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Some people learn second or third languages in school; others learn on the job or through total immersion.
Then there’s Mexican immigrant Ascary Arias, who learned English from Elvis Presley.
“I remember having an Elvis Presley 8-track (tape) … in a big old car that I used to drive, and that’s what I would listen to every day and just repeat the words back, you know, like play it all the time,” Arias told the News + Record, laughing. “I wasn’t doing it mainly because I love Elvis Presley, which I do, but because I was learning to speak the language.”
At first, he was just “singing away,” but eventually, he began to look and study the words — and after hours of repeating the song lyrics, plus loads of practice and near-complete English immersion, Arias managed to teach himself English.
“Within six months, I was fluent,” he said. “I learned it so quickly, so quickly, and then I started doing more translating work. I was the one to go to for all the friends and family whenever they went to the doctor or the mechanic or anything like that.”
And what motivated Arias to learn so quickly? He knew it would open doors for him — and about three decades later, mastering English has since opened several. Thanks to his ability to speak English, he met his wife, Elizabeth, obtained his GED and several college degrees, and founded Vidas de Esperanza, now a medical and dental nonprofit in Siler City that offers free, bilingual services to those in need.
“Once I got here, it became to me so apparent, so clear, that things were possible, as long as — I don’t know why, but I figured if I speak English, things are gonna be way easier,” Arias said. “It just became very, very simple to me.”
Originally from Ixmiquilpan, Hidalgo, Arias first migrated to North Carolina in 1991, when he was 17, to join his parents in Fuquay-Varina. He’d originally come to work in the tobacco fields.
“I came like most everyone that comes from where I come from,” he said. “I came here to find work and I guess help my family provide and then provide for myself as best as I could. I didn’t really have goals, really. I mean, I knew I wanted a nice car. That’s about it. So yeah, ‘I want a nice car. That’s what I want.’”
He didn’t work in the tobacco fields; instead, he began working in different jobs and interpreting for fellow Spanish speakers — though, he added with a laugh, “I don’t know how effectively.” At the time, he lived near a ranch that employed a lot of Mexican workers, many of whom didn’t speak English.
“So they would come and pick me up at the house, and then I would translate for them,” he said. “I would have to translate whether they were being hired — and fired.”
To continue improving his English, Arias sought work in places that didn’t employ many fellow Spanish speakers. Otherwise, he knew, “I was going to be speaking nothing but Spanish.”
He found that in small rural diners. In one such diner, he started out washing the floors, then the dishes, before moving up to cutting vegetables and fruits for the diner’s salad bar.
“And then I moved to the salad bar, meaning that I would be on the microphone there and then just call out whatever we needed next,” he said, laughing. “‘We’re running out of this,’ and then they would bring it out. And so, I was like, ‘Yeah, I’m moving up in the world really quickly.’”
But something still held him back. By the time he turned 20, he spoke “great” English, enough to communicate with a woman who eventually became his wife. She didn’t speak Spanish. He didn’t, however, know how to read or write English very well — and he’d long since internalized the idea that maybe he wouldn’t be able to do it.
“I grew up thinking I wasn’t very smart, and I also grew up having people tell me I wasn’t very smart. I got held back a couple of years,” he said. “One in 2nd grade, I think, and one in 6th grade — and I didn’t finish school in Mexico either. So basically, I stopped going to school when I was maybe 14. So I didn’t really have any formal education whatsoever.”
He finally realized “he wasn’t dumb” during a job interview for a position with a tire retread company when he was in his early 20s.
He’d been competing against two other applicants, both native English speakers. The owner had them watch a 30-minute video and then answer 15 or so questions based on what they’d watched.
“He’s like, ‘I only have one spot. The one with the highest score gets a job. I’ll call you and you come in tomorrow to work,’” he said. “So we took the test, and he called me the next morning. … So, you know, then at that moment, I was like, ‘Huh. You know what? I think I can do some things,’ and then it was from there, it was, like, nothing but up.’ You know, there’s never been a ‘going down’ for me. It’s always nothing but up.’”
That’s what inspired him to dedicate himself to learning how to read and write English. First, he worked on his reading. His mother-in-law gifted him with a “big old book” called “Falls the Shadow,” he remembered. It was one of the first books he’d ever read.
Then he turned his attention to writing.
“So I would go to work every day, and my wife would give me an essay,” he said. “She would say, ‘OK, Ascary, today, I want you to write about why you like soccer.’ So during lunchtime, at work, I would write an essay. I like soccer, because of this, this and this. Then she would come home, or I would get home, and then she would read it for me and say, ‘OK, this is how you write an essay,’ and blah blah blah.”
By the time he decided to go for his GED at Guilford Technical Community College, Arias knew how to read and write English well. In 2005, he graduated from Greensboro College with a double-major degree in Spanish and sociology, plus minors in art and international studies. While in college, he also founded Vidas de Esperanza.
It was a far cry from his original plan to work in the tobacco fields.
“Change starts within, you know, and I think that’s what happened with me,” he said. “I started changing who I was gonna be, you know — not that there’s anything wrong with being a farmworker, right? But I wasn’t going to be a farmworker. Nothing wrong with being a dishwasher, but I wasn’t going to be one.”
It all started with his decision to master English. That’s why he has a simple piece of advice for those who may be hesitant to study English: Just do it.
“Being the third person in the conversation where you should be the first or second, it’s not the best place to be at when it is possible to learn,” he said. “Just because you’re 20 or 30 years old doesn’t mean you can’t learn anymore. It might take a little longer, but with effort, it’s possible.”
Reporter Victoria Johnson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.