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Hortensia Mayer left her hometown of San Francisco Morazán, El Salvador, in 1979 just before civil war broke out, beginning a journey that brought her to teach in Elizabethtown.
Mayer teaches Spanish at St. James Catholic Regional School. It has been 33 years — and many travels — since she married a Peace Corps volunteer, came to the United States and learned English on her own.
“When I came over here I didn’t know the language at all,” Mayer said.
She recalls taking her English-Spanish dictionary to her driver’s license test. But when she couldn’t communicate with her doctor during her second pregnancy, she knew she had to do something.
“So I started borrowing books from the library and reading them,” Mayer said.
Watching soap operas on television and listening to the radio helped her, too, she said.
Learning the language of the culture in which you’re living is important to understand that culture, Mayer said.
In fact, her then-future-husband, Charles, who is from Cox’s Creek in Nelson County, knew some Spanish when he ended up staying at her home as a Peace Corps volunteer in the ’70s. He stayed at the residence after making arrangements with family members.
“That’s how I met him,” Mayer recalled.
The Mayers lived in Bardstown for a couple years then moved to Oregon, where they lived from 1981 to 2004, running a tropical fish business.
A highlight of her life came for Mayer in 1990.
“When I became a U.S. citizen,” she said.
Soon she decided to go back to school.
“Because I wanted to prove to myself I could do it,” Mayer said.
Starting with a single class in 1994, Mayer eventually earned a bachelor’s degree in applied psychology in 2002.
From 2004 until 2006, she worked in Honduras with the Peace Corps with her husband. She worked in youth development, addressing issues to keep students in school.
Then the Mayers moved back to Bardstown.
Eventually, in 2008, Mayer landed her current teaching jobs in Bardstown and Elizabethtown.
Tuesdays and Thursdays she teaches fourth through eighth grades at St. James Catholic Regional School. Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays she teaches Spanish at St. Joseph School in Bardstown.
“I have wonderful students,” she said, explaining children seem to get past her accent because they don’t automatically expect to not be able to understand her.
Mayer tells her students they are building a foundation for their future, because they will have to learn a foreign language in high school. It’s also good to learn another language in general, she said.
“If they know another language, doors will open for them,” Mayer said.
Though she’s been to El Salvador since she left, she recalled being in a hotel where gunfire broke out because the civil war was still being waged. Her town, which was located in a valley, grew 10 times its size, from a population of 12,000 to 120,000, because those living in the surrounding mountains were driven into the town. She said it was culture shock visiting her hometown.
“I still call El Salvador home, but it’s not the same,” Mayer said. “Home is here in the U.S.”
Robert Villanueva can be reached at (270) 505-1743 or firstname.lastname@example.org.