Editor'snote: Because the family portrayed in this story is in this country illegally, New Times is using only the first names of family members.
Martín sits on the dingy brown sofa sectional with his back hunched, gazing at the spiral notebook resting on his lap. He's filling it with mathematical equations.
His favorite subject is algebra. The Carl Hayden Community High School senior envisions a future in college, where his numerical skills will earn him dual degrees in engineering and architecture.
A handful of smart and dedicated high school students might consider this an attainable dream. Why shouldn't Martín? He pulls A's and B's and seems a likely candidate for scholarships.
Already, recruitment letters from Arizona State University, the University of Arizona and Northern Arizona University are filling his mailbox.
"The Minority Student Recruitment Unit of the University of Arizona . . . would like to recognize you for your outstanding academic performance," says one letter from the admissions staff in Tucson. But what the universities don't know is that 17-year-old Martín has a heartbreaking secret.He's an illegal immigrant from Guanajuato, Mexico. And he can barely speak English, certainly not well enough to undertake engineering studies at an American university.
A language barrier is only part of his problem. For Martín, there will be no financial aid or scholarships, even though his father supports a family of five on a $6-an-hour job.
Unless he can find thousands of dollars and a family to sponsor him, Martín will not be able to go to college, either as an undocumented immigrant in Arizona or if he were to return to Mexico. He is caught in a web of international politics and indescribable poverty that will surely snag even an exceptional student like Martín. The education he is receiving through Phoenix public schools will probably lead him only a few blocks from the trailer park that is his home to the corner where Mexican men gather every morning and wait for work as day laborers.
For two years, Martín has struggled through a bilingual education program at Carl Hayden High, a program that's meant to teach him English.
In class, however, only his teachers speak English, to explain books, materials and assignments written in English. Some teachers teach in Spanish. In either case, students respond mainly in Spanish, and outside the classroom, they speak mostly Spanish with siblings, parents and friends.
Martín's teachers say he's a good, quiet kid with exam scores good enough to attract colleges. He does especially well in math, which is taught primarily in Spanish.
Although Martín reads and writes English fairly well, he struggles with English conversation. He says he prefers to avoid English dialogue because he's worried he'll say something wrong. As long as he can finish his assignments in English, and teachers allow him to respond in Spanish, there is little need for him to practice his English.
But if Arizona voters pass the controversial Proposition 203 next week, he won't have that choice.
The measure would eliminate much of the 30-year-old bilingual education system that, opponents of the program say, has kept kids like Martín from reaching their potential. They call bilingual education a form of segregation and an outdated experiment.
Proposition 203 would require that most kids be placed in regular English-only classes after one year of intensive English lessons in "immersion" classes. Now, more than 130,000 kids a year are enrolled in bilingual classes -- math, history, science, for instance -- that are taught in Spanish as well as English.
Since California voters passed a similar proposition in 1998, "limited English proficient" students have seen gains in their test scores across a spectrum of subjects. However, immersion is in its infancy, and its future, like Martín's, is obscure.
And the education of tens of thousands of Spanish-speaking kids who attend Arizona schools is a much more complicated prospect than any ballot initiative is going to resolve. Like Martín and his family, many students are illegal immigrants. Increasing numbers are illiterate even in their native language. Many are older teenagers who simply don't have time to learn English and other subjects before they graduate -- or drop out.
Martín and his sister, Gisela, 14, are older students in the bilingual system. Younger brother Julio, 10, may be bi-illiterate -- he struggles to write, speak and read in both Spanish and English -- and is not benefiting from bilingual education.
Many parents with kids in bilingual classrooms believe immersion is an outrage. It takes away educational choices and creates an uncomfortable, unproductive learning environment, they say.
Martín's parents, Martín Sr. and Maria, don't speak English. When they imagine what it would be like to go to school in an all-English environment, they say they would be confused and would fear insensitive teachers.
But immersion proponents say parents should instead fear a bilingual education system that has been a detriment to their children's educational growth.
Ron Unz is the California millionaire funding Proposition 203. He also funded California's Proposition 227 in 1998.
In California, 95 percent of kids in bilingual ed were not moving into mainstream classrooms. "It turns out Arizona had a 97 percent failure rate [in grades K-6]," Unz says.
