Bilingual Blues

This is not the way your grandfather learned English

"After the feds came up with the three years and President Clinton said three years was enough, it just verified my gut reaction to three years," Knaperek continues. "I have to tell you, I pulled three years out of the air originally, but after I started to do more work on it, three years seems very reasonable. It seems a magic number. And with an exclusion in there for a waiver, three years does not bother me at all."

During a hearing on the bill in the House Education Committee, Representative Tom Horne boldly stated, "I tell you, if I were to move to Mexico City, my kids would be speaking Spanish within one year, guaranteed."

How hard could it be?

In a Tucson classroom, fourth- and fifth-grade students stand to tell a stranger--in unaccented English--why they feel they need bilingual education. Their speeches may have been rehearsed, but coming from their earnest little faces they're moving nonetheless.

"It would be scary if bilingual education wasn't there, because I wouldn't be able to understand the teacher, and I wouldn't know what to do, and I would have problems," says one little boy.

Another boy wonders if he'd still be able to talk to his grandparents and aunts and uncles who only speak Spanish. A girl feels caught between languages, not always knowing the Spanish words or the English words for a situation.

The corker: "When we were reading the Constitution," says a second girl, "you know, 'We the People,' I would read it but not understand it because it was too hard. I'm still learning to read harder levels in English, but I don't know it all yet."

They seem so bright it's hard to understand how last year fourth- and fifth-graders in this school only scored in the 22nd and 18th percentiles, respectively, in language on the Stanford Achievement Tests. The state average was in the 47th and 42nd percentiles.

Their teacher, Irene Escarcega, has the wise and patient face of a grandmother. Her family lived south of Douglas, Arizona, when it was still a part of Mexico. She learned her English the old way, by the sink-or-swim method--and the problem with sink-or-swim is that sometimes only those who manage to swim live to tell the tale.

"Do you think I sank or swam?" she asks. "I drowned."
Her mother sent her off to her first day of school with a warning to behave nicely.

"The first time I raised my hand with my nice comportamiento and said Quiero ir al bano, me pegó con la regla," the teacher hit her with a ruler.

When she raised her hand and asked to get a drink of water, the same happened.

"The teacher didn't speak Spanish; we didn't speak English," she continues. "We were all looking at each other. We weren't dumb. After a while we realized, hey, you open your mouth, you're going to get hit."

Escarcega's mother made her stay in school until she graduated from high school. She went to beauty school instead of college, got married, moved to Tucson and had children of her own. When her children went to school, she volunteered as a teacher's aide so that she could be in their classrooms and make damn sure that they didn't get hit.

The school principal thought she was a natural teacher and convinced her to go back to school.

She starts to cry while telling the tale.
"Bilingual education makes me touchy," she says. "I know what I went through, and I know what it can be, and I don't want anyone to go through that again. Why would you take that away? Why are you limiting kids?"

But other segments of the Hispanic population think that bilingual education is limiting kids.

Hector Ayala and Maria Mendoza are activists in Tucson who are campaigning for English for the Children, an offshoot of last year's California campaign that took bilingual education out of schools there.

Both are native speakers of Spanish. Mendoza is from New Mexico and learned English in public schools there. Ayala was born in Mexico but attended schools in Nogales. He teaches high school English in Tucson public schools, where he copes with the weak academic skills of kids who were products of bilingual feeder schools.

Mendoza, the American, speaks English with a heavy accent; Ayala, the Mexican, with just a faint lilt. When they meet, they address each other in Spanish. And yet these two are advocating taking Spanish out of Arizona schools.

"I've heard all their stories," Ayala says of their door-to-door canvassing collecting signatures to place the initiative on the ballot next year--parents complaining when homework comes home in Spanish, students kept in programs simply because they have Hispanic surnames.

They don't know how many signatures they have gathered so far. And how much support they have among Hispanics as a whole is hard to gauge.

"There is no backlash in our community," says former state senator Alfredo Gutierrez. "It's a minor percentage of the folks. This is not an issue that is growing out of the Hispanic community. This is an issue that is being imposed by outsiders for purposes of their own agenda, and it has nothing to do with education."

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