immigrants need to learn English to succeed, even in Framingham. Fortunately, the city offers free English-language classes. Unfortunately, though, the classes are so popular, immigrants have to enter a lottery just to get in.

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In this story from PRI's "The World," Eduardo De Oliveira of Feet in Two Worlds -- which brings the work of immigrant journalists to public radio -- reports on the ESL program and the people who manage to make it in.

It's a freezing winter night in Framingham. Six hundred immigrants are jammed into the cafeteria at a local middle school. Many wear heavy coats. Some came direct from work and are still wearing their uniforms. While kids run around the cafeteria tables, their parents fill out forms to enter the lottery. All are here to try to get entry into the free English as a Second Language classes being offered, but the majority will go home disappointed.

Christine Tibur runs the ESL program. She's been with it since it started 25 years ago: "We want to say first of all we are sorry. We will not have enough space for everyone who is here. This lottery is the fairest way for us to get people into class."

The classes used to be filled on a first-come, first-served basis. Tibur started the lottery in 2002, when she noticed that prospective students were sleeping on the sidewalk outside the school the night before enrollment day. This evening, instructions are being translated into five languages. Most of the people entering this lottery speak Portuguese. Framingham has been a destination for immigrants as far back as the 19th Century, but in the past 10 years it's become a magnet for Brazilians.

Today, a third of the town’s 67,000 residents are from Brazil. Luciene Campos is one of them. She sits at a cafeteria table filling out a form for the ESL lottery. Luciene is in her 40s and migrated from Brazil three years ago but she speaks no English. She relies on pick-up work like babysitting. She realizes she needs to learn English in order to get anywhere. Luciene says, "If you don’t speak the language, you can't do a lot of things. It's hard to communicate and work. When you know a language, you have more opportunities in life. English is the universal language."

Tonight, Karen Massala is one of the lucky ones. She's a Brazilian immigrant who actually won the lottery in two previous years, but both times she had to drop out because of a hectic work schedule. Now, with the economy in such bad shape, Karen is working less so she thinks she'll be able to stick with the classes this time. Karen says she's embarrassed that she doesn't speak English: "The police stopped me recently because one of the lights on my car wasn't working. I couldn't understand enough of what the cop said. I felt a little bit humiliated."

Luciene Campos hears her name announced in the lottery. Luciene says she's so happy because she was beginning to lose hope. Some Brazilian immigrants have already lost hope. The Brazilian Immigrant Center in Boston estimates that in the past two years, more than 15,000 Brazilians have left Massachusetts and moved back home. Most of the Brazilian immigrants who remain are without legal status. They have no job security and no benefits, so learning English and adding that to their skill set is even more critical. In fact, more Brazilians showed up for this year's lottery than last year’'s, which means there may be a silver lining to this bad economy after all. As one Brazilian told me – some people used to work two jobs. Now, they're only working one, so they may have more time to study English.

PRI's "The World" is a one-hour, weekday radio news magazine offering a mix of news, features, interviews, and music from around the globe. "The World" is a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH Boston.

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