He calls bilingual education "a very unsuccessful program that nobody wants. It's so complicated and confusing that people haven't paid much attention to it."
In Arizona, some parents are paying attention. Shortly after California voters passed Proposition 227, Unz says, he started getting phone calls from concerned parents, calling bilingual education discriminatory and ineffective. The majority of them are Latinos, he says.
State Senator Joe Eddie Lopez, a Phoenix Democrat, is one of Unz's staunchest critics and a strong proponent of bilingual ed.
Lopez calls Unz "a racist."
"I think he's an opportunist," Lopez says. "But I would not put the same tag on Latinos pushing for the initiative. They are being misguided."
Unz calls Lopez's racist tag "very silly." He notes that it was Latino parents who also sparked California's ballot measure.
The suggestion of racism is one of several tactics being used to derail the initiative. Opponents also say it takes away parental choice and threatens language and culture.
But it's clear watching Martín and his friends, who are mainly Mexican, that they will never lose their language or heritage. If anything, they are already bicultural. Their lives function best in Spanish, yet they live the American culture.
On a recent October day, there are 75 to 100 kids knocking a few blue rubber balls around the handball courts at Carl Hayden.
Martín and his good friend Ernesto are leaning against the warm chain-link fence, eyeing a couple of semi-impressive handball matches. They've stood there all lunch hour waiting to get in a game. The bell will ring shortly, so they want to play.
They finally get some action. "Ya ganamos tres," Martín says 10 minutes later. "We already won three."
He and Ernesto exchange a "cool" handshake -- a full-finger grip followed by a light tapping of the fists. "Ándale hué!" Ernesto shouts, Spanish slang for "all right!"
Like the rubber balls, Spanish bounces off the shiny concrete walls in each of the nine courts.
Me debes tres dólares. You owe me three dollars, one kid tells another after winning three games.
Dale! Hit it!
Está bien guapa. She's pretty hot, one boy says about a girl in a yellow top.
Ya va sonar la campana. The bell's going to ring.
Carl Hayden High, near 35th Avenue and Roosevelt Street, is in the heart of a giant Latino community. It seems unlikely that Martín and his friends, surrounded by thousands of Hispanic voices, will slip away from their heritage so easily.
Martín is a slender teen with puffy black hair. He closes the spiral notebook and jumps up from the sofa to see what's frying on the stove. His little brother Julio, an extremely shy child with a cereal-bowl haircut, fills the vacancy and begins jotting down a column of multiplication tables. He is in fifth grade at William R. Sullivan School.
The middle child, Gisela, a Carl Hayden freshman, sits hunched over a black wooden desk, her brown hair draped over her left shoulder as she reviews a lengthy list of spelling words.
Like contortionists, the kids move their bodies every which way, trying to find a comfortable study position in this cramped single-wide trailer where the living room, kitchen and bathroom are just steps away from each other.
The family has little money. A quick tour of the ancient trailer they've called home for the last two years shows that.
In the trailer's center, by the front door, stands a dilapidated dining table, strips of plastic molding peeling from the edges, revealing dry glue-coated particle board. Four chairs of different colors, heights and conditions complete the ragged dinette set.
Throughout the day, Maria, Martín's mom, keeps a full pitcher of iced red aguita --lightly sweetened Kool-Aid -- on the table.
In the kitchen, a small, white gas stove is lodged next to an aged steel sink filled with a few bean-coated dishes. The floor is covered in sticky beige linoleum. In the only bathroom, a beige porcelain sink is suspended by a thick piece of particle board that also serves as a vanity, filled with makeup canisters, shampoo, toothpaste, other toiletries. A thin white curtain conceals the contents under the sink.
When they're all home, the five members of Martín's family squeeze together on the brown sofa that engulfs much of the trailer's limited space. They like to watch the Mexican novelas (soap operas)in the evening.
Opposite the long sofa, high on the wall, hangs a tiny shrine. The wood-framed images of La Virgen de San Juan and La Virgen de Guadalupe are illuminated by a half-burned candle in a purple glass cylinder with a painted image of Jesus Christ. The idols are surrounded by tiny white vases filled with salt-and-pepper feathers and nylon carnations in red, orange and yellow.
Maria says the saints have protected them thus far, so "we have to give them light . . . we entrust ourselves to them."
The candle's light also shines on the family's few worldly possessions.
