Los Angeles Times

Sunday, March 22, 1998

Language Is a Bridge to Culture
Latinos' ambivalence toward Proposition 227 comes from the suspicion that it is an attempt to obliterate their heritage.

I remember well the magic of knowing two languages as a child. My maternal grandmother, an immigrant from the heart of central Mexico, raised me with the certainty that mastering the language of her adopted country would only bring greater opportunities. Although I rarely quibbled with my grandmother, I knew that with the warmth of our home language--our dichos (sayings) and canciones (songs)--I could begin to understand who I was and who I would become.
     If there are two aspects of my childhood that I remember best, it is my home language, Spanish, and my religion, Catholicism. Language and religion were not mutually exclusive activities in my life. They were so intertwined that even when I entered the monolingual parochial schools, I would never end my rosary without the Spanish prayer of "Dulce Madre" (Sweet Mother). Somehow, I felt that without including this prayer in my rosary, the Virgin would not hear my pleas. How could the detached, mournful drone of a "Hail Mary" compete with the lyrical sweetness of a child's prayer that asked for a mother's constant vigilance? It was obvious to me then and now that the dominant culture could have meaning in my eyes only with remnants of my family language.
     Over time, I learned to weave my home language into my new life. I chose never to abandon my home language; rather, I learned that Spanish allowed me to stay rooted to my grandmother's vision as I transformed myself into a new mestiza.
     Although I never attained the level of Spanish fluency that I desired, I continued my grandmother's tradition of maintaining our home language with my own daughters. My goal was less focused on the notion of fluency than on ensuring that they would maintain some semblance of a distinct Mexican cultural identity. Understanding Spanish would provide them not only with a link to our roots, but also with an entry point to traversing more than one culture. How they will view my efforts as adult women is hard to tell. Yet like many Latinas, I tried, at least symbolically, to maintain our language as well as our customs.
     Oddly, when we speak of bilingual education, we forget the symbolism of what language means to individuals. When my non-Latino colleagues ask me about bilingual education, they expect a rational economist's response. I've often heard remarks that go something like: "Well, the numbers tell the story, don't they? The situation is getting worse for Mexican Americans and you've had ample time to prove your point with bilingual education." Or, "Look at you, you were never in bilingual education and you were successful." The discussion then inevitably shifts to transition rates into English, the number of kids with limited English, the correlation between English proficiency and income and job mobility and, of course, the alarming Latino dropout rates.
     Truth be told, we can play with all these numbers and conjure up any story we want to believe about bilingual education. Leaving aside the debate over which are the relevant numbers and studies, we still may find several consensus points. For example, we could probably agree on the fact that bilingual education is just one among many educational programs that have had problems. We also may agree that there is a dire need for reform (and sufficient funding) in K-12 education and a need for explicit measures that can clearly assess student performance in all programs and subjects.
     We also know that most surveys of Latinos illustrate a strong desire that their children become fluent in English. Yet these same surveys often illustrate some ambivalence toward attacks on bilingual education. Why do Latinos exhibit such contradictory attitudes? One response illustrates the clear understanding of the need to become fluent in English to attain economic and political power. The other response illustrates an unwillingness to reject an educational policy that was created to help Latinos. Perhaps this latter is best explained in the context of our unwillingness to completely cede our identity to a dominant culture that has viewed us as marginal.
     In many ways, maintaining our language is a final act of resistance--a resistance that increasingly is fueled by the racism that is manifest in popular culture as well as popular initiatives like Proposition 187 and more recently in Proposition 227, the so-called Unz initiative. Language never will be a simple binary issue for most Latinos. This becomes even more apparent when opponents of bilingual education code their message in racial terms. Despite attempts to make bilingual education a more general issue, it is viewed by many Latinos as a language rights issue. This inevitably strikes at the heart of how we view ourselves. Across generations, we struggle to maintain some continuity with our roots, and those roots are deeply embedded in our language.
     Can there be a rational dialogue on bilingual education? Certainly there are points of compromise and room for discussion. Yet within the shadows of this policy debate is the soul of our identity. And this shadow will continue to filter the lens through which Latinos look at bilingual education and how we measure those who oppose it. A clear example of this occurred when noted educator Jaime Escalante publicly joined the campaign for the Unz initiative. In many Latino circles, he was vilified as a traitor. Certainly that is an irrational response, but it shows clearly that some Latinos are not convinced of the sincerity of the non-Latino electorate's goals for our economic and political assimilation.
     The problem with Proposition 227 is that it forces us into a zero-sum choice. Learning English is important for all Latinos and is not incompatible with maintaining our Spanish. As with the rest of public instruction, we need to have specific standards of performance for bilingual programs and take into account parents' preferences. The strategy should not be to eliminate bilingual education but to take what's best in these programs and incorporate them into our public schools.
     Until Latinos have confidence that attacks on bilingual education are truly targeted on helping our assimilation and not on erasing our identity, there will be little middle ground for reasoned discourse, as language will remain a symbol of our defiance.

Adela De La Torre Is Director of the Mexican American Studies & Research Center at the University of Arizona. E-mail: Adela@u.arizona.edu