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2 bilingual Latina teachers who work together at Little Village Academy finalists for teaching award

“When I look at my bilingual students, I say, ‘That’s me,’ ” Oralia Villanueva says. “I understand what it’s like to come here and not know the language . . . because I was that student in high school that didn’t know English.”

Oralia Villanueva (left) and Sofia Salinas at Little Village Academy.
Oralia Villanueva (left) and Sofia Salinas at Little Village Academy.
Carlos Ballesteros / Sun-Times

Sofia Salinas and Oralia Villanueva both have parents born in the Mexican state of Michoacán, and both are bilingual teachers at the same elementary school in Little Village.

Now, after teaching side by side for nearly a decade, Salinas and Villanueva have something else in common: They are finalists for this year’s Golden Apple Award for Excellence in Teaching.

Salinas and Villanueva are among 30 finalists for the prestigious honor for Illinois educators, which gives 10 teachers $5,000 apiece and a tuition-free sabbatical at Northwestern University. Winners will be surprised in their classrooms with that news later this spring.

Salinas and Villanueva teach at Little Village Academy, 2620 S. Lawndale Ave., where nearly all of the school’s 730 students identify as Latino and qualify for free or reduced lunch. More than half are English learners, meaning it’s not their native language, according to Chicago Public Schools figures.

Villanueva started teaching there in 1998, eight years after migrating to Chicago from Mexico City as a teenager. She knew no English then and says she often was bullied because of that while attending Benito Juarez Community Academy in Pilsen.

“When I look at my bilingual students, I say, ‘That’s me,’ ” says Villanueva, who credits her parents and teachers with motivating her. “I understand what it’s like to come here and not know the language. So I want to help those kids because I was that student in high school that didn’t know English.”

Beside teaching fifth- and sixth-grade science, Villanueva teaches English for an hour after school on Mondays and Wednesdays.

“When [my students] come to class, I say, ‘Guys, you can do it because, if I was able to do it and I was older than you, you guys are going to do it,’ ” she says. “They sometimes don’t believe that because it’s a struggle, but I keep motivating them.”

Oralia Villanueva teaches a fifth-grade science class at Little Village Academy, 2620 S. Lawndale Ave.
Oralia Villanueva teaches a fifth-grade science class at Little Village Academy, 2620 S. Lawndale Ave.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia / Sun-Times

Their work doesn’t end there. Some students at Little Village Academy are recent immigrants from Guatemala who primarily speak K’iche’ — the Maya language that’s widely spoken in the Central American country. So Villanueva and other bilingual teachers first teach those students Spanish so they later can learn English.

Salinas, who’s in her eighth year teaching language arts at the school, set up a fundraiser for students’ families after Lillian Lazu, the principal, visited one of their homes.

“They were sleeping, like, nine, 10 to a living room, literally side by side, no beds, no sheets,” Salinas says. “You could see them coming to school physically tired just from not getting a comfortable sleep.

“People donated air mattresses, pillows, sheets, clothes, shoes,” Salinas says. “All of us tried to chip in as much as we could because you feel for them. You have your teacher feeling. We want to take care of everything. We want to make sure everybody’s OK.”

Sofia Salinas, a finalist for this year’s Golden Apple Award for Excellence in Teaching, teaches reading and writing to fifth-graders at Little Village Academy, 2620 S. Lawndale Ave.
Sofia Salinas, a finalist for this year’s Golden Apple Award for Excellence in Teaching, teaches reading and writing to fifth-graders at Little Village Academy, 2620 S. Lawndale Ave.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia / Sun-Times

Salinas, 31, gets that teacher instinct from her own family. Jose Salinas, her father, taught Spanish for 34 years in high schools in the south suburbs before retiring in 2017.

She also has learned from Villanueva, who was her mentor when Salinas arrived at Little Village Academy as a fourth-grade teacher in 2012.

“She really showed me the ropes and helped me get settled at the school,” Salinas says.

She’s “extremely honored” to be a finalist for the award with her mentor.

“Just to see that she’s also with me on this, I still feel like I’m going to go to her for things and ask for for suggestions and stuff,” Salinas says. “I just think she’s so well deserving.”

“I feel like she’s shown a lot of growth since I met her, so I’m very proud that she was recognized, too,” Villanueva says. “You just do your job. And if someone recognizes what you’re doing, you just feel proud of it.”

Carlos Ballesteros is a corps member of Report for America, a not-for-profit journalism program that aims to bolster Sun-Times coverage of Chicago’s South Side and West Side.