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Interview with Mark Armstrong

Armstrong, Mark
McIntosh, Farise
Date of Interview: 
Overcoming obstacles; Relationships with people and places; Childhood adventures
Mark Armstrong talks about education in Cuba in the 1950s and his difficulties with US ESL classes.
Charlotte Narrative and Conversation Collection
Collection Description: 
Farise McIntosh interviews Charlotteans to collect stories for a class project at UNC Charlotte.
MA (Mark Armstrong): Go ahead.
FM (Farise McIntosh): OK. Today is January the 18th, 2003, and I am in the home of Mr. Mark Armstrong and his wife Bailey. Mark is my neighbor. Thank you, Mark, for allowing this interview. I'll begin with a question about your early life. Would you please tell me when and where you were born and some things you remember about your early education? Such as teachers and what your school was like.
MA: Uh, I was born September 12th, 1952, in the, uh, city of, uh, Santa Clara, just like Santa Clara, California, uh, in the province of Las Villas that was known as Villa Clara in old times. It's, uh, right in the center of the island, in a high mountainous region of the island, um, in the, uh, main city hospital.
FM: Good. Um, what was your school like?
MA: My, um, kindergarten was, uh, done at a school that was run by a church, and my first teachers were nuns. Um, the priest, uh, didn't get too involved with, you know, kindergarten, uh, but the nuns were. And, it was just, you know, the, the regular things, learning how to, you know, put things in one place or another, little cut-outs. I remember you had to cut out a wheel of a wagon and then you put it on the wagon and then you get to color it, you know. I can remember that. And I must have been three years old, or something like that, I don't know.
FM: OK. How were you graded on your language school, skills, and what method was used for progression to the next grade?
MA: You mean in, uh, English as a Second Language?
FM: No, in Cuba.
MA: In Cuba? Tests. You were, um, taught to, um, you know, throughout the year, and at different points they would have, you know, tests. And, they would tell you to prepare for the test, meaning that you had to take every minute of your life, you know, and deposit it into going over the materials that you were given and then you were given a test and you were graded.
FM: Uh-huh. Did you ever have trouble in school with your teachers or your peers in Cuba?
MA: [Laughs] Yeah.
FM: [Laughs]
MA: I, uh, we had a, uh, young teacher, probably about 22, 23 years old, that came in, and, uh, she was supposed to be the math teacher. Me and one of my friends kept correcting her, and I made the comment that, uh, she didn't know as much as, uh, this other teacher who was leaving the country. And, uh, it turns out that, um, one of the Pioneer Girls was listening to the conversation, eavesdropping on our conversation, and she went to the G-2, and the G-2 is like Government-2. It's kind of like the Gestapo was in Germany. And they came over and, uh, we had a conference with, uh, this, uh, guy from the G-2, my principal, my mother, and myself. And, they were trying to determine whether I was doing this maliciously or not. And um, you know, finally it ended up where the principal talked enough to the guy that they didn't send me to a, uh, labor camp for three months.
FM: Were you scared?
MA: Uh, a little bit. A little bit and, um, you know, it, it, any type of behavior that was, you know, freethinking, was not allowed. What they, what the guy had said is, uh, he says, "You can't make comments like that about a revolutionary teacher, a new teacher who is, you know, trying to help the population, and, and I would view it as counterrevolutionary work, that you are not, you know, that you are participating in something that will not help the revolution." And I thought that would, would help the revolution more, is to have a teacher that didn't have to be corrected by students.
FM: Yeah, I understand.
MA: But, uh, my, uh, principal, uh, who was a friend of my mother, uh, came through for me and told the guy that, uh, nothing really happened.
FM: [Laughs] Good. I'm glad you made it.
MA: Yep.
FM: What, if any, were the experiences you and your family had in learning English in Cuba?
MA: Well, English was, at that time, you know, taboo. It was, "Imperialist that, imperialist, Yankee imperialist this, and Yankee imperialist that," and, you know, they didn't want anything, uh, American, you know. No music, no culture, no traditions, no customs, nothing, no Santa Claus. [Laughs]
FM: That's sad.
MA: Not even the three wise men from the east. They didn't want anything that was not part of the revolution. So, you didn't hear it. You didn't hear it spoken. You didn't, you didn't see any materials in English, you know, very few. I borrowed a few, uh, Popular Mechanics from one my neighbors that were, you know, he had some in English and some in Spanish. Of course, I couldn't, you know, understand the ones in English, but I could look at the pictures of those [laughs]. Um, and, um, yeah, I could read Reader's Digest, uh, from my neighbor across the street. He used to loan me about five or six at a time, and in about two days I would read them and give them back to him. The Jamaican man that was hired by my mother, uh, he was originally hired by the pharmacist in the corner a half a block from where I lived. Uh, he was teaching the, uh, pharmacist's two daughters English in the back of the pharmacy warehouse and, um, my mother got me in, you know, with him. So I learned things, that, you know, like, um, "My name is Mario," um, uh, "I lived in Santa Clara," you know, "I have a yellow pencil," uh, "This is my pen," um, "Run, walk, talk," you know, things like that. Uh, shortly after that we left and, uh, these were clandestine classes.