They have little money for nonessentials, but they've managed to come up with an old TV and a secondhand silver hi-fi. The electronic relics hold a place just to the left of the shrine, testament to their importance in an American household.
Secondhand wooden shelves hold wedding photos of Maria and Martín Sr. They've been married almost 20 years. In the photo, she's wearing a plush white wedding gown and turquoise eye shadow. The same color covers her eyelids today.
Symbols of the family's determination to excel despite a life of poverty and lack of English skills also have a prominent place on the wall, near the shrine and its protective saints. Two framed certificates -- one for perfect school attendance and one for outstanding achievement -- bear Gisela's name. Julio has one for perfect attendance and outstanding citizenship.
Maria, who spoke Spanish during interviews with New Times, believes Gisela is the best of her kids at learning English. She hears her conversing with phone solicitors and sees her reading magazines in English. Martín is doing okay, Maria says, but is shy about practicing.
Julio isn't doing so well.
"He just can't get it," Maria says. "It doesn't penetrate."
For two years, Julio's reading and writing scores have declined. He flunked the fourth grade because he couldn't retain information.
Julio's teacher, Robert Witte, says Julio is immature for his age, which partly explains his poor retention level. But Julio has more severe problems.
Witte says that kids in a bilingual or ESL setting learn to speak English faster if they are already proficient in their native language. Although Julio is in fifth grade, he still reads only at a first-grade level in his native Spanish.
Now, Julio is a candidate for special education classes, where he would get more individual bilingual attention. But under Proposition 203, Julio would be allowed to continue learning in a bilingual setting only if his parents request a waiver and only if the school approves it. Moreover, to conduct a bilingual classroom, Proposition 203 requires that there be at least 20 kids in the school with waivers. If not, the student must transfer to a school that does have that many.
At Sullivan, 8 percent of the 900 students are bi-illiterate and are being taught in special-education programs, according to Kenneth Erickson, Sullivan's principal.
He says kids in these programs come from poor, ethnic neighborhoods and may have been affected by parental drug use, alcoholism or domestic violence, or they live in areas where these things are prevalent.
Some of these kids, 10 years and younger, have missed an entire year of school -- the years when kids absorb the most information.
"Being a practitioner and administrator, you see the issues differently," Erickson says. He's opposed to Proposition 203.
In an English-immersion setting, there will be "kids like Julio that won't survive," he says.
Proposition 203 is telling kids, "we're going to throw you in English, and if you fail, we've got plenty of [lawns] to work on."
Julio's difficulty is apparent in his ESL class, which is not far from being an English-only class.
Maria says that Julio's teacher "talks to the class in English and he can't understand."
If Proposition 203 passes, teachers will still be allowed to speak Spanish if necessary.
On a Monday morning in class, Julio busily flips through books that are written in English. Witte is meeting with a reading group at the opposite corner of the room.
With a partner, Julio is taking turns reading from At the Car Wash and I Can Do It Myself. The books don't look very complicated. Each page has one sentence and a colorful illustration.
Julio reads softly so as not to be heard. He mumbles and his words make little sense. The two boys rush through four of five books, despite several mispronunciations and little understanding of their meanings.
Later, Julio is at his desk working on the assignment written on the board: Write each spelling word in two sentences.
One of the words is "family."
Julio scribbles his sentences in English into a light-blue journal: My family is little. My family is cute.
Witte glides over to Julio. The boy, slightly startled, slaps his hand on the desk, trying to cover his work. Julio is very timid. He grins ear to ear to hide his discomfort. But he won't let Witte help him. Witte backs off and tells him just to underline the spelling words.
Julio's lucky that the little girl with the long, dark hair sitting next to him can translate Witte's instructions.
Julio is clearly uncomfortable in this mostly English environment, embarrassed that he needs help from a teacher. That could also explain his poor academic performance. Being in an English immersion class would likely enhance his shyness -- and his poor grades.
Except for one African-American kid who speaks English fluently and is in the class because he can't read very well, Julio's classmates are all Latino. All, except Julio, seem enthusiastic. All, except Julio, seem to be learning English.
Under Proposition 203, if kids have not learned to speak English after one year, a program must be available so they can continue English instruction. A literacy test determines whether they're ready to move into mainstream classrooms. So even under the ballot measure, some kids could stay in ESL-type classes for several years, although most probably won't.
