Category Archives: English Literacy

English Language Development for Community Empowerment

Vanderbilt University Alternative Spring Break in La Villita

Universidad Popular welcomes Vanderbilt University’s students once again for their Spring-break experience in Chicago.


The week of March 7th to Mach 11th, 2016, Universidad Popular’s adult education LEARNING TO SUCCEED, English Language Development Program and the youth after-school program had, once again, the opportunity to exchange life experiences and re-enforce learning skills with 10 students from Vanderbilt University’s Alternative Spring Break from Nashville, Tennessee.

13Facilitators and participants alike had a meaningful experience by sharing their why’s and their struggles of learning a new language. Participants had the opportunity to work in small groups which facilitate their learning processes.  Vanderbilt University students from were able to use their language skills to help our participants feel more comfortable asking and answering questions to strangers.  But most importantly, they had the opportunity to get to know each other and share life experiences.

1Universidad Popular is very thankful for this great interacting and we invite anyone who wants to support our community empowerment mission to come out and start building bridges with us.  The only degree required is to care for people.

Here are some comments from Vanderbilt University students’ experiences including a video during our health literacy activity -Zumba

Reflections from Vanderbilt University Alternative Spring Break

I thoroughly enjoyed spending time at Universidad Popular with its vibrant and passionate community.  Though only here for a short time. I made great relationships with the participants and community at large.  I am sad to go, since I learned so much about the people of “La Villita” and their stories as well as a little more about myself.

16Getting to directly interact with the participants and people here was always a happy occasion, and was probably my favorite aspect about UP.  Universidad Popular is not just a place for people to come to learn English or simply pass the time, but a place where the community comes together to learn from each other as they try to better themselves and the community.  Universidad Popular is a school for life.

-Miguel Gómez
Vanderbilt University

17Coming in to tutoring my first day at UP, I had no idea what to expect. However immediately when I walked into the room, I noticed how warm and friendly everyone was.  Cesar and all the participants were so kind and welcoming.  Everyone is really dedicated to learning English, and it was an amazing experience to help them.  Even in just one week, I was able to connect and help my participants. Not only did they learn, but so did I.  I loved every moment from presentations to Zumba to playing soccer with the kids at Universidad Popular.  I wish I could come back and continue to be involved.

Vanderbilt University

12It has been a pleasure working with Universidad Popular this week. I’ve been blowing away by this organization’s mission and focus on the community and its members as more than just clients or students.  It’s been so inspiring and eye-opening to spend time in conversation with all of the participants and hear their stories and hard work and resilience.  I’m so thankful that Universidad Popular has graciously given us the opportunity to learn more about this community and its people.  UP has been so welcoming in letting us be members of this community for the short week we were here.  Being able to partake in the experience here has been an invaluable experience and memory.  I leave Chicago and UP with so much more knowledge about the both the assets and needs of this community, with great experiences, and most importantly new friends.  Thank you to UP for welcoming us into this wonderful, constructive community.

Vanderbilt University

10At Universidad Popular I learned the realities of many Latinos living in the US. It was amazing receiving the drive and desire that all the participants have to learn English.  Better their lives and living situations here.  It was also so interesting hearing everybody’s story –it gave me so much appreciation for the effort they display and the difficulties they face every day.  The kids were so full of life and welcoming to us.  Even though we broke their normal routine.  It was great to see them in a program like this to keep them safe, busy and enriched outside of school I hope to see UP get more funding in the future because this is such a special place to the Latino community.  I wish you all the very best in the future and I hope to visit one day!

Vanderbilt University

9¡Muchísimas gracias por la oportunidad de servir en Universidad Popular durante esta semana! Universidad Popular es una comunidad especial y siento que estaba invitado a ser parte de esta comunidad y familia.  A pesar de que solamente hemos estado aquí por un poco de tiempo. He disfrutado la experiencia de acompañar a los participantes de Universidad Popular en su camino de aprender inglés, especialmente como estoy aprendiendo español.  Fue un placer juntarnos en el esfuerzo de aprender nuevos lenguajes, pero aún más importante fue la oportunidad de aprender mutuamente sobre nuestras experiencias.

Espero que podamos volver a “La Villita” en el futuro y pasar más tiempo con la comunidad linda.


