First-Generation Bilingual Graduate James Dolores Paves the Way for High Schoolers to Learn Spanish
As a child, James Dolores remembers having conversations with his abuelita (grandmother), who did not speak English. Conversing with her in Spanish created a special connection and, as he grew up, he didn’t want to lose that connection to her or his Hispanic heritage. So he enrolled at CU Denver to learn more about his abuelita’s language. It seemed like the perfect fit out of all the local universities he learned about during high school. “[CU Denver] was a commuter school with a diverse student body and a growing population of Latinos,” said Dolores. “That was important to me to have. I wanted to fit in racially, culturally, and economically—especially within the LGBTQ community.”
The Value of Mentorship
A Spanish grammar aficionado who is dedicated to developing his bilingual skills, Dolores chose a major in Spanish (Language, Literature, and Culture). All it took was one class and one person to place him on what he considers the perfect career journey.
Gabriela DeRobles, a Coloradan of Mexican heritage and Clinical Assistant Professor with the Department of Modern Languages at CU Denver, was teaching Writing for Latinos 1. The class is the first writing composition course for heritage speakers of Spanish that focused on the multifaceted Latinx experience in the U.S. from a linguistic, historical, and socio-political perspective (topics include immigration, bilingualism, gentrification, and other social movements). Dolores signed up for her class and enjoyed polishing his writing skills. He also appreciated collaborating and learning about the richness and variety of cultures of his classmates. DeRobles’ ability to provide a safe space for students to explore the Spanish language inspired Dolores.
“Gabriela’s ongoing guidance, caring nature, and effective teaching skills played a huge role in my decision to become a bilingual teacher,” he shared with a smile. “She was a mentor to me, which can be hard to find, and being a part of her class felt like family.” In her class, Dolores felt supported and part of a community where everyone had a voice and could share their experiences.
DeRobles said Dolores constantly showed his passion and commitment to bilingualism. When he told her she had been instrumental in his decision to apply for a master’s degree in a teaching Spanish program, she knew she had fulfilled her mission. “I was delighted to hear about his decision because we need more Latino instructors, which we call, ‘heritage speakers’, in my class. They come from diverse heritage backgrounds, learn Spanish at home, and use their cultural experience to give back to the community through teaching. In other words, they connect the course to their life and heritage and teach it that way.”
From Intern to Teacher
Dolores has already transformed lives in the Hispanic community. Through the MA in Teaching, World Languages, Spanish program, CU Denver helped Dolores obtain an internship at North High School as a bilingual teacher. Since he began teaching this semester, he has developed rapport with his students enabling them to communicate easily and remove their fears when practicing Spanish. He has an innate ability to use Spanish language to bring people together and a passion for bilingual education that is creating community impact.
He’s excited that the high school is implementing a Spanish language arts program that is, coincidentally, similar to the undergraduate writing composition class he took with DeRobles. “I was thrilled to learn the program for high school students is geared toward heritage speakers, inspiring students early on to be empowered by the Spanish language,” he said. “Language is culture. And in a gentrified neighborhood, some can feel insecure about speaking Spanish because of the change in school demographics. It is my job to ensure they don’t lose their language, stay true to their identity, and do not feel pushed out.”
Dolores emphasized the importance of teaching children a second language from an early age, as it gives them more opportunities in life to connect with others. He said youth in Colorado who can speak both languages will have more opportunities than those who only speak one.
As a Colorado native with Mexican and Spanish roots, Dolores believes there are not enough bilingual teachers or courses taught in Spanish. “Research shows students who receive education in their home language perform better academically,” Dolores said. “My goal is to help my students develop confidence in speaking and writing Spanish proficiently and feel proud of communicating with their friends, family, and, someday, in the business community.
After graduation on Dec. 17, Dolores plans to keep teaching at North High School, where he hopes to continue using his passion for bilingual education to embrace his heritage and inspire others.