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Judy Powell, Spanish  
And Then There Were Three
Living on College Hill in the Time of COVID-19

Like the world, Holy Cross has been altered. Time is different.  Days pass slowly in a peculiar, laborious crawl.

For three Spanish Foreign Language Assistants (FLAs), the early May quiet on campus could not be more deafening.

Students, faculty and staff are gone along with 14 FLA colleagues. Friends and families are an ocean away in countries whose borders are closed. A pandemic stalks young and old, and they find themselves stranded in a city where the numbers of sick and dying remain heartbreakingly high.

Hired in 2019 as part of a cultural exchange program at Holy Cross, Sisary Poemape Heredia, Josefina Santilli and Juan Andrés Ercoli were enjoying the spring semester teaching Spanish and taking classes when life itself took an historic turn.

That’s when President Philip L. Boroughs, S.J., following public health mandates around COVID-19, announced all classes would transition to distance learning.  The FLA program, more than two decades old, would shut down. Everyone had to evacuate, including some FLAs to countries where the pandemic was still raging. 

And they were the lucky ones.

Sheltering in place in Holy Cross-owned homes on College Street for two months, these Spanish FLAs cannot return to their native countries of Peru and Argentina — at least not yet.  In an email reflection, they described  their thoughts, concerns, and strategies to boost each other's spirits while they waited for word from their embassies on repatriation flights.

Josefina, 26, arrived at Holy Cross from Buenos Aires with a degree in translation.  She found teaching gratifying and describes “huge emotional ups and downs” since the College closed.  She likens the feeling to being adrift at sea with no land in sight.

“To roam around the campus now with nothing more than silence around us is weird.  Since we do not leave our homes that often, it can be disorienting.”

Not being with her family nor knowing when she can go home is the greatest challenge.

“Constantly, our respective governments are changing their approaches to the crises and they have had an effect on us directly, meaning that what we might have regarded as a mildly certain (option) changes overnight,” she explains.  “Solutions are nowhere in sight for stranded people and time stretches on.”

Following American media closely, Josefina says the situation has put her patience and tolerance to the test.

“The inability of the government to conduct compassionate and structured strategies to deal with the crisis, and certain comments lightly made on immigration policies, adds unnecessary stress to an already emotionally draining situation.”

However, comfort can be found in reassuring calls from family members,  walks in Cookson Field or the Auburn golf course, and cooking for one another, including home-made Argentine empanadas.

“Never before have I embarked on the task of home cooking,” Josefina explains.  “We tend to rely on each other, help each other, celebrate birthdays, watch movies and just listen to each other.”

Sisary, 27, a graduate in sociology with a focus in gender and sexuality, assisted international exchange students at Pontificia Universidad Catolica del Peru before joining the FLA program.  While guitar playing and singing typically provides distraction, she says this hobby no longer helps.

She contrasts the silence of campus, of Fitton Field, of Interstate 290 void of tractor trailers “with the loudness in our minds.”

“Coming from Lima, a heavily populated capital city, hectic is a currency I’m most familiar with.  Days pacing here cultivate a form of tranquility in me that doesn’t always feel peaceful.”

Sisary describes the economic disparities revealed by the pandemic as frustrating, and the resulting death toll impossible to fathom.

“Coincidence doesn’t suffice to explain why Peru and Argentina are some of the countries whose citizens remain unable to return in relation to the FLA program,” she says.

“One commonality is they all pertain to what is now referred to as the ‘Global South,’ developing nations where we spent our childhoods and consolidated communities of love and intellectual growth in spite of socio-economic challenge.  I find myself feeling blatantly positioned as an immigrant as I juggle multiple narratives of hate portrayed in mass media fully emerge during this global pandemic collapse,” she explains.

It’s the simple kindnesses shown by Holy Cross essential workers,  the appreciation and energy of her family back home, and the community of support from her fellow FLAs that makes a daily difference. 

Juan, 26, also from Buenos Aires, has a degree in translation and teaching. His love of language and travel led him to America and the Holy Cross FLA program. 

While in the past he has worked with people from the UK, New Zealand, Korea, Italy, Spain, China and Japan, the crucible of the past eight weeks has taught him more about himself than he thought possible.

“There are a thousand things I have learned so far.  It is a moment during which no amount of entertainment can prevent us from carrying out introspective insights.  I must admit sometimes it is hard to find the balance to maintain that level of sanity one would wish for.”

That his family appears to be safe back home provides a measure of comfort.

“They are taking care of themselves and we are here taking care of each other with the aid of so many wonderful people,” he says.

Those wonderful people include Associate Provost for Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Amit Taneja, who has been a tireless advocate for the FLAs.  He and his staff have provided masks, hand sanitizer, and shuttle services along with managing the travel arrangements for 14 FLAs, who were able to return home. Both he and FLA Program Director Helen Freear-Papio have been daily if not weekly touchstones, offering guidance, logistical support and encouragement during this liminal time.

“We knew we would never be homeless thanks to the generosity of Holy Cross,” said Juan.

A grocery market set up at Kimball provides emotional as well as physical nourishment.  Juan, Sisary and Josefina say the workers, many of whom are immigrants themselves, created moments where their hearts have flourished, including a special Easter menu designed for them.   Through the sharing of personal stories, their connection has deepened.  And the empathetic smiles beneath the masks will be remembered, they say.

“I don’t personally uphold religious beliefs and try to believe in people’s ability to build a sense of community,” says Sisary. “We’re always trying our best and remain hopeful for what is to come.”

N.B. Josefina flew home to Argentina May 12 and Juan Andrés on May 31. At publication time June 15, Sisa remains the sole Spanish FLA on campus. She is in weekly contact with her embassy and hopes to return to Peru soon.

Spanish FLAs stranded in their home on College Street during the COVID-19 emergency. From left: Josefina Santilli, Juan Andrés Ercoli, Sisary Poemape Heredia. (Photo, from Zoom, by Judy Powell)

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