Lessons in Respect: Promoting cultural understanding one student at a time

By Sue Henninger
Tompkins Weekly

Photo by Sue Henninger / Tompkins Weekly
Rosa Fernandez-Sopena, who came to the U.S. from Spain, has been teaching at Trumansburg’s high school since 1997.

Rosa Fernandez-Sopena was born in Barcelona, Spain. One of seven children, she recalls a happy, active childhood surrounded by extended family. But she also remembers picking up on emotional currents in their home which she didn’t understand until she grew older.

Not only had her parents lived through the brutal Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), they were also from opposing political parties. Her father was Fascist and her mother Republican and things could get tense at times.

As she and her siblings became more politically aware, they aligned with the Republican Party. This resulted in many heated discussions with their father.
“He enraged us with his ideas,” she admitted. “But he would listen to us. My friends were not so lucky with their parents.”

Though she might not always have agreed with her father’s views, she valued him as a person. He helped her with her homework as a child, she said, and made lunch dates with her as a young adult so they could talk one-on-one.
“This led me to respect different opinions, even politically,” she noted.

Political tensions were pervasive during Fernandez-Sopena’s teen years. Even her Girl Scout group, with its commitment to social justice, was affected. Her freedom and mobility were impacted daily. Citizens of Barcelona were forbidden to gather in groups or demonstrate, speak the Catalan language, or even dance in traditional ways.

Being stopped by the police had a psychological impact on Fernandez-Sopena too. She often tried to make herself seem small and inconspicuous which she feels caused her to become a very private person.
“It was hard to be assertive with so much repression,” she said. “We couldn’t talk about so many things.”

Fernandez-Sopena received her degree in elementary education from the University of Barcelona and immediately obtained a job teaching. This freed up her summer to pick fruit in Switzerland for extra cash. There she was introduced to her future husband. The two worked and traveled around Europe for several years before returning to Syracuse, to marry and obtain her Permanent Resident (green) card.

Her first impression of America was of how diverse and friendly the country and its people were. America truly is a “land of opportunity,” she asserted, adding that anyone can be anything they want in this country.
“Obama became President,” she said. “That wouldn’t happen in Spain under a dictator…I learned a lot here. Not just English!”

Though Fernandez-Sopena spoke multiple languages, she wanted to become fluent in the language of her new homeland.
“When you go to a country you should make an attempt to learn the language there,” she said. “There are many ways to do this.”

She signed up for a class with the Literacy Volunteers.
“They made me do a resume,” she recollected. “They asked me to put in writing who I was and what my strengths and weaknesses were.
“I hadn’t ever been allowed to do this in Spain,” Fernandez-Sopena added. “For the first time I got to talk about me!”

Next, though she had a college degree, she signed up to take the General Educational Development test. She noted that this helped her feel confident doing the things she had already done in Spanish in her new language.

Her first job in the area was teaching Spanish to adults at BOCES. In 1997, she applied for a position teaching Spanish at the Charles O. Dickerson High School in Trumansburg and has worked there ever since. To her it’s crucial for young people to master more than one language.
“When you learn a language, you don’t just learn words, you learn a new way of thinking and how others express themselves,” she explained. “You also learn about their culture, how they live.”

Her Spanish students come to understand that, though certain cultures may speak the same language, that doesn’t mean they’re exactly alike. Chileans are quite different from people from the Caribbean, she contended.

Her commitment to developing cultural understanding in young people has been a guiding force in her life. She feels that all children should have the opportunity to participate in multicultural activities like meals, music, or celebrations together. Fear of the unknown is frequently at the root of many biases and stereotypes she emphasized.
“We all need to be loved and understood,” said Fernandez-Sopena.

In pursuit of this, she has organized six student trips to Spanish-speaking countries, two each to the Dominican Republic, Costa Rica, and Mexico. Despite the fact that, during the planning stage, she would always ask herself, ‘Why did you do this again?’ on the way home she had no regrets. Chiapas, Mexico was her favorite trip.
“It was so humbling to meet the indigenous people,” said Fernandez-Sopena. “They were so resilient, so joyous.”

Although she wasn’t a Social Studies teacher, she also coordinated the school’s Model UN Club for a number of years. Teens get so much out of Model UN preparation and the annual conferences, Fernandez-Sopena asserted, that schools should offer it as an elective class for credit (some high schools already do this) instead of as an extracurricular activity.
“It helps them be informed about what’s happening in the world by learning about their assigned country’s problems. It can be a real wake-up call for naïve American kids,” she said. “It’s an eye-opener on so many levels.”

Teens also have to verbalize issues their country is facing to other students, learn how to write their resolution(s) in the United Nations language, and master the protocol to address these. Club members see how countries can help each other and hear inspiring conference speakers. Sometimes the UN even listens to the proposals the kids come up with.
“Teens are amazing at generating ideas and solutions,” Fernandez-Sopena said enthusiastically. “They’re so fresh in their views!”

It took her decades to apply for U.S. citizenship and people frequently asked why she still hadn’t. She just wasn’t ready to commit emotionally, Fernandez-Sopena explained, and she wanted to ensure that her American-born daughter was able to obtain dual citizenship. In 2010 she finally formalized her commitment to the U.S.
“It was a beautiful ceremony. I cried,” she confessed. “Now I belong to two countries; I’ve spent the same amount of time in each. These two countries have helped me become who I am now.”

Tuesday, October 24, is United Nations Day, commemorated worldwide since 1948 when the United Nations officially came into being. This year’s theme is “Potential in Diversity.” Learn more at www.un.org/en/events/unday.