Los Angeles Times
Sunday, March 22, 1998
PERSPECTIVE ON BILINGUAL EDUCATION
Language Is a Bridge to Culture
Latinos' ambivalence toward Proposition 227 comes from the suspicion
that it is an attempt to obliterate their heritage.
By ADELA DE LA TORRE
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
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
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