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.