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Meet Maribel Teyssier: Her English was put to the test — and it gave her power

Accents: The voices of our immigrant neighbors in the Berkshires

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Maybe it was an honest mistake, maybe not. But either way, it was the moment that Maribel Teyssier passed her English exam.

“I went to the supermarket and I pay my groceries with a bill of 50 bucks,” she says. “He gave me change for just 20. I got kind of angry because maybe he noticed that I didn’t know good English.”

She pointed out the mistake. The cashier apologized and gave her the right change. Her eyes twinkle when she recalls, “That was my first experience forcing me to speak up in English.”

Teyssier is a waitress in the Peruvian restaurant Alpamayo on Main Street in Lee. She grew up in the Mexican town of Huejotzingo, in a fruit-growing region. Her parents, Andres and Juana, grew plums and apricots, peaches, apples and pears and sold them at wholesale markets in Mexico City.

Peru and Mexico may share a language, Spanish, but their kitchens are very different.

“They use a lot more rice in their cuisine,” Teyssier explains. “They don’t eat tortillas. And their ceviche is totally different than we do it in Mexico.”

She knew nothing about Peru or their dishes before she started working in the restaurant two years ago. Some of her customers don’t either.

“Sometimes I have people asking me for chips and salsa and I have to tell them, ‘Sorry but this is a Peruvian place, not a Mexican place.’”

She left Mexico for the Berkshires 10 years ago. Two of her brothers had immigrated before her, one still living in Lenox. Like many immigrants, she worked more or less invisibly behind the scenes: washing dishes and doing kitchen work. Breakfast shifts in one place, dinner shifts at another.

She wanted to get a chance waitressing, but was told – “and I knew” – that her English wasn’t strong enough to be out front in a dining room.

“In Mexico when we were 6 years old, my mom sent us to learn English,” Teyssier, now 38, says. “Basically words, basically phrases. And kid’s songs that I still remember. But I never had a conversation.”

Working in Lee restaurants, she quit one job to have more time to work on her English. First on her own.

“When I first came here, ... I went to Barnes and Noble and bought a book to learn English,” she says. But then she felt she needed help.

Literacy Network of South Berkshire – LitNet – is based in the Lee Library. She took classes and for many years has been helped along in private conversations with personal tutors assigned to her by LitNet: first Linda Giancola from Lee, and these days Lutitia Tibbetts from Lenox.

And now Maribel Teyssier is a waitress. Talking to and serving customers who sit at her tables in Alpamayo, part of Lee’s own little restaurant row.

“I told my mom I fell in love with the Berkshires,” she says in the study-book lined LitNet office across from the library’s circulation desk. She brought a dish with shrimp in a Mexican cocktail sauce and shared the secret ingredient to thin it down: “sparkling orange soda.”

“My life here is pretty peaceful and quiet like it was in my town back home,” she says. “I like to go to the gym as my hobby. I love to dance. I take hikes, but not in the wintertime. I like to read. I don’t even have a TV.”

But she does eventually want to go back to Huejotzingo. She misses her family. She reminisces about her childhood fútbol games with her brothers and her cousins, all boys.

“I didn’t play with dolls. I was the only girl,” she says. “People say that I am strong and that is because I grew up with boys.”


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