By Eric Bertrand
Hugo Orellana has a passion for his work as a bilingual liaison for Lincoln Public Schools. Currently, he is responsible for 300 children enrolled in Lincoln high schools, but that number used to be 600.
“For me, it’s fine,” he said. “I don’t see numbers, I see people.”
Oscar Rios Pohirieth, a cultural specialist for LPS said that the liaisons need a passion for the job in order to keep up with the work.
“You have to be able to multitask,” Pohirieth said. “Serve here, serve there, assess the situation there and still try to manage your workload.”
Where did Orellana’s passion come from?
To start, he’s an immigrant, too. He is from a small countryside town called Zacatecoluca in the province of La Paz in El Salvador. He was quick to pull out a laptop and show many pictures of his town.
There’s the park in front of the church where he spent most of his childhood or the natural pools at Ichanmichen, where he would go once a week to swim to escape the heat.
But El Salvador experienced two major earthquakes in early 2001, which caused a lot of destruction—not just physical—but also economical.
Orellana and his family didn’t lose anything in these earthquakes, but they were reminders of what had been lost on Oct. 10, 1986.
“My parents lost their home in an earthquake before this,” Orellana said. “My wife and I were blessed to move here and start a new life.”
He came to the U.S. in April 2001 with his wife, Janet, and two sons, Alex and Edgar. Orellana’s family has grown since they moved to Lincoln. He said his “princess” Mency was born after they moved. But it was thanks to his brother-in-law, Roberto, that Orellana and his family could even come to the U.S.
Roberto had gained his U.S. citizenship, and he submitted a petition for his family to join him as permanent residents.
“We left behind our family and friends, so in some way you feel like alone here, you know,” he said.
They came to Lincoln, Nebraska, and began a new life.
Orellana didn’t have as big of an issue with the language barrier as his wife and children because he had worked for American Airlines in El Salvador and had learned English through that job.
Though the language barrier was an issue for the rest of his family, it wasn’t the biggest. Weather was the most difficult thing the family had to adapt to—El Salvador has a warm tropical climate, and Nebraska has a beast called winter.
“We had never seen the snow in our life before,” Orellana said. “We never lived in a place that the temperature dropped below zero.”
They didn’t have any winter coats, and they didn’t know how to drive in snow especially without four-wheel drive.
“It was really hard for us in the first years and still been a big challenge,” he said.
The first thing he and his wife did was reach out to Latino churches to make connections and find a way to serve God and the community.
Orellana’s first job in Lincoln was as a server for a few months at a restaurant called El Salvador (today it’s called Tia Lety’s). The owner is also from El Salvador and serves authentic Salvadorian food.
This helped Orellana and his family to not miss such foods as queso loroco pupusas, but he also considers himself lucky in another way that helps him not miss the food as much.
“The good thing is my wife can cook really good pupusas,” Orellana said. “I’m glad that I married a lady that can.”
He quickly found a new job because of his degree in biology and chemistry from the Universidad of El Salvador. He became a quality control technician for US Foods, the first Latino hired to that position in Lincoln.
Eventually, Orellana moved up in the company in Lincoln.
“I never expect that I work seven and a half years, and I became the senior quality control tech,” he said. “I loved my job.”
But being a quality control technician didn’t follow his inspiration to live life.
“It’s like a mission in life for me to help others in need,” he said. “And try to pay back in some way all the services and support that I received from the community. That’s why I became a liaison.”
Orellana also said Pohirieth was a role model for him since he was the liaison that help him enroll his two sons into school when they arrived in the U.S.
Lincoln Public Schools has 2,439 students enrolled in ELL programs for the 2015-16 school year. And those students speak 53 different languages were in the ELL program. The two most common languages are Spanish, which accounts for 31 percent of the ELL program and Arabic, which makes up about 20 percent of the program.
Orellana is one of 23 bilingual liaisons working for LPS. The liaisons cover the bigger languages, according to Pohirieth. That’s why LPS has more Spanish and Arabic liaisons for families to utilize.
The liaisons not only help enroll the children into schools, but they also help with pretty much any other factor of education such as issues of, mental health, gangs behavior to name a few.
Whether it’s family, work or food, it all boils down to one thing for Orellana: passion.
“One of my satisfactions of this job is to know that families in the Latino community have someone that they can contact and can serve them,” Orellana said. “It’s an honor and a privilege to serve our students, their family and the community.”