Montana State University

Hablando Español en Bozeman

October 29, 2008 -- By Linda McGurk

Some stay in hiding and live in constant fear of being deported. Others struggle to assimilate and learn English in the face of prejudice and blatant racism. The challenges are many for the Latinos who are trying to put down roots in the Gallatin Valley, drawn here by the construction boom and the hope of creating a better life for their children. But faculty and students from MSU’s College of Letters and Science are working to bridge the cultural divide and improve the lives of Latinos in the Gallatin Valley.

“Bozeman and the Gallatin Valley will face a choice; whether to work with the Latino community or whether to force it into segregation with all those ramifications,” says Bridget Kevane, a professor in the Department of Modern Languages and Literature. For Kevane the choice is obvious, and recently she received the Provost’s Excellence in Outreach Award for her work to help Mexicans and other Spanish-speaking immigrants integrate into the community.

A native from Puerto Rico and fluent Spanish speaker, Kevane collaborates with local grassroots groups and taps some of her students to identify and meet the needs of the Latino population. Some of her first projects included translating signs in the Gallatin Valley Food Bank into Spanish and helping spearhead a bilingual story-time at the Bozeman Public Library. She’s also set up free tutoring classes for Spanish speakers wanting to learn English and helped establish a basic Spanish course for the Bozeman Police Department.

But the public school system, which is desperately short on Spanish speakers and lacks resources to handle the sudden influx of Latinos, is where Kevane is most passionate about making a difference. Aside from advising students at Bozeman High School, she supervises MSU students who mentor Latino children in Bozeman schools.

“You run into these situations where you have a sixth-grader who barely understands English and a teacher who doesn’t know any Spanish, and they’re totally dependent on (the MSU student) to do the translations,” Kevane says. “It’s pretty makeshift but Bozeman hasn’t experienced anything like this before.”

One of Kevane’s students, Katie Thompson, is helping Latino children in the classroom as well as translating documents for the Bozeman Head Start program. A native Montanan, she’s excited about the outreach work. “I want to be a positive ambassador for Montana in the Latino community and let them know that this is a welcoming place,” she says.

Having studied abroad in Spain and Costa Rica, Thompson says she can identify with some of the difficulties Latinos face when they come to a foreign place like Montana. “Hopefully I’ll make it easier for them to be in an English-speaking community, and they’ll know they always have a safe friend to come to.”

The outreach efforts benefit the students as well, and not only by advancing their language skills. Seeing upfront the difficult choices Latinos have to make and the struggle they go through to provide for their children helps put a face on the whole immigration debate, Kevane says. “The students come in with these preconceived notions about Latinos, and this changes them dramatically. They’re willing to give of their time and they form bonds with these families. Some say it’s life changing.”

Updated: 07/09/2013