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Breaking the bonds

Professor and his students engage in Latino social issues

Teaching the Spanish language has been Professor Tom Acker's job at CMU for two decades. But Acker has always gone beyond instructing students in verb-conjugation and the gender-agreement mechanics of español. He has also been inspiring students, by example, to get involved in Latino social issues.

“I have encouraged community involvement all along,” Acker said. “Understanding a culture is as important as learning a language.”

Acker has been active in social justice movements since 1980 when he worked with refugees from the Mariel Boatlift, a mass emigration of Cubans to the United States.

“That was kind of where I got hooked on working with Latinos,” Acker said.

During his tenure at Colorado Mesa University, Acker has become known beyond the campus community for his work in support of migrant workers and immigrants. His efforts on behalf of sheepherders helped to bring about a national change in pay and legal protections for those workers, who mainly come from South America and Latin America.

That effort helped earn Acker a place on the Colorado Human Trafficking Council. He serves as the chairman of the group’s Labor Trafficking Task Force. He also founded a regional organization called Western Slope Against Trafficking.

Acker involves his students in anti-trafficking initiatives as well as having them help to fill the need for translation and interpretation services in the community. He guides them into volunteer positions in health services for migrant workers and in community-impact research projects.

Carolina Carvelli, a nurse who is completing a degree in the Spanish program, is one of those students. She is participating in a service-learning project that involves providing basic medical services to orchard workers and their families at the Child and Migrant Services facility in Palisade, Colorado.

“My goal is to make this become a permanent service,” she said.

Carla Hernandez, who worked in her youth harvesting peaches with her migrant-worker family before she enrolled at CMU, has served as an interpreter for the meetings of Colorado Trust, a health equity foundation.

In her experience, language barriers, among other obstacles, can make it hard sometimes for the Hispanic community to be informed about important issues that directly affect them.

“We talk in class about what we can do to help with that.”

Hernandez said Acker’s example inspired her.

“He tries in so many ways to help the community,” she said. “He reminds us to pay attention to what’s happening around us and to help.” •

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Written by Nancy Lofholm, Illustration by Gabrielle Bode, CMU visual design major