FM: And, y'all were the only ones?
MA: Yep, it was just the three of us. The two girls and me.
FM: That's good. OK. Many Cubans left Cuba when Castro came to power and moved to Florida and other areas of the United States. Let me give you a three-part question about this. How old were you, when did you come here, and where did your family settle?
MA: I left Cuba in 1967, uh, March 20th, 1967 at three fifteen P.M., on an Iberian, Iberian Airline flight, you know, the Spanish airline to Madrid, where we waited for our visa for 10 months. Uh, from there, on, um, February 28, 1968, uh, I left Spain and my mother came out a week later. And from there, from Madrid, I flew into, um, uh, New York, um, and then from New York, um, you know, took a flight to Miami, Florida, to my grand aunt's house to wait for my mother to come in a week later. Um, a week previous to that, my cousin, who was in Spain also for three months, he stayed in a monastery because it was quicker for him going out by himself. And as it turned out, he left a week, you know, he left on a Wednesday, I left the following Wednesday, and my mother the Wednesday after that.
FM: Yeah.
MA: And then we settled in Miami. From there we moved to California, back to California, you know, back and back to Miami. Back and forth, looking for the best jobs, the better paid jobs.
FM: What was your education experience in your Miami, uh, school and the English as a Second Language classes?
MA: Well, I had, uh, Mrs. Beltran, well Mrs. Blanco was a lead teacher and Mrs. Beltran, um, and I spelled that out for you over there.
MA: Uh, on that other sheet. Um, they were my, uh, English as a Second Language teachers, and I went to their class for six hours, everyday for one year. And that was eighth grade.
FM: It took two years?
MA: No, I didn't do two years.
FM: You were just in that class one year?
MA: One year.
MA: Yeah.
FM: Understood.
MA: Yeah.
FM: And, how many students did you have?
MA: About 40 students or so, in the class. And, um, they would, um, they would teach the class, uh, they would explain things in Spanish, and then build up our vocabularies to the point where they could explain grammatical rules, but they would explain them in Spanish so that way we would understand what that rule was.
FM: Yeah.
MA: You know? And, they would, um, quiz us. They would, uh, test us verbally-.
FM: Uh-huh.
MA: And written to see if we were, uh, assimilating the information and at what level we would, we were at. Grade us.
FM: Yeah.
MA: Um-.
FM: Now, did you ever have trouble with teachers or peers in Florida?
MA: Yep. Mrs. Martin. Yep, uh, Mrs. Martinez, actually. She was Cuban, but she was of the belief that math was the same in any language, even if you were giving a student an assignment such as, "If a train left New York, going west, and a train left Los Angeles going east, at 60 miles per hour and the train," you know, one train was at one speed and one train was at the other one, she would give us this in English. If I had been given the problem in Spanish, I would have been able to do it. I'm not talking about math, you know, two plus two is four, you know, nine divided by three is three, or anything like that. Um, it was just the, the words that I couldn't understand, so I didn't do, do well in that class. That was the first one. Then I got to Los Angeles about, you know, a couple of years later, and I went into a history class, and my language was not up to speed yet, and I went into history class and the teacher asked me to read something and the students started laughing at my accent, and at the fact that I could barely pronounce some of the words. So, I did not have enough time, you know, between going to school and working, because I worked since I was 14 1/2 years old. When I got to Spain, I started working. I'm 50 now. I haven't taken, you know, ( ) vacation weeks here and there, when I was lucky enough to have a job that did that. But, um, they, um, you know, I, I just shut down completely. I closed up the book, I looked at the teacher, and he says, uh, "Aren't you going to read?" And I said, "No." [Laughter] And that was it.
FM: You didn't-.
MA: So, I left that class, I got up, I walked out, went straight into the, uh, counselor's office and I told him, "Change my class. Give me metal shop or wood shop and something that I can use my hands on, and I don't have to talk to anybody," and, uh, that was, that was it.
FM: What did you do after graduation, and how did you improve your English skills?
MA: Um, well, for a while what I done is to, well what I did was to, uh, translate my extensive vocabulary in Spanish into English. Sixty percent of English is Latin, so I started with those first.
FM: You wrote them down and looked at them?
MA: I, I would write them down, I would write them down on a napkin at a restaurant, and you know, think about it and absorb it, uh, anywhere. Uh, I would be watching television and I would catch on to something. If I didn't understand a word, I would grab a dictionary. I always had dictionaries with me. Um, we had a dictionary in Cuba that I started going word by word in Spanish, and reading it when I was 12.
FM: Yeah.
MA: I can't remember how far I got, but I have a very extensive, you know, Spanish vocabulary so I try to do the same thing in English, and throughout the years I'm, I'm still learning.
FM: Yeah. Mark, again I want to thank you for this interview. Your experiences with ESL in Florida could be very helpful to ESL teachers, and the ESL students which they are teaching now. English is a "need to know" language in this world for success in many areas. You are a fine example of an ESL student. Thank you.
MA: Thank you.