Sixty-year-old María Diosdado tidies up and gets the coffee and popcorn ready for bingo.
She’s getting ready for the special day. Every Friday, 18 Latin-American women come here to the third floor of the South Vancouver Neighbourhood House to play. The neighbourhood house is tucked in between dozens of South-Asian and Chinese shops. It’s also the one place in the neighbourhood where the women can gather and speak their own language.
Maria welcomes the other women with a warm smile and “hola” – hello in Spanish.
“This is very important for them. It’s the way to get distracted in their own language,” says Diosdado. “You always have to remember its not going to be easy, but if others can make it, so can you.”
The neighbourhood house tries to reach out to Spanish speakers by offering programs, including the bingo games.
“They’ve had to focus on raising their children, support their families and work. There is just not enough time to learn English,” said Kwangyoung Conn, a staff member at the neighbourhood house.
Free English classes are available for anyone who wishes to attend, but many come just to play bingo because it is easy to understand and it allows the women to be together and tell stories.
“When I just arrived, I pointed at the stuff I wanted to buy and started doing mimics to the cashier,” said Isabel Aguilar. The 83-year-old sits smiling as the group laughs with her.
Her story about shopping is one that all of them can relate to.
A minority within a minority
More than 18,000 people live in the 20-block area around South Vancouver Neighbourhood House, from Kingsway to 49th and Victoria. It’s a microcosm of Vancouver’s diversity, but also its loneliness and separation.
In this multicultural world, there are 41 languages spoken in these few blocks. The majority of residents speak Cantonese. Almost full quarter of its residents do not speak English, including many of the 255 Spanish speakers. The vast majority of those with no English are women, according to Statistics Canada. In the middle of all that, the Spanish-speaking women are minorities within minorities within minorities.
This group is a living illustration of a recent Vancouver Foundation report that concluded the main concern of Vancouverites was not homeless or housing affordability, but social isolation.
For this group of women, simple things like shopping can be difficult without English or Chinese language skills. Gloria Rodriguez smiles as she looks around the bingo room. She described the specific challenges people face when they’re trying to buy canned fish.
“They think it’s a tin of tuna and they don’t have a clue it’s cat food, so they eat it.”
The women around her burst out laughing and begin telling story after story. This gathering is important for a group of women who spend much of their time alone.
But not everyone is able to connect.
Rosa Osorio, 54, waits alone at the bus stop near Victoria and Kingsway.
“We are just not used to this kind of weather,” she says while bundling herself up in her wool winter coat, tuque and scarf.
She is heading to her house-cleaning job in North Vancouver. Osorio, a teacher from El Salvador fleeing the civil war, came to Canada 21 years ago. Vancouver is home now, but it has been quite an adjustment.
Orosio, speaking Spanish, says she doesn’t mind working 10 or 12 hour days cleaning other people’s homes. It’s a job that doesn’t require a lot of talking.
“Hispanics are always worried about not being understood at work or afraid of their accents. Sometimes it’s easier not to talk,” she says.
She does not attend bingo or language programs mostly because, with long hours at work, she doesn’t have time.
She says she’s grateful that her Canadian grandchildren won’t have have the same trouble with English. But their improving English means that she is isolated even more by her language.
“I’m glad to know my grandchildren speak English perfectly, but I get sad when I speak to them in Spanish sometimes they do not understand.”