ESL teacher understands students' plight
When Luisa Orellana-Westbrook hears of the caravan of Central American refugees, children separated from their parents at the border, churches in the sanctuary movement, prejudice limiting immigration and people welcoming newcomers, she understands the fear, uncertainty, trauma and hope people experience.
She identifies, because she and her family left her home village of Cerro Plata, El Salvador, spent two years in hiding and then several months fleeing to the United States after her father, Tanis, was "disappeared" by a death squad.
Luisa integrates that understanding as she teaches English as a Second Language (ESL) to adults at Spokane Community College, which she has done for 13 years, overlapping with teaching immigrant and refugee children, which she did for 25 years until 2017.
Not only has she taught children, youth and adults English to help them flourish in their new country, but also she has learned from the people of many races, cultures and nationalities she has met.
Her first students were Hmong and Vietnamese children. Now she teaches students from 11 nationalities, including Sudanese, Congolese, Eritrean, Ethiopian, Egyptian, Ukrainian, Vietnamese, Burmese and Chuk.
She knows that many like her may have fled war and violence, but also come from villages where they flourished, running freely as children and gathering in the evenings in the village square to sing, sit together and visit, seeing "each other eye-to-eye," she said.
In her encounters with refugees, Luisa continues to emulate and follow the newest Catholic saint—Saint Óscar, the martyred El Salvadoran archbishop who championed social justice for the poor and challenged government violence and oppression.
Her family had to flee because of their association with him.
Luisa's mother, brother and sister—Transito, Tanis and Sister Ana, SP—were at the Vatican in Rome with thousands of Salvadorans and others on Oct. 14 when he was canonized as a saint. They did not have tickets, but Transito held a picture of St. Romero and prayed. They were let in. Luisa said her mother's prayers are powerful.
In 2015, Luisa had gone to San Salvador when he was beatified. It did not take the usual 10 years of research to determine if he was a saint, because "there were so many miracles and witnesses, and because he was martyred," she said. "After the celebration she and others saw a halo in the sky."
While she was there Luisa was pleased to see her father's name was on a wall in memory of "the disappeared" and the martyrs.
As a deacon, her father, Tanis, often went to San Salvador about 30 minutes by bus to meet with Archbishop Romero.
Tanis worked under him baptizing, preaching, teaching the Bible and theology, caring for families suffering from the war in local Christian groups, called base communities.
"My father's preaching was prophetic and powerful, following in Romero's footsteps," Luisa said. "He knew that might be dangerous. He might disappear as many others did. We always wondered if we would be the next."
"Now St. Romero is always present in my life," she said."I try to live his spirituality of a living gospel. I talk to him as my friend.
"I see St. Romero when we talk about immigration to the U.S. and the caravan of people fleeing violence. I see him in those who suffer. I know he would bring hope and challenge the President, Romero challenged President Carter in his time," Luisa said.
She believes more church leaders and community leaders should speak against injustice, but she understands their fear.
After Romero was assassinated on March 24, 1980, Luisa's family knew they were in danger because of caring for the poor and teaching the gospel in base communities—which were associated with liberation theology.
On Easter after Romero was killed, her father preached, quoting him: "If they kill me, I will be resurrected among my people and be a seed of hope." Some who did not support Romero reported him.
In May 1980, the Orellanas learned a death squad was coming for them. Luisa was 14. Her parents, five siblings, three nieces and nephews, and some in their community left their home village, Cerro Plata. They spent two years in hiding before they fled in 1983 through Guatemala, to Mexico City, Guadelupe and across the border into the United States to Tuscon, Los Angeles and into sanctuary in the basement of St. Ann's Parish in Spokane.
"It was an experience of many miracles," Luisa said of the time in hiding and fleeing.
The death squad tortured their neighbors to find out where they had gone. Even though the son was killed and 16-year-old daughter dragged behind a truck, the father did not tell.
"We need to see God in one another and be God to one another," Luisa said. "When we keep Christ alive in our hearts, we are hopeful."
They walked along a river where the army threw bodies. They walked five hours to a town and took a bus to Tepecoyo, where they lived for three months under a tree behind a church.
"It was a miracle we were not found because the military was in the next building," Luisa said.
Then a death squad learned they were there and came for them. They took a bus to her grandfather's house in Santa Ana—the third largest city in El Salvador—and stayed until 1981. In 1982, they were found again and went to an uncle, who was a a priest. They lived in the parish hall basement.
Her father continued his ministry. Luisa and her sister, Ester, sang for services. Luisa went to school there and anywhere she could. She sang in the children's choir and went to villages with her uncle and father.
"My father believed the gospel is to be lived. We cannot call ourselves Christian if we do not love and see Christ in others. He read the Bible, spoke against violence and served people in need," she said.
In March 1983, soldiers came to the church and took her father. They thought they killed a leader who worked with him, leaving him laying on a sugar plantation field. He survived but his legs were broken so badly that he is now in a wheelchair, she said.
"We went to live with another uncle for a week. A death squad came. We left at night to a city where no one knew us," said Luisa, who was in school there from March to July.
The school was attacked. Soldiers threatened teachers and children. When she went to school, there were bodies outside it.
"I thought I would be next. I prayed for the soldiers to be converted and see Christ. It's hard to understand that everyone is made in God's image," said Luisa, who taught catechism there and decided to be a teacher.
