San Jose Mercury News

Tuesday, October 27, 1998

Law Hasn't Weakened Desire for Bilingualism
By JOE RODRIGUEZ, Mercury News Staff Columnist

Darrell Cortez will not repeat his father's mistake.

I sat with Darrell and Alicia Cortez in their living room in Willow Glen, a short walk from a popular school that was overlooked in California's nasty language war. They have two sons at River Glen School, where students learn in two languages -- English and Spanish -- and graduate bilingual.

Darrell begins with the education of his father. The old man was born in Southern California to Mexican immigrants, ``but when he went to school,'' Darrell said, ``he was disciplined for speaking Spanish.''

``They'd slap him with a ruler, or spank him. So he decided he wouldn't let his children suffer the same humiliation and pain. That's why he never spoke Spanish to us at home. That's why I lost the language and have struggled since to master it.''

In California, the ballot has replaced the classroom paddle as cultural enforcer.

Still, I won't argue here and now for civil disobedience. Voters decidedly passed Proposition 227 to end bilingual education. More than a few Latinos and Asians voted for it. The new law deserves a fair trial by classroom and court first. Besides, it looks like 227 has enough wiggle room and loopholes to allow bilingual ed to survive to some degree.

Even so, we shouldn't merely preserve bilingual ed as we knew it.

We need more River Glen schools. I went there recently and found a community of students, teachers and parents who know that time, numbers and reason are on their side.

When the Cortez boys, Ricardo and Emilio, switch languages, your ears tell you they're United Nations translators in the making.

I sat for a while with two of their schoolmates, Xochitl Mart(acu)nez and Todd Anderson. These ``almost best friends'' put on quite a show for me, moving between English and Spanish as they talked about the advantages of speaking two languages.

One-third of the kids at River Glen are like Xochitl, Mexican kids who arrive speaking only Spanish. One-third are Mexican-Americans, like the Cortez boys, recapturing the language their parents lost. Another third are white kids like Todd learning Spanish for the first time.

Across the valley, in the high-tech mecca of Cupertino, Chinese-American parents are pressing for a Mandarin-English school. If California hates bilingual ed, why do so many desire bilingualism? Listen to two more River Glen parents:

``Because I want my kids to be able to speak with their grandmother in Mexico, to stay connected to the country of their ancestors,'' said Marisa Brennan, a Mexican immigrant married to an Irish-American.

``This is a diverse part of the world,'' Marilyn Dion said. She doesn't speak Spanish but wants her two kids to learn the language. ``I'd like for them to get along with other people and take advantage of the globalized world.''

For 30 years, the primary goal of bilingual ed was to ``transition'' immigrant kids into English and to hell with their native languages. Transition. What an insulting, coercive word. It tells the Mexican boy and the Asian girl, if you desire American acceptance, forget how to speak with your mother and father. Forget who you are.

For three decades we drained Spanish and other languages from these children when all they needed was better help adding English. Failing to see the value of bilingualism, we denied each one of them a larger world, a brighter future. That was the worst tragedy.

Deep down inside, immigrants and U.S. Latinos have always known they can embrace American citizenship and remain bilingual. Talk with them at home, next to their family photos and cultural artworks, and they speak their desire. They want their children to master English and remain fluent in their native languages. In short, to be truly bilingual. It's time to stand up and say so.