Mariano Rivera’s tears resonate with ESL students

Most of the children were eager and ready to ask questions during Career Day. They sat attentively and fired questions in quick succession after listening to a brief description of the sports journalism field. They loved their Astros and Texans.

“Have you met Carlos Correa?” one child exclaimed. “How about José Altuve?” another wondered. “Do you know LeBron?” another yelled out. “Yes, yes and no,” I replied.

During the fifth of six sessions, sharing Mariano Rivera’s life story with a child who perhaps needed it most made an impact on both of us.

I had been tipped off about the class when I was invited to speak to this school in Kingwood, Texas, a suburb of Houston. This particular girl stood out in the penultimate group, which was comprised of English as a Second Language kids. Most of her class spoke some English and understood the language enough to feel comfortable. She did neither.

She arrived from Latin America not long ago, and still doesn’t know much English. She likely assumed she wouldn’t find much value in a session about sports journalism.

The girl lit up, though, when I addressed the group in Spanish. She became more attentive when I noted that I also had been an ESL student one day even though I had been born in the United States.

Then she found true inspiration when she learned the story of the greatest closer in Major League Baseball history. She saw herself in Rivera, the only man the Baseball Writers’ Association of America unanimously voted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

Language Barriers

“How many of you have cried yourself to sleep because you don’t know English?” I asked the group of fifth graders. Most of the girls raised their hands. A few boys raised their hands too. Some nodded enthusiastically as if happy somebody understood the burden they carry in a new country trying to navigate a new language and new culture.
That’s when I told the children about Rivera, the second Panamanian elected to the Hall of Fame. The Yankees legend arrived in the United States without any English skills.

Rivera was raised in Puerto Caimito, a modest fishing village. After a brief stint in Florida with the Gulf Coast Yankees in rookie league as a 20-year-old in 1990, he spent the 1991 season in Low Class A Grensboro, N.C., of the South Atlantic League.

He was 21 and still four years away from making his debut in the Bronx. He couldn’t even dream of becoming one of the all-time greats in major league history.

At that point, he was merely trying to adjust to life in his new country. He was trying to survive while dealing with the frustrations most new immigrants feel when they learn a new language to communicate in a new country.

Remembering Rivera’s story, I took out my iPhone. I asked the class to move closer and played the video of an interview I had with Rivera in New York two days after he was elected to the Hall of Fame.

The children huddled close in front of the iPhone and listened attentively.

“Well, I mean, the importance of learning the language, it was to me, it was the barrier that I had to jump, the barrier that I had to knock down,” Rivera said. “Because I mean, I remember, coming from Panama, I didn’t know any English.

“In my second year in professional baseball, I was sent to North Carolina, Greensboro, North Carolina, where not too many people spoke Spanish. So, I was forced to learn English. I forced myself to learn the language.”

Forced. Forced to learn. Forced.

If the children had been able to shout “Amen” they might have immediately after Rivera said he was forced to learn English.

That word resonated with them perhaps because in many ways they are being forced to learn a new culture and a new language after their loved ones brought them here from their native countries.

A New Home

Nobody forced Rivera to leave Panama, though. He decided to sign with the Yankees and chase his baseball dreams in America. He could have waited until later in his career to learn English. Heck, in some rare instances, some Latino ballplayers can go through their entire career without forcing themselves to become fluent in English other than the words necessary to perform on the diamond.

If you’re truly going to assimilate in America, though, you have to learn English. That’s why Rivera forced himself to learn English.

“I didn’t wanna be someone that has to use someone to interpret or tell them what to do, or receive a message, and send the wrong message to a person thinking that I wasn’t smart, or I was dumb,” he said. “That’s the way they think about us (when) we don’t do (some things), or we don’t learn the language. So, I mean I forced myself.

“I used to go to bed crying, because I couldn’t communicate with my pitching coach, with my manager, and with my teammates.”

The children identified tremendously with Rivera when they heard him say that he had cried himself to sleep as a 21-year-old in North Carolina.

Almost all of the children in that class had cried themselves to sleep. It’s not easy to learn a new language, whether you’re a 12-year-old in the suburbs of Houston or a 21-year-old minor leaguer in the Yankees organization.

It’s important to share Rivera’s story throughout the minors and in ESL classes throughout America because it will show new immigrants that they’re not alone.

Rivera’s story gave the ESL students hope. They didn’t know that he was baseball’s all-time saves leader. They didn’t know about his five World Series championship rings or 13 All-Star berths.

Heck, many of the children had never even heard of Rivera before last week. Yet, they’re not likely to ever forget him. He is a beacon of hope for them now.

They hung by each of his words.

“The game of baseball, the language of baseball, in the field is easy,” he said. “But off the field is where it takes place, and I wasn’t good at it. So I forced myself, and I asked a few teammates to teach me the right way. They did. I always will thank God for them. And at the end, that made me better, because I mean, my career took off from the moment that I learned the language.

“So I encourage you guys … players that think that they don’t have to learn English. Well, if you don’t think that you have to learn English, you’re mistaken. You’re wrong, because you do need to learn the language. When you play the game, play it with all the knowledge.”

Featured Image: Maddie Meyer / Getty Image Sport