Growing Up Chicano in America:
Thoughts on Bilingual Education

Revolutionary Worker #957, May 17, 1998

In California, the fight is on for bilingual education. A new ballot initiative, Proposition 227, threatens to dismantle bilingual education programs in the California schools and force kids whose first language is not english to "sink or swim" in an english-only environment. Prop 227 is opposed by a wide array of teachers' groups and educators, including all major teachers' unions and many big-city boards of education, several school districts, immigrants rights organizations, the United Farm Workers Union, Chinese for Affirmative Action, the Korean-American Educators Association, and the Northern California ACLU. Thousands of high school students have walked out of school in protest. And it will require much determined protest to stop this attack on the language and culture of oppressed peoples. (See RW Nos. 953 and 955.)

This week, the RW interviewed a veteran revolutionary who recalls what it was like to be a young Chicano, growing up and going to school in California.

RW: You went thru school back when there were no bilingual programs and the schools practiced what they are now calling the "English immersion" method--just throwing kids into classes where just English was spoken. What was that like?

A: Like you say, I went to school at a time when no matter how little or how much English you knew, you just went straight into a class where all they spoke was English. And, from the time I was in the first grade until I was in the fourth grade, I didn't know much English at all. