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One Lorain woman traveled to Puerto Rico and Perú:

She continues to help the Latino community through her books and teachings

By Ingrid Marie Rivera, La Prensa Correspondent 

The sea that sparkled florescent green in some bays of the island, La Isla del Encanto, and its glowing marine life was breathtaking. The Borinqueños’ hospitality was comforting. But for one author, teacher, and former nun visiting the island of Puerto Rico for the first time - with little knowledge of the culture, political system or language - homesickness, loneliness and frustration were more often her companions. 

Dr. Mary Hilaire Tavenner

At age 36, Dr. Mary Hilaire Tavenner, of Lorain, with an Irish and French background, went to Puerto Rico to teach junior high students English as part of her convent requirements. She only had a few weeks prior notice and did not have time to prepare. She had little confidence in her Spanish skills.

But the trip would be a blessing in disguise.  It would pave the way for her future profession, and help her better relate to the people she greatly helps today: the immigrants. 

“I was in Puerto Rico for three months [during my first visit], and I missed America,” Tavenner said “It gave me a huge respect for what immigrants go through.”

Today, Dr. Tavenner teaches English as a Second Language classes to Latinos and other immigrants, and has written and published books about her experiences in two Latino countries.

To date, she has written and published 8 books, including “Memoirs of a Writer in Perú” detailing her experiences there, and is currently chronicling her experiences in Puerto Rico in her ninth book to be called “Memoirs of a Writer in Puerto Rico.” She hopes to complete it by Easter, 2010. She said her goal is to write 30 books in her lifetime.

Now, Tavenner, 61, who has a doctorate in Education, in reading and language arts from the University of South Florida, is fluent in Spanish, and has made it her priority to teach immigrants the English language.

Dr. Tavenner,  said education is the key to success and learning the English language is the first stepping stone to that success.

“I was so overwhelmed [when first sent to Puerto Rico in 1985] Tavenner said “I don't want (immigrants arriving in the United States) to go through what I experienced,” she said.

Through Lorain County Community College’s Adult Basic and Literacy Education (ABLE) program, she teaches English as a Second Language in Lorain’s Vine of Hope, through the Pass it On Outreach Ministry at 1310 Colorado Avenue and in Elyria’s Employment Network near the Lorain County Job and Family Services, located at 42495 North Ridge Road. The classes will begin Jan. 11, 2010 and are free of charge.

Eligible students are 18 years and older, and must have their native language be one other than English. She said she currently has 50 students signed up for her classes, with 25 attending regularly. Though her students are predominately from a Latino, especially Puerto Rican background, she also has students from Asia and the Middle East.

“What I love about my students is it’s so enriching to enter into these cultures,” Tavenner said “They are so desirous to belong, to understand. People come here with a dream for a better life.We try to facilitate their transition.”

But Dr. Tavenner who’s been involved with the program for six years, said English is not the only thing she’s teaching her students.

“We try to teach them about our culture, the money system. We ultimately want to get them to college, to trade school or employment. Many students go off to college and it's nice to see the process,” she said.

Dr. Tavenner joined the convent at the age of 17 and confessed that being forced to travel to Puerto Rico with little preparation of the language and culture was what ultimately made her decide to end her 20-year career as a Franciscan sister in a convent in Syracuse, N.Y. She gave English as a Second Language courses in Florida for nearly a decade before moving back to Lorain where she would begin her writing career.

She now has fallen in love with the island of Puerto Rico and calls it “an enriched island, so blessed, it was kissed by God.”

Memoirs of a Writer in Puerto Rico

In the commonwealth of Puerto Rico, Tavenner was able to visit many of the larger towns including San Juan, Ponce, Mayagüez, and Caguas, and the tropical rainforest.

The Island, about 100 miles long and 35 miles wide, is home to roughly 4 million people, plus an additional 3.5 to 4 million Puerto Ricans have migrated to the United States.

The city in the United States with the highest concentration of Puerto Ricans, in comparison to its total population size, is not in New York or Florida but is in Ohio, in the city of Lorain, Dr. Tavenner said.

She said she was amazed to find racism appeared to not exist in Puerto Rico.

“The warmth of the people was so wonderful; I experienced incredible hospitality,” Dr. Tavenner said. “There’s no difference made because of the color your skin. Perhaps because they know they can find a dark-skinned person and a light-skinned person within their own family. I wanted to bring that back to the United States with me,” she said.

Dr. Tavenner said she loved the Christmas celebrations, and the rich ancient history of the island.

The biggest issues she encountered were drugs and crime usually strengthened by the overpopulation.  One of her favorite natural riches of the island was the bioluminescent waters in Bio Florescent Bay, near Fajardo.

This natural beauty is caused when dinoflagellates, one-celled wonders, display an unusual defense mechanism of light when disturbed. There are just five places in the world where bioluminescent dinos can reliably be seen - Puerto Rico has three of those.

Memoirs of a Writer In Perú
She decided to visit Perú in 2002, long after leaving the convent, but this time, she would prepare in the new country’s language, culture, and history. This time, she would be a tourist and not an English teacher.

She was amazed with the country’s rich, natural and ancient history.

One of her favorite sites was the famous Machu Pichu, also called “The Lost City of the Incas,” a pre-Columbian abandoned by the Incas Indians and located at 12,000 feet above sea level.

Dr. Tavenner said she could compare it to England’s StoneHenge: a place filled with huge stones that had a mystical or spiritual feel.

She also toured the oldest inhabited city of the new world, Cuzco, and was treated to the country’s fine dining of guinea pig.

But perhaps most daring of all her experiences in Perú was spending three days in a jungle on the Amazon River Basin.

“There were just solid trees; we would literally cut vines to get through the jungles,” Dr. Tavenner said “The spiders were way big. The bats would fly in at night because one whole wall was missing. We were under nets to stay away from the mosquitoes. There were monkeys chattering outside.”

About 15 others joined her there in what was also a research center. 

“It was incredible natural nature but it was too hot for me. I have no desire to return,” she laughed.

She said what most disturbed her about Perú was the poverty.

“Lima is an international city with nice housing but you also saw such incredible poverty,” Tavenner said “People living in dirt shacks up in the mountains,” she said.

But her traveling does not end with these two countries.

Tavenner also wrote a book about her experiences in France and hopes to travel to Spain and Ireland, though she plans to always return to her beloved Lorain.

Dr. Tavenner said she considers herself very blessed to have been able to perform her greatest passions: teaching, writing, and thereby learning about the world.

“I have lived for the sheer joy of learning, of discovering, and God has provided,” she said.

The greatest joy is learning about the world from her students, she said. 

“People often don't understand immigrants and their language and their customs, and they are afraid,” Dr. Tavenner said “But I’ve seen also an embrace and warm welcoming in Lorain. I would hope that we  always extend a hand to those who come with their dreams.”

For more information about the ABLE program and the ESOL classes, contact them at (440) 366-4530.

or visit the web site: http://www.lorainccc.edu/lccc+learning+centers/lccc+learning+center/able-ged+center.htm

To purchase Dr. Tavenner’s books and read free chapter excerpts visit her web site: www.dutchink.com  Her books are also available at the Lorain Public Library.

Dr. Tavenner also has a Writer’s club titled “The International Writer’s Association.” Their next meeting is Feb. 20, 2010 at noon within the Lorain Public Library, West Branch at 351 Sixth Street, Lorain.





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