-Octavia White
Vanderbilt University

3The last week at Universidad Popular have been incredibly eye-opening.  My interaction with the adults in the ESL class were so full of joy.  I was so impressed by the openness of the community as they welcomed us into their homes I want to emphasize the bravery I saw in every person who came to Chicago in search of a new life and came to UP in search of a new language.  Learning a new language is a huge undertaking, and a commitment that should not take lightly.  Keep studding because I can’t wait to hear all about your English journey when I come back.

-Arianna Yarrita
Vanderbilt University

6Working with the kids and adults at Universidad Popular has been such an enriching experience.  I have never been exposed to a community like Little Village and getting to know the members of the community one on one was very eye opening.  Before coming here I only saw the Hispanic community as a group of people that exists in this community.  I’ve learned a lot from everyone and really appreciate the opportunity given to me to interact with them.

Vanderbilt University

I cannot say enough positive things about our experience at UP.  We loved the opportunity to interact with and learn from this vibrant community.
From our group’s conversations throughout our week in Little Village, it was clear that everyone had been touched by the stories we hear at UP.
Many thanks to Cesar and every staff member here for their dedication to helping this community.

Mil gracias a todos en UP, de parte de todo nuestro grupo, fue una bendición estar en La Villita.

-Schott Lancaster
Vanderbilt University

7I really appreciate how community-driven UP is and it’s really apparent how much Cesar cares about the community and helping improve the lives of its residents.

I had a ton of fun getting to know the individual stories of the Advance English class participants, and I’m truly tanksful for the experience –It was really educational and I now have a new perspective to look at world issues through. Up is doing amazing work in the community, and it’s clear that all the Little Village residents love being here.  Thank you for all that you do!

Vanderbilt University

18Spending time with the participants, facilitators and administrators at Universidad Popular has been truly inspiring.  From interacting with participants who are determined to advance for their good and that of their family.  To the facilitators and administrators who invest not only their efforts but their hearts into the lives of others.  Each interaction with the people at UP has filled me with hope for the future of the Latino community.

I had so much from spending the week here has been worthwhile. Thank you for opening your doors to us students, as learning about your institution and mission will be one of the most important learning experiences as college students.  Thanks and God Bless!

-Barbara Santana
Vanderbilt University

To connect your students with us at Universidad Popular please contact us at

We are Learning to Succeed!

We are participants at Universidad Popular and we urge Governor Bruce Rauner to please sign Bill SB 2043.  We need to continue learning English. Thank you!

Our program participants took action into their own hands this week to urge Governor Bruce Rauner to please sign SB 2043. A bill that will appropriate State funding to adult education through the Illinois Community College Board.

On Twitter Tuesday, participants posted on UP’s twitter page getting over 320 impressions with followersCapture1On Website Wednesday, participants visited the Governor’s website to sign a petition for SB2043 and urge Rauner to sign the bill.

On Telephone Thursday, participants called the Governor’s Office at 217-782-0244  or 312-814-2121 and asked him to sign SB2043 see a video clip here 20160212_121629

On Facebook Friday we reached over 1000 people, please help us share this post!


Learning to Succeed (LETOS) provides English classes in the morning and evening for immigrant adults, with an emphasis on life skills, civic engagement, and community transformation. The curriculum and teaching method we use is based on popular education; there-fore, participants are encouraged to participate in class, curricula, and evaluation of the program. Classes take place at two different locations in Little Village and in Chicago Lawn.


At the community level the state budget crisis has rippled it’s outer rings and impacted direct services to workforce programs, computer training, after-school youth programs, adult education and family literacy. These programs provide educational training to hard working immigrants residing in the Chicagoland area.

Today, the State of Illinois continues to struggle as community centers fold and many others reduce services to less than 50% capacity. What should we tell people who knock on our doors at night who struggle to pay the rent and keep their homes warm in the cold winters? What should we tell people who are victims of violence due to a rise in crime and gun violence – “Do you want a job?”, “do you want to go to college?” if you don’t sorry we can not help you because you are not contributing to the States economy?

IMG_7296Little do you know these are hard working immigrants, they all have jobs, they all work long hours, they all want to get a better jobs, they all want to go to college or universities. But, they have other responsibilities and commit selfless acts, each person can not surrender thousands of dollars to institutions. Community centers provide a space where each learner gains confidence to build their communication skills to carry out conversations in English with their employers and at demanding times in the doctor’s office or with their children’s teachers. These types of programs must also be funded in order to equip those who can to continue in their educational paths and individual career pipelines even if the end result is a raise or a better position in a job they have committed their entire lives to.

