Passyunk: City’s Immigrant Population Receives Practical Language Skills with Help from Iron Chef

With nine restaurants in Philadelphia alone, Iron Chef Jose Garces is synonymous with the city’s culinary culture. A second generation immigrant, Garces uses his success to support the Garces Foundation, his nonprofit that works to create practical opportunities for the city’s immigrant population.

Students learn practical  English Language skills, often with a focus on culinary terminology, by Leah Ference.
Students learn practical English Language skills, often with a focus on culinary terminology, by Leah Ference.

Started by Jose Garces and his wife, Beatriz Mirabal Garces, the Foundation operates a number of projects, including an annual gala to raise funds and community health days.

As a dentist and first generation immigrant, Beatriz Mirabal Garces saw a need for health care access after an immigrant patient put off seeking treatment for fear of deportation. As for her husband, he saw an opportunity in the city’s thriving restaurant scene, which is one of the fast growing job sectors in Philadelphia.

Mexican immigrant Emilio Lopez is an advanced student at the Learning Annex, by Leah Ference.
Mexican immigrant Emilio Hernandez is an advanced student at the Learning Annex, by Leah Ference.

With immigrants accounting for 75 percent of the area’s labor force growth in the past decade, many students like 20-year-old Emilio Hernandez already work in the restaurant industry. Hernandez, who immigrated here from Mexico two years ago, is using what he’s learned from the Garces Learning Annex in his high school classes, where he enrolled in January 2015.

“I don’t always understand my teacher but coming here, it helps with my work and in school,” Hernandez said.

In the Garces Foundation’s English for the Restaurant Program, students receive hands-on work in kitchens as well as language training skills. At the Garces Foundation Learning Annex at the corner of Washington and Passyunk avenues in South Philadelphia, students learn a combination of language skills, some restaurant-specific and others for practical conversation.

The Program’s director, Mallory Fix Lopez, who lives in nearby Newbold, is passionate about improving the lives of her immigrant neighbors.

“You can see the growth of not just the Hispanic and Latino population but also Asian and other populations,” she said, noting that the placement of the Learning Annex in South Philadelphia is a reflection of the influx of immigrants to that region.

More than half of the students enrolled are Mexican, which reflects the large Mexican population residing in the southern part of the city. Psychologist Brigid Garvin, who volunteers as a teacher at the Annex, hopes to see the program expand the community it serves to “reach other language learners, from different language or cultural backgrounds, because right now we are predominantly Latino,” she said.

According to a survey by the Brookings Institute, Philadelphia is currently seeing a large growth in the Asian population, with Indian, Chinese and Vietnamese immigrants surpassing Hispanic populations to account for more than 20 percent of the city’s foreign-born residents. Moving forward, the Foundation is hoping to expand to serve this rapidly growing community, as well as maintaining and furthering the development of their Latino students.]

– Text and images by Leah Ference.

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