In California's Oceanside School District, which is doing more with immersion than any other district, officials have created a "bridge program" for those trailing kids.
Julio has a few more tests to take before the school makes its final decision about placing him in special ed classes. Administrators also have to talk to his parents.
Back home, stretched out on the sofa with his chin to his chest, Julio is oblivious to the activity surrounding him. Like his older brother, the future is showing little promise.
Right now, Julio's only interest is Nintendo, but the family can't afford one. With a timid, ear-to-ear grin, he says he wants to be a doctor. He doesn't know why, it's just a dream of his.
Every workday for two years, Martín Sr. has pedaled his red mountain bike three miles to work and three miles back. He says he will continue the bicycle commute until the family can afford to buy a car. He has no idea when that might be.
All day he stacks heavy 8-by-4-foot sheets of Sheetrock. The physical intensity of the job may explain his veiny, leathery hands and lean forearms.
At six bucks an hour, 40 hours a week, he makes roughly $240 a week, $1,000 a month.
He uses $150 a month to make his trailer payment. He's halfway to paying off the $3,000 mortgage that's being held by a fellow Mexicano. After utilities and food, there is little left over for other things, like entertainment.
Recently, with the aid of coupons provided by a friend, the family made it to the state fair. Each kid got a bag of popcorn and tickets for a couple of rides. This was a rare outing.
Martín Sr. is 39, about 6-foot-3, lanky, with defined cheekbones and a pointed nose. He wears a blue ball cap etched with his company's logo and a loose-fitting black tee shirt airbrushed with a picture of a pachuco and a lowrider car on the back. His thin legs are covered in faded blue jeans.
He came to the United States four years ago after his business, a corner store, went bankrupt. Too much competition, rising taxes and stricter government policies on the sale of alcohol drove him out of business, he says in Spanish.
Maria says he made the decision to cross the border almost overnight. Some friends talked him into it one evening, she says. The next morning, he was gone.
That was about four years ago. Martín Sr. crossed the border at Juárez into El Paso.
He stayed with different friends in houses and apartments until he made a deal with the trailer's owner to buy it.
It was a white woman who helped him get his first job at a fruit packing plant, he says. After a few more jobs in the agriculture industry, he landed the job at the Sheetrock plant.
Maria recalls their first attempt at crossing. She and the kids were in a van that was confronted by an INS roadblock. She took her kids and ran through the desert, trying to escape. After running for about an hour, they were captured and sent back to Mexico. Two days later, they made it to Phoenix and to the trailer where Martín Sr. was waiting for them.
Since their arrival, Martín Sr. has been the only one in the family to work. He's the only one with a forged social security card, which he used to get his current job.
Sitting at the kitchen table, Martín Sr. pours himself a glass of aguita from the ice-capped pitcher. He says Maria wants to work at a tortilla factory but can't because she doesn't have a social security number. A forgery costs about $1,400, he says.
Maria, 40, says she'd like to work. One day, when she's sitting on the sofa watching TV, she confides that she needs to work because the family just barely gets by.
She admits that part of the reason for not working is her lack of self-confidence and fear of getting busted for not having a green card. But she says her husband has been the biggest deterrent to her employment.
Maria is wearing a white Guess sweatshirt stained with several brown spots. Turquoise slacks cover her legs, and worn leather sandals hang from her feet. Her red toenail polish is chipped.
"I was raised in the old Mexican way," she says. Where the man works and the woman stays home to raise kids and build a household, where a woman's opinion matters little in a relationship. This is evident when she's in Martín Sr.'s presence. She will say very little and will not question him.
"He says he's scared that I'll change if I go to work," Maria says when Martín Sr. is not in the room. She says he fears she'll become more independent.
But she's getting tired of dressing her kids with clothes from the segunda -- the secondhand store -- or with hand-me-downs.
Maria has no friends and spends her days locked in the single-wide. She'll occasionally take a stroll to a nearby dollar store or grocery store.
She frequently gazes down at her hands, her left palm sitting on top of her right, and sighs. Maybe it's desperation, the realization that her future is an hour from now or tomorrow, that long-term plans are irrelevant.
