San Jose Mercury News

Sunday, April 19, 1998

I Lost a Big Part of My Identity

IN Proposition 227, Ron Unz proposes one year of "structured immersion" in English for students who are learning English, followed by submersion in a regular English-only classroom. Unlike Unz, I've experienced this kind of "sink or swim" education.

I am over 50 years of age, yet I have vivid memories of my early school years.

I was born in a village in Jalisco, Mexico. Our family emigrated to California out of necessity. Soon after, we settled in San Francisco, and I was enrolled in kindergarten. There was no bilingual education. I was placed in a regular English-only program.

My parents taught me to have high regard for my teachers. I tried to be the best possible student. But I could not understand some of the lessons my teachers gave in class.

"Pay attention," my teachers said. "Listen carefully." What my teachers could not understand is that listening to incomprehensible sounds, no matter how clear, could not produce understanding.

At conferences, my teachers insisted that my parents not speak Spanish at home, the only language in which they could speak fluently.

In the fifth grade, I was given a minor role in a school play, "Remember the Alamo." I was excited to be included in the production. My parents were proud of me. One afternoon as the class was rehearsing the play, Mrs. D. said to me, "You don't say your words properly." As much as she tried, she could not get rid of my accent. Mrs. D. gave my role to another student.

In junior high and high school, immigrant students were segregated in low-level classes. Never was I assessed to determine my talents or abilities. I was never exposed to a piece of classic literature; in low-track classes students were given grammar dittos to fill out or spelling assignments. As a result, Spanish-speaking students fell behind academically.

By contrast, students in high-track classes were enriched with world classics written by Shakespeare, Cervantes, Tolstoy, Twain, and other authors. Students developed critical thinking through some of the finest literature. Their reading and writing skills were cultivated through assigned reports and discussions.

Neither teachers nor counselors expected immigrant students to attend college. My high school counselor explained college was hard and he didn't think I could manage the requirements.

The subtle and overt messages projected by my teachers about immigrants were so negative, I didn't want to be identified with my community. When I enrolled in school as a young child, I was so proud of my family and my parents. I loved my culture, its music and its rich foods. When I graduated from high school, I could not speak with fluency my native tongue. I had lost an integral part of my identity.

When I became a mother, I began reflecting on how I would educate my children. I realized that I had been denied a quality education.

Fortunately, I developed a love for books. I became an avid reader. My thirst for knowledge has never been satisfied. As my children were going through school, I pursued higher education.

Today, I am an educator in a dual-immersion magnet school that teaches in English and Spanish. Our students are from varied backgrounds; they are bilingual and biliterate. I truly believe we are preparing our students for the challenges of the 21st century.

Educators at our school value and validate the students' home languages. Our school staff doesn't believe children ought to be stripped of their heritage. The language experiences children bring to school are considered an asset.

Educators, parents and the community should find ways to strengthen and support bilingual and multilingual programs. We must not return to the days of sink or swim.

Marta Morales is a third-grade teacher at San Jose Unified's River Glen Elementary School.