Memo from a Bilingual Teacher

Malabar Elementary School
Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD)

To: Malabar Colleagues 

From: John Espinoza, 2nd grade teacher

Re: In defense of Bilingual Education

February 16, 1998

The current state of affairs in the world of education has motivated me to write about out our school, our community, and the need to support bilingual education. Yesterday I went to the Los Angeles Coliseum to see the soccer game between the USA and Mexico. And as I was sitting in the midst of 91,000 mostly Latino-Spanish speaking people, it hit me, and hit me hard. No matter what we do as educators, Los Angeles has already become a city that speaks two languages. One hundred and fifty years ago this region was officially Mexico, and if you had attended yesterday's game you wouldn’t have noticed any difference. Of course, LA isn’t Mexico. But Los Angeles and California have certainly become home for millions of Spanish-speaking people, and it is not likely that they will forget their language. Some, such as people in the business community have taken note of this situation and adjusted accordingly, by marketing goods and services in two languages. 

Others, such as Ron Unz, have either not realized that we already have a bilingual society, or they do realize it, and they are afraid of it. They believe that it is possible and desirable for our schools to erase Spanish and replace it with English. Some of these Ron Unz types even believe that what they propose will actually help uplift these “downtrodden” immigrants, and will bring our American society together. In their opinion, the forced imposition of a common language is a key factor in the unification our society. They rant on and on: “Bilingual education is a failure, the students are not learning English.” Of course, all of this is ludicrous.

But what can we do as educators working in a city and state that is already de facto bilingual? I say, work to make the bilingual education system better. Our city is bilingual. But not enough of our citizens speak the dominant language, English. Our focus in bilingual education still has to be what it has always been, a bridge to English learning. Does this mean less primary language teaching. No. Less primary language development means, in the long run, poor quality English learning. Our practice as educators and the research and practice of over 30 years of bilingual education in this state confirms that bilingual education is the best way to learn English, quality level English that enables our students to compete in college and in the job market. 

With all the political pressure of the English only movement upon us, there will be a tendency for us to give less primary language instruction and to push for an early exit of students from the bilingual program. This is wrong, and we would be doing a disservice to our students if we succumb to this pressure. Our own LAUSD master plan promotes a patient approach in bilingual education. Faster transition to all-English classrooms usually means a low-quality transition. 

Unfortunately, the atmosphere created by the Unz movement will encourge misguided people from within our own teacher ranks to undermine our program. Whether or not you are teaching in a bilingual classroom, and whether or not you have questions, doubts, or even opposition to the bilingual program, you still have an obligation to carry out district policy. In addition, as educators, who have chosen to work in a bilingual community, we have an added obligation to uphold and defend bilingual education with our parents. Advocacy and agitation against the bilingual program with parents only helps to undermine our unified purpose of quality education for every Malabar student. 

The fight to defend bilingual education will not end on June 2 with the Unz initiative (Prop. 227). No one can predict what exactly will be consequences of the passage of this proposition. But I do expect there to be a prolonged fight. LAUSD, individual teachers, and the massive Latino community have invested too much time and effort in establishing and building up our bilingual education system. As bilingual educators, we need to do more to defend bilingual education. We need to talk to parents, go to meetings and get involved. Contrary to misinformation being let out, there is tremendous support in the Spanish-speaking community for bilingual education (65% according to polls published in La Opinion on Feb. 11). So far, LAUSD and our superintendent have been supporters of the rights of English-learning students. But they need to do more, such as publicly assuring parents that bilingual education will continue in this district even if Unz passes. They need to use the weight of their authority and let the public know that Unz is unconstitutional and that the fight will be taken to the courts. 

Thirty years ago Chicano students and community activists felt strongly enough about educational issues, including the demand for bilingual education, to sit in for three days at the LA School board. It probably will take similar formidable efforts and organization in our school, in our community, and yes, even in politics to defend bilingual education this time.