One evening, when she talks about work while sitting at the kitchen table, Martín Sr. cuts in and starts talking about how he's heard that American women work, but don't do much cooking. A bit of tension grows at the table. Maria lowers her head. Martín Sr. sips his aguita.
Martín flips through the pages of the newspaper during the first half-hour of his English class. The other teens in his class talk and giggle while Cheryl Cardinal, the teacher, occasionally peeks out over her newspaper.
After a half-hour of reading quietly, she begins a discussion about conflicts and resolutions. Few of the kids are paying attention, but Cardinal continues with her lecture.
"What is conflict?" she asks.
The answers pour out in Spanish. Cómo un problema? A problem? Algo que te pasa? Something that happens to you? One kid says in English, "A mistake?" Another kid jokingly replies, "Un bistec?""A steak?"
"The fun we can have with words," Cardinal chimes in.
Then a real answer from a voice in the class: "What if you don't have papers and you break your arm?" the voice says.
One student, Francisco, yells out in Spanish, "Te lleva la migra." The INS will take you.
They've come across a conflict. Francisco offers a solution: Go to his church "and they can help you," he says.
The class is then split into groups. They're supposed to write down a conflict and a resolution. Two of the four groups write as their conflict: What if a friend offered you a beer?
But the good discussion doesn't last long. Instead, the class degenerates into the kind of educational dumbing-down that gives opponents of bilingual education some of their most powerful ammunition.
Cardinal puts on a video, Jumanji, the 1995 Robin Williams film where he's trapped in a jungle game. She says watching the film will help the class understand what it's like to be trapped in a conflict.
After the film, they must write a story, with characters, that has a conflict and a resolution. Martín later says the assignment is easy. They've already watched four movies in the class that have been followed by similar assignments. He's not sure if the assignments are actually helping him.
Martín confides that school in Mexico was a lot tougher than it is here. He recalls the in-depth research papers he had to write, the lengthy math assignments and the complex science projects.
The curriculum in ESL and bilingual classes is made easier simply to move kids to the next grade level, says Margaret Garcia-Dugan, principal at Glendale High School and a leading advocate of Proposition 203.
"We feel that it has kept our Latino kids down," she says.
She's been labeled a racist for her position. But Garcia-Dugan, who grew up in Bisbee and learned English through immersion, says it's time for the Latino community to put faith in their own.
She believes that it's wrong to exempt kids who are just learning English from taking placement tests, that it's a form of segregation. And, she says, Chinese and Eastern European immigrants excel faster, get more scholarships and rank at or near the top of their classes because they choose immersion over bilingual education.
How many Latino kids are National Merit Scholars, the top three percent of students in the nation, she asks? She knows the answer: None.
Garcia-Dugan criticizes Senator Lopez for his stance on bilingual education because he, too, was raised under immersion.
"I'm a principal, he is a senator. We both have pretty good jobs," she says.
Lopez's biggest argument is that Proposition 203 would take away parental choice. But he also sees the problems with bilingual education resting on the fact that there's never been enough money to carry out the program successfully.
He says that 36 percent of teachers teaching bilingual education do not have credentials; that there are not enough teachers available to school districts; that there's not enough monitoring of bilingual programs; and that there are no sanctions to enforce when students show no signs of advancement.
"We need to evaluate these programs in ways we can make determinations of their worth," Lopez says.
For three years, he's been pushing for bilingual reforms, but he has received little support.
Meanwhile, Martín sits in his ESL world history class while his teacher, Stephanie Johnson, quizzes the class on current events.
"Who's fighting in the Middle East?" she asks in English.
There's silence for a few seconds. Then someone answers, in English. "Palestine and Israel."
"Who's the leader of the Palestinians?"
"Slobodan Milosevic," says a voice in the class. "I don't know," says another.
Students giggle and continue to talk.
"What did Henry Ford invent?"
"The telephone," a boy yells out.
"Who invented the light bulb?"
"Thomas Edison," comes from a soft, female voice.
A kid yells out in Spanish, "How come she knows so much?"
A couple of unruly teens, Roberto and Pedro, holler at the teacher: "Start the movie already."
Johnson turns on the World War I documentary. Most kids ignore the film and use the opportunity to turn their chairs and start talking, whispering to each other in Spanish. They really don't care about the 19th-century German Empire and Otto Von Bismarck.
Martín sits quietly, watching the film. The narrator sounds like he's talking into an aluminum garbage can.
