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UHV Professor shares Mexican heritage (video)

Camille Doty

By Camille Doty
Sept. 15, 2012 at 4:15 a.m.

Maria Salome Chavarria encourages student Christina Ontjes to keep trying to finish her sentence as she and the rest of the class go over homework during a "Practical Conversation" Spanish class at the University of Houston-Victoria. Chavarria played an integral part in establishing the curriculum that has allowed Spanish to be a degree path at the university.

Maria Salome Chavarria knew she would have to leave the tropical climate and mountains of her home in Mexico to fulfill her American dream.

So, four years ago she left Cuernavaca, Morelos, to come to Victoria as part of an exchange program with the University of Houston-Victoria.

The input she provided proved invaluable; she was offered a position to teach Spanish.

"I love my community, I love my family and I love my job," she said. "Right now my heart is in two places." She sees her family in Mexico twice a year.

She uses her experiences in Mexico to help educate the Crossroads.

She learned about the struggles of first-generation Mexican-Americans. Children were forced to stop speaking Spanish in the classroom and were ostracized.

"Language is not just a subject you memorize. It's a complicated, cognitive process," Chavarria said.

She said she respects the sacrifices others have made in the past for the sake of their culture.

Saturday marked the beginning of Hispanic Heritage Month that lasts until Oct. 15.

Chavarria was unaware of the festivities until she moved to the U.S. but appreciates the concept.

"It's good to let people know, become aware, of our culture," she said. "I feel proud."

Chavarria said learning Spanish is imperative, especially with the shifting demographics.

Hispanics account for 44 percent of Victoria County's population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau's 2010 data.

In the classroom, students soaked up Chavarria's enthusiasm in her practical conversations course as she told stories with her hands and placed her glasses on the edge of her nose. Everyone was engaged with the universal tale of love.

Although the material was light-hearted, she does not let students become lax with their language.

The master's level professor brings a sense of the real world to the classroom. Students can place orders from an authentic Mexican restaurant menu and learn about parts of the body during Loteria, a version of the game Bingo.

"I like the games more than the students. It's a way for me to have fun in class," she said.

Student Belinda Gonzalez said her instructor challenges her to make her best effort. The non-traditional student grew up speaking Spanish, but has learned to become a better writer with formal education.

"I look forward to seeing her because I learn so much. She's a great asset," said Gonzalez.

In the short time she has been in Victoria, Chavarria has helped the university establish Spanish as a major.

The university did not offer Spanish classes before her arrival.

She planned, wrote, and successfully advocated for Spanish to become a major.

"She has single-handedly provided our students with Spanish language classes helping them not only learn, or re-learn, a language that grows in importance in the U.S," said Uppinder Mehan, associate provost at UHV.

He added that she was an integral part in helping the university create and maintain ties with the Universidad Internacional in Cuernavaca, Mexico, as well as serve as a visible force in the community.

The university also offers a certificate in Spanish for Professionals, said Jeffrey Di Leo, dean of the school of Arts and Sciences.

But she doesn't restrict her love for the language to just the classroom.

Chavarria helped create the Café Social program to provide additional support to the students without feeling the pressure of making mistakes.

"Everything works hand-in-hand." Chavarria said. "You need to read, listen, write and speak to expand your vocabulary."

The twice-a-month gathering is free and open to the public.

She and retired professor Tina Kidder have become friends while hosting the informal Spanish speaking workshop during the school year.

"She's a good role model who loves teaching the Spanish language and loves teaching," Kidder said.

Jan Hudson and her husband flipped the language script. The retired teachers put on their thinking caps to learn Spanish.

Hudson said the sessions proved helpful in her trip to Honduras. Although some of the words were different, the former English teacher from Port Lavaca was able to adjust, thanks to Chavarria.

"She has a way of making others comfortable and makes learning fun," Hudson said.

Café Social is also offered on campus at Jaguar Hall.

The participants practice words while learning more about one another in the exercises. From time-to-time they make a lie, or mentira, and their partners have to guess what is the truth.

"I love seeing their minds at work when they have to be creative," Chavarria admitted.

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