Finding their voice: Siblings flee violence in Mexico, find solace in Steamboat Springs |

Finding their voice: Siblings flee violence in Mexico, find solace in Steamboat Springs

John F. Russell

The three teenage Villa Parra siblings miss some of the things about the Chihuahua, Mexico, home they fled just four months ago. They’re the things you’d expect them to miss: family, friends and the home country where they grew up.

The new Steamboat Springs residents are well aware of the violence and terror back home, too. It’s the same violence that took their father 10 years ago and threatened to take them, as well, if they didn’t leave.

Steamboat Springs High School wasn’t expecting them when they reported for class in August. When the school’s English-language learner teacher Dani Booth met them the Wednesday before school started, she learned they knew no English.

“Hi, hello, ’sup” was about the extent of their vocabulary, Booth said.

Booth had to scramble to create a curriculum and class schedule to suit the siblings’ unexpected arrival. Typically, ELL students can take core courses with instructor assistance, but this wasn’t a typical situation.

“To have zero English, that obviously didn’t work,” Booth said. “They went into math class, and after the first couple of periods, they were just like, ‘What’s going on?’”

The school responded by creating a class during which the siblings and two other new ELL students meet with Booth every day.

It’s in this large classroom where the newcomers are learning the basics of the language almost 95 percent of students walking Steamboat Springs High School’s halls speak fluently.

Booth opens the class by asking how long the group can last speaking primarily English. The bar is set at 40 minutes.

From there, siblings Arturo, 16, Emmanuel, 15, and Keyla, 14, Villa Parra along with their two classmates, learn about nouns, verbs and pronouns. They learn to say what color clothing each classmate is wearing and learn the difference between saying something is next to a book and something is on a book.

Booth asks questions, and they do their best to answer. They show signs of frustration but sport big smiles with every correct answer, as though a prize is up for grabs.

At home, things are different for the siblings. They live with their mother, grandmother, stepfather and infant brother for a total of seven people in their mobile home. Arturo said they try to bring some of their English home, but when it comes to homework, their elders can’t do much to help.

In a classroom, the frustration can be similar.

“It’s just really hard because if we do have a question about anything, and we try to ask, teachers don’t understand,” Keyla said through district interpreter Raquel Marin. “We just can’t communicate.”

But with Booth, a fluent Spanish speaker, they can. No one speaks up when they go well beyond the 40-minute goal she set earlier in the class.

They keep practicing their newly acquired English because when their time at Steamboat Springs High School is up, the Villa Parra trio wants to have this English thing down.

“That’s what we hope,” Arturo said.

To reach Ben Ingersoll, call 970-871-4204, email or follow him on Twitter @BenMIngersoll

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