How well do you know people committed to learn English?

“My name is Jose Diaz. I prefer to be called Jose. I was born in Puerto Rico. I am 49 years old. I came to Chicago on February 26th 2009. I am married.”

“My name is Betty Salguero. I prefer to be called Betty. I was born in Guayaquil, Ecuador. I am 47 years old. I came to Chicago on January 2010. I am married. I am a nurse. I like to work at O’Hare airport, I clean.  On my free time I like to watch movies. I love to eat Ecuadorian food. My favorite place to visit is the mall. I like to learn at Universidad Popular. ”

“My name is Maria Elena Romano. I prefer to be called Maria Elena. I was born in Mexico City. I am 61 years old. I came to Chicago on May 26th, 1994. I am married. I like to dance everything. On my free time I like to sing. My favorite food is American food. I am a participant at Universidad Popular since September 2015.”

“My name is Maria Barraza. I prefer to be called Mary. I was born in Durango, Mexico. I am 43 years old. I came to Chicago on October 1989. I am married. I am a first communion catechism teacher. I like to dance and I like to exercise with Zumba.  On my free time I like to watch TV, go to my mother’s house, walk and study English. I love to eat Mexican food. My favorite place to visit is Durango, Mexico. Every day I take my children to school.  I have four children. I work a lot at home and I take care of my mom.”


UP’s Knitting Group – Now on THURSDAYS!

IMG_1758Last year for International Women’s Day, the English classes put on an IMG_1765exhibition of women’s talents to highlight the women that are part of the program.

Maria Serrato brought many knit items to show and shared a little bit of her history, how she learned to knit, and her micro-business of selling hats and scarves that she makes herself.
From there, Maria decided to form a group to share her skills with others. Since then, the group has been
meeting once a week after the morning English classes. Some people have come to learn knitting for the first time, and many come to knit new projects, learn a few new stitches, and enjoy spending time and sharing stories with other women in the IMG_1757neighborhood.IMG_1755

This year, the group meetings have been moved to Thursdays from 12:00-1:00. We are trying to do more projects together, and are starting with a simple hat. All are welcome to join!



La Villita and Ayotzinapa: Universidad Popular Participants Share Their Thoughts

Outline of the City of Chicago in the State of Guerrero
Outline of the City of Chicago in the State of Guerrero

Little Village is the second largest Latino community in the United States. Many of us came to the United States looking for something “better,” something that Mexico could not offer to us or our families. Yet, our hearts and minds are constantly crossing “the border.” Although many of us often face the heart-wrenching realization that we cannot be physically with those we love, we know that our destinies are always tied. What happens in Mexico reverberates around the world through all Mexicans and through all of us who work to create a better world, just as the 43 of Ayotzinapa have worked for.

The choices we make here impact our brothers and sisters in Mexico. Their situation is our situation. That is a bridge across the border that no matter how high a wall, how repressive a government, how obscure the law, will never be taken down. This, in the end, is the nature of diaspora: reciprocity. And the goal? To succeed alongside those we love, to overcome barriers, to fall and rise together–regardless of where they are.

The following are short reflection pieces about the current situation in Mexico by several participants from our morning English Literacy Classes in our Learning TO Succeed (LETOS) Program. These individuals are residents of La Villita. Regardless of their place of origin, they feel and have a connection with Mexico that makes these recent events affect their lives here.

LETOS participants sharing what they wrote with their peers.
LETOS participants sharing what they wrote with their peers.


We asked a simple, broad, yet, contentious question:

How do you feel about the current situation in Mexico?

These are their answers.

Hello, My name is Rosalina.

I feel angry about the current situation in México because I want a peaceful and beautiful México. I can’t believe what the Mexican government is doing to our people. I hope that it’s not true what they say. I hope these students are still alive.

Hello, My name is Guadalupe Martinez.

I am sharing my opinion regarding what is happening Mexico. I feel sad for the 43 students and their families. I think that Peña Nieto should resign because his government is corrupt and every day I hear more and more deaths are happening. I think that this should stop because it is very sad to hear this. Corruption is in the Mexican government. Although there is corruption, México will always be a very, very nice country.


