Making a new home

Puerto Rico-born teacher finds challenges, lessons in South Bend

By Pablo Ros

Before this winter, Migdalia López Tamlin had never bought a Christmas tree.

Or seen a live deer, or even a wild rabbit or squirrel.

She had never had egg nog or made a snowman or worn snow boots.

When she drives in the snow, Migdalia says, her husband, Kevin Tamlin, calls her grandma.

Migdalia, 35, is from Puerto Rico, and six months after she and her daughter, Elena, moved to South Bend to live with her husband, whom she met over the Internet, everything still seems new to her.

“This is my first real winter,” she says.

In fact, it’s her first time living outside of Puerto Rico, where she taught Spanish literature for 12 years.

Migdalia now teaches Spanish to eighth-graders at Marshall and Jackson intermediate centers in South Bend. Her experience here seems to highlight both the vast gulfs — cultural, geographical and otherwise — that separate Americans who belong to different parts of the country, but also how slow but meaningful progress is made to bridge those gaps.

It is also about the mixed pleasures of making a home in a new land while longing for the old one.

“Everything is different here,” she says.

Migdalia, who is from San Juan, the capital of Puerto Rico, misses the smell of the beach, the sound of the coquí at night, the sight of the migratory whales in April.

Here, she took photographs of the strange creatures known as squirrels.

Migdalia says she has been asked in South Bend if she is a legal immigrant, when in fact all Puerto Ricans are American citizens by birth.

She even gets asked if there are McDonald’s in Puerto Rico, or cable TV, or what road highway drivers should take to get there (Puerto Rico is an island).

But Migdalia says she, too, is learning a few things. For example, that Midwesterners seem to have great respect for personal space; and that they complain about crime, even though by Latin American standards there is little crime to speak of here.

“South Bend is very quiet and peaceful,” Migdalia says.

And at her new job, she, too, has learned something unexpected.

“I have found a new love for my language,” she says.

Migdalia and her husband met three years ago. In 2007, he moved to Puerto Rico to be with her. But the job he found, Migdalia says, he lost a short time later because of the downturn in the economy.

In Puerto Rico, her husband took pictures of the strange creatures known as lagartijos or geckos.

Once a Spanish literature teacher, Migdalia says one of her biggest challenges here has been teaching basic Spanish to non-Spanish speakers.

“This is a bigger challenge (than teaching literature),” Migdalia says.

Migdalia likes her new job in the way one likes tough challenges.

“I try to teach my students that in the world there are a lot of different people,” she says.