After the movie, the class has to answer two questions written on the board. Johnson says there would be four questions in a mainstream class.
She says she has struggled to teach some of these students.
"These kids already have opinions about the United States . . . Some don't stand for the pledge," Johnson says.
She adds that many kids do not let go of their culture and refuse to assimilate. Roberto, for example, refuses to speak to her in English. She thinks her gender and Roberto's machista attitudemay have something to do with it. "If I was a male, there would be no problem," she says.
"Change is good," Johnson says. She's in favor of immersion.
Gisela is looking over her shoulder at her classmate's desk. Her class is practicing translating sentences from Spanish to English.
She reads out loud to her group of four, "El esposo de mi hermana es mi cuñado."
"Translate," she commands one of her friends.
Slowly, in English, he says, "My sister's husband is my brother-in-law."
"That's right," Gisela applauds the teen, in English.
Gisela is a teacher in the making; she dreams of becoming an elementary school teacher someday. Her mother remembers when Gisela, as a child in Mexico, would gather her friends and teach them about things she'd learned, like where toothpaste comes from.
After two years in a bilingual system, Gisela's English skills are more advanced than her brothers'. But she's facing the same uncertain future as Martín. It likely will be impossible for her to go to college. At least she has a little more time -- three more years -- to better her English, to hope that her situation will change.
This is her first year at Carl Hayden and she wants to enroll in Army ROTC. She says she likes the uniforms and thinks it would improve her leadership skills for when she becomes a teacher. She'll sign up next year for sure, she says.
Maria says Gisela is the most artistic of the three siblings. Unlike her brothers, she's more interested in language and literature than numbers and math.
Gisela likes to read National Geographic magazine because it adds to her list of places she'd like to travel to someday. Places like Africa, India and Europe.
She's a fan of Creedence Clearwater Revival and the Beatles, but she's also consumed with Shakira, the Latin American pop sensation. And she dresses as hip as her secondhand clothes will allow -- navy hip-hugger pants and white platform shoes. Her hair, pulled back in a ponytail, cascades down her back.
If Proposition 203 passes, Gisela will soon face an all-English classroom. But she seems to have the confidence to handle it and the foundation of two years in bilingual ed.
She's written a poem, in English, that's posted on the classroom bulletin board.
Nice, Sad and Short
Daughter of Guadalupe and Martín
Lover of books, drawings and music
Who feels happy when its Christmas
Who feels sad when I'm crying
Who feels excited on my birthday
Who fears big dogs, spiders
and scary movie
Who would like to graduated
to the high school
Who would like to go
Who would like to go
-- Native of Irapuato, Guanajuato
Many bilingual proponents agree that bilingual education needs reform. They say the program has no set universal standards, that bilingual programs differ from school to school, district to district. They complain that there have never been enough truly certified bilingual teachers, and that administrators disagree on the methods of implementation.
"Thirty years is too long for an experiment," Garcia-Dugan says.
She thinks students should learn to speak English as soon as possible, not in the three years it takes in the best-case bilingual program. The Arizona Department of Education reports that it takes an average of 5.2 years for kids in the state to transition into mainstream classes.
Martín will never make it to that point. After two years, he is unable to speak fluently. If anything, Martín will walk away with a better understanding of American culture and enough English skills to get him change for a dollar. Not enough to accomplish his dreams.
Would a one-year English immersion course have somehow polished Martín's tarnished future? Had he become fluent through immersion, would he find a job that's better than day labor? Would he be able to save money for a student visa, college tuition, and be able to pass the entrance exams?
For Martín, the questions will remain unanswered. For the kids after him, who are like him, the answers will depend on how a system of immersion would play out in this state.
Some experts say it could be 10 years before we know for sure.
Bilingual proponents also believe that dropout rates would continue to climb under immersion, even though they have remained high throughout three decades of bilingual education.
The Arizona Department of Education reports that 18 percent -- 13,500 of the state's 77,000 Latino high school students -- dropped out in the 1998-1999 school year. In the Phoenix Union High School District, Latino dropout rates hover at 20 percent.
If Martín can look forward to anything in his future, it's graduation next year. He'll likely walk the runway, shake hands with the principal and take home a diploma to hang on the wall, beneath the shrine, in the family's trailer.
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