Transito sold some land. She used the money for their escape. In July, they went by bus to San Salvador and then to Guatemala.
At the border, the bus was stopped. Some were taken out and shot. Luisa saw it.
"We prayed and prayed. It was a miracle we made it into Guatemala," she said. "We stayed in a convent where my sister, Ana, had been before she went to Italy for 20 years. After three days we took a bus to the Mexican border.
"We did not eat for days. We slept in a building beside the immigration building. When a man asked who we were, we feared we would be sent back," she said, but he said to take a bus to Chiapas.
They went to a church. The priest took them in, and gave them crackers to take for the bus ride to Mexico City, where they went by taxi to the cathedral.
Because there was no choir, Ester and Luisa sang the worship songs. At the end of Mass, the priest said, 'We have been blessed by a choir of angels, but I don't know who they are.' He sent us to stay with a family, whose son was a priest in Los Angeles. That's where three of her brothers lived. They had fled earlier to escape being taken into the military.
The Orellanas took a bus to Guadalajara, where Ester and Luisa sang in a Mass at a Franciscan parish. They stayed in a school that was burned out because the priest had said it was for the poor.
After they sang for a Mass, the priest said her family was fleeing from Salvador and needed food. Her younger brothers stood at the entry with baskets, and people put in money as they left.
The priest connected them with the sanctuary movement in the U.S. They went by train to El Museo in Sonoro, Mexico, where they were in the hands of the sanctuary movement.
Eight days later, a tall woman with long, straight blonde hair and blue eyes—the first Caucasian-American Luisa had met—took the Orellanas—plus a man with an 11-year-old son who had joined them—by van seven hours over the desert on a hot August day.
Two priests met them and told them once they were over the border to run and not look back.
Her three brothers went with the man and his son through a cemetery. Luisa, her mother, two sisters and Ester's children—four, three and two—went across the desert. Transito, Luisa and Ester carried the children," she said. "We ran for miles. It seemed like forever. Two vans with people from different churches were waiting for us."
It was Sept. 14, 1983. They were in Arizona. They went in the vans to a building where they waited for her brothers. Her mother prayed, and they came.
That night they went in different cars to Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson, where the Rev. John Fife, a leader in the sanctuary movement, was pastor for 35 years.
"He is a saint, too," Luisa said.
After two weeks they went to her older brother in Los Angeles. While with him until 1985, Luisa went to high school. Because they were undocumented and in danger, Transito agreed to become a sanctuary family.
People from St. Ann's in Spokane came and drove them to Spokane. The Orellanas lived from 1985 to 1990 in the basement of St. Ann's rectory.
"Fr. Gino Piccoli, the priest at St. Ann's was another saint," Luisa said. "He embraced us. The community welcomed us, people of different churches and faiths. It was like Pentecost—the true gospel of welcoming strangers."
During high school, Luisa listened to teachers and others talk, repeating and writing down what they said. In six months, she could have short conversations.
In high school, she thought about being a nun, but decided not to follow that path.
Luisa completed her studies at Ferris High School but had no diploma because she was undocumented.
Friends talked of going to universities, but she could not go. A parishioner suggested she sit in on classes, so she talked with the president of one university, saying she just wanted to get an education so she could teach, even if she did not earn credits.
A professor invited her to come to his class. He was teaching 1 Corinthians and talking about the first Christian communities. He asked Luisa to tell the class about base communities. After that, he helped her find classes to sit in.
Eventually, an immigration attorney from Arizona, Father David Meyer, took the Orellanas to Tucson to fill out paperwork to get permits to stay, but they were not permits to work or study.
They then moved to a house on Montgomery. For nine years their case was being considered. In 1999, they were able to apply to be citizens. Luisa was engaged for five years to marry her husband, Christian, whose family were active at St. Ann's. She postponed the wedding until she was a citizen.
Luisa studied for six years, first majoring in psychology to deal with the trauma she experienced, and then studying to be a teacher.
One day in a store, a woman asked, "Are you Luisa?" She suggested that Luisa could teach ESL in Spokane Public Schools.
"I fell in love with my first job. Mornings, I taught K to 3. Afternoons, I taught 4th to 6th graders. Later I taught at the Newcomers Center at Ferris, traveling every week to teach ESL at seven high schools," she said. "Then I began teaching adults evenings at SCC.
"I look forward to giving my students hope. Like me, many went through a silent period for months before they started to talk," she said.
Now Luisa just teaches ESL for the Community Colleges of Spokane Institute for Extended Learning at SCC, working with people, who have experienced war and trauma, and left their countries with sadness. She wants them to learn English so they can be educated and make a difference in the world.
Now her siblings are teachers, physical therapists and in other work in Spokane and in Seattle.
"Some say immigrants come to take people's jobs, but we worked hard to have the jobs we have," Luisa said. "We came here to give and to help those who suffer.
"I hope that by telling my story more people will live in love, compassion and understanding, so other immigrants will not go through so much to find freedom and a safe place to live," she said.
Twice a month, Luisa attends St. Ann's to sing Mass with her brother. Twice a month she attends St. Aloysius, which supports and visits a village in El Salvador each year. Once a month, she leads a children's choir at St. Joseph's.
Knowing a modern saint, she continues to carry St. Romero's message of love for all people.
Copyright@ The Fig Tree, December, 2018