My name is Victor,

I would like to talk about the 43 students that were massacred in Mexico. It isn’t just regarding the 43 students, it is concerning Mexican history, a bloody history. This event made us remember the largest students massacre in Latin America. I’m talking about Tlatelolco, October 2nd, 1968, at plaza de las tres culturas. Since this date until now, for students, it’s a sensitive topic. Everyone who is young is revolutionary, and the students have memory. This isn’t just about the 43 murders, this is about repression.

My name is Rosa Gamez,

The boys were captured in Cocula, Guerrero. I’m feeling very impotent because of this event. The Mexican police force is intolerant. The government should have people who are professional in all aspects working as police.The teachers are there to help students become better persons. I would like to send the student’s parents hugs and I hope they find their children soon. God bless them.

Hello, My name is Yazmin Mendoza.

43 students in Mexico fought for liberty and respect. The family and friends of these 43 are still fighting for them to return alive, and the president Enrique Peña Nieto doesn’t do anything to fix this problem. Everyone must fight for Mexico to become free. We should all fight to free Mexico from all this corruption.

I am Salvador. This is what I think about this issue:

It’s really bad. I feel sorry for their families and I don’t understand why the government doesn’t do anything. I am tired of hearing every day on the news what I know are just lies from the Mexican government.


Finger Painting and Adult Literacy?

On November 12, 2014, Universidad Popular embarked on a new adventure  called the  Learning TO Succeed Family Program, which now takes place Tuesdays through Thursdays at 9AM. Universidad Popular has always been a place for youth, adults and the elderly. Now it has become the second home to ten children between the ages of two and five.


The first day was used for the kids, alongside their parents, to explore the classroom and everything that it had to offer. Through donations, hard work and a dedicated staff, what was once an art room is now a place for children to develop and reinforce the values first taught at home while building social skills.


This program allows parents to come to the morning English classes while their kids enjoy interacting with children their own age. Through various activities including  arts, crafts, and trips to the library, parents will have the opportunity to bond with their children. Universidad Popular has big plans for the future of this program and the participants involved. We currently have limited space for children but we are planning to expand the program as soon as more funding becomes available.



Why do we Celebrate the Day of the Dead?

LETOS participants preparing their altars for the Day of the Dead Celebration
LETOS participants preparing their altars for the Day of the Dead Celebration

The following writings are short essay/reflections from Universidad Popular’s Learning to Succeed English Tutor group. These individuals have been with Universidad Popular for several years, advancing their knowledge of the English language through all the levels of our Adults English Literacy program. This year, we’ve presented them with the challenge of helping their fellow community learners in their process of learning English. Every Wednesday and Thursday they receive training for tutoring and teaching-learning while at the same time refreshing English skills in an intensive 3-hour advance English learning group. 

These essays are their contribution to Universidad Popular’s 2014 Day of the Dead Celebration, which took place last October 29th in our community hall. The multiplicity of perspective and the depth of analysis and research presented here is but a small example of the wonderful minds that walk through our halls everyday and that fill our amazing community. 


-Miguel Alvelo


Our tradition started a long time ago.

An essay by María

In Mexico we celebrate the Day of the Dead on November 2nd. This day is very important for a lot of Mexican Families.

Our tradition started a long time ago. In many of the cultures that composed ancient Mexico such as the Mayas, Olmecas, Mexicas, etc. the dead had a very important place in society. When the Spaniards came to Mexico the tradition of the Day of the Dead already existed, but the Spaniards incorporated the catholic religion into it along with other ideas. Then started the mixing of traditions and now this celebration is different from the old days.

All the things we use for this celebration have different meanings.

The idea of making altars come from people thinking that the dead can come back on this day. Families build the altars in different ways. Some altars are made with 7 levels, or steps. Each step has different items.


 Before we start the altar, however, we first need to sweep the area with aromatic herbs. We need to clean in 4 directions: North, south, east, and west.

To make the altars we can use cardboard, or wood to make our 7 levels or steps.

First, we make the last level. It’s bigger than the others. One by one we complete the 7 levels, each smaller that the other. Then, we cover them with a black or white cloth.

  • On the first step we put the picture of a religious image or our favorite picture of the dead.
  • The second step is only for the souls in purgatory.
  • On the third step we put salt for the children in purgatory.
  • On the fourth goes the “pan de muerto.” This bread is decorated with red sugar to symbolize blood. Sometimes, the bread is made for the relatives of the dead as a means of consagration.
  • The fifth step is for the dead’s favorite food, fruit, and beverages.
  • The sixth step is for a picture of the dead.
  • And on the seventh we put a cross.

