Have you or your child ever played soccer in Berkshire County? Have you taken the occasional trip to the hospital or perhaps taken a Spanish class in school sometime in the past four decades? If so, then you probably know Luis or Grace Guerrero of Sheffield. Luis, a soccer coach and Spanish teacher, and his wife Grace, a lifelong nurse and retiree from Fairview Hospital in Great Barrington, have a long history of care-giving and community service here in Berkshire County. But their journey first began in Quito, Ecuador, where Luis answered an ad in his local newspaper.
Posted by the U.S. Consulate in 1961, the ad offered a teaching position in a private boarding school in Monterey, Mass. After a grueling application process, and despite being the youngest and least experienced of 154 applicants, Luis was awarded the position. He soon left the warmth and comfort of his birth country and found himself alone in the frigid air of southern Berkshire County.
"I didn't know anyone [in the United States]," he said. "From my family, I was the first to leave my country. I was excited and eager."
For four years, he lived at the Avalon School in Monterey, working 24 hour days, six days a week. He was teacher, tutor, athletics coach, and often father and mentor to the students there. He fit in well in his new position, but the transition was challenging in a way that Berkshire natives may not realize.
"I was afraid I would forget my language," Luis said, as he relived his first few years as an American citizen. "There was no one to speak Spanish with. I loved going to St. Peter's Church in Great Barrington because, at the time, they spoke Latin, and it was as close to Spanish as I could get."
To remedy his lack of conversational Spanish, Luis offered Spanish lessons to local elementary school students. The idea caught on with a rush.
"I started teaching Spanish to one second grade class in the grammar school, and the children, parents and teachers loved it so much they wanted all of the grades to be taught Spanish," he said. "So I taught Spanish. Soon I was traveling from one school to another to another. It was wonderful."
After years of hard work at the Avalon School, and a growing demand for Spanish lessons in his community, he was ready for a much needed vacation.
"My goal was to travel from here to Ecuador by car. I was single, aggressive and a little bit crazy to do that," Luis said as he described his 22-day journey from Berkshire County to Quito, Ecuador.
But because of this amazing trip, Luis reconnected with his longtime friend and pen pal, Grace -- and after years of friendship, they decided to marry.
"I was a nurse working at a hospital in Ambato, and he came to visit me. He was only on vacation, and I knew he had to go back [to the United States]. I told him that we should either get married or he should get out of here -- so we got married." Grace Guerrero said, and her husband of 54 years laughed.
Grace came to the U.S. in 1966 and almost immediately began work at Fairview Hospital.
"I was getting a physical at the doctor's, and during conversation he discovered that I was a nurse. He told me they needed nurses at Fairview Hospital, so he set up a meeting for me. I went to the doctor on Friday, and by Tuesday I had a job at the hospital," she said.
"The difficult thing was I didn't know the language very well. Soon, I was raising children, taking care of my home, working and trying to pass the nursing board exams with very little English, but I was always learning. The patients helped me with English; the nurses helped me with English, the people where absolutely fantastic.
"We love it here and Luis has worked very hard for our community," she added. "He has done a great deal with our young people. Before Luis, there were no Spanish classes in Berkshire County."
He became the catalyst in instituting Spanish language education in many Berkshire County schools and, at 75, he is still an active substitute Spanish teacher. He is also an honored and lively soccer referee and an avid community volunteer.
"But teaching Spanish is my passion! Sometimes, we even have soccer games completely in Spanish. The children love it." he said with a smile.
When asked if he misses Ecuador, he said, "The first 10 years of my life, in the U.S., I spent longing for Ecuador. I love Ecuador but now, I go to the post office, the bank, the library and supermarket and I know most of the people. I've been a soccer referee for 42 years. I doubt there is a kid in Berkshire County that doesn't know me. Berkshire County is my home. My wife, brother, children and grandchildren are here. The people here are our friends and they have all become our family. I speak their language, and they speak mine."
On the Bridge
Multicultural Bridge and Berkshires Week have partnered to create a column and a blog that will share voices and stories from all corners of the county and the world.
Meet a professor of languages from South Sudan, a mother from Peru, a rancher from Becket and many more neighbors, at www.berkshireeagleblogs.com/onthebridge.