Other offerings are also put on the altars. Often times, 4 candles are used to make a cross.


The elements of the altar are purple and yellow chains made with Chinese paper. This symbolizes the union between life and death. “Papel picado” also means happiness for life. Flowers are used to welcome the soul. white flowers symbolize the earth and purple flowers mean sorrow. The fired up wick of the candle symbolizes the spirit’s ascension and also serves as a guiding light.

The family of the deceased stay awake all night waiting for the spirit to come back and enjoy the food they’ve prepared for them.

Today, this celebration is changing and does not carry with it the same faith than in the old days. Some people don’t understand much about it. Sometimes this celebration seems to be more about competition and making money than about remembering those who are gone. Other traditions are mixed with these days, such as Halloween, and every time more Mexican are preferring to celebrate them instead of the Day of the Dead. But I hope this tradition doesn’t die. I hope that it passes from generation to generation around the world–wherever Mexicans live.


The tradition has changed.

An essay by Mario Flores

In Mexico people celebrate the Day of the Dead in November.

When I was in Mexico, my grandmother celebrated this day in November. She did it to remember her sons. She cooked bread and some food, light candles, and stayed awake until midnight. At midnight, according to tradition, is when dead people return as flies.

People also go to the graves of the dead, light candles and pray on their tombs.

Nowadays that tradition has changed because people like me have immigrated to other countries. For example, when I got married we used to light candles during the first few years and we also went to church. But after a few years, we stopped. in this country not many people celebrate the Day of the Dead. The tradition has changed.


…when I started the English classes at Universidad Popular I saw for the first time the beautiful decorations and traditions

An essay by Tomasa

I do not celebrate the Day of the Dead because in my country no one does.

Now, when I started the English classes at Universidad Popular I saw for the first time the beautiful decorations and traditions  they did.  The only thing I worried about was that the smoke from the candles in the altars was making me dizzy. My teacher at the time, Annabel, took us to the National Museum of Mexican Art in Pilsen where we saw a lot of altars with nice decorations.

I think it’s important to celebrate this tradition because it is a special day to remember our family who have passed away. There is a catholic tradition behind it that begins with the first day of November, celebrating “all saints day,” and the second day of november, celebrating “the day of the dead.”

I feel this tradition has changed because young people have lost interest in our original customs. They are influenced by the traditions of this country–where they were born, or where they grew up.


The Day of the Dead is a holiday to remember and give tribute to people who were a part of this world.

An essay by Minerva Vazquez

We celebrate the Day of the Dead because it’s a Mexican holiday and, of course, we’re Mexican. This tradition comes from our ancestors.

My family used to celebrate this special day to honor our deceased loved ones. We decorated an altar with bright colors, candles, pictures, and a lot of food. We used orange, red, purple, and yellow ornaments. We used candles to illuminate our dead’s way. We put some pictures of persons who had passed away–these could be our relatives or friends. My grandmother cooked different kinds of food. She cooked every meal that was the favorite for each person who had died, but she also prepared sweet potatoes, pumpkin pie, and mole.

I have been celebrating the Day of the Dead since I came to Chicago, but not exactly like we did in my hometown. I light some candles and pray a rosary. I think by doing this we’re contributing to keeping alive this wonderful Mexican tradition.

This celebration is important because we have the opportunity to remember our loved ones who have died. It is much like “Memorial Day” in the U.S. because both holidays honor people who have passed away. In Memorial Day, the U.S. honors men and women who have died in military service, and in the Day of the Dead we (Mexicans) honor our relatives and friends who have passed away.

Although it is a good time to gather together and show respect for our loved ones, on the other hand we also have a reason to a family party. This is good! Don’t you think?

This celebration comes from the catholic celebration of “All Souls, and all Saints Day on November 1st and 2nd. There are some traditional activities that take place at the cemeteries, for example: cleaning the tombs, then placing a paper flower crown  or a vase of wild cempaxuchitl. This holiday is from far away in southern Mexico.

The Day of the Dead is a holiday to remember and give tribute to people who were a part of this world. What about marking your prints in all people’s hearts and when the time comes you will be remembered with bright colors, your favorite food, some wild marigolds, or at least with a fragile light. I personally believe that each of us celebrates the Day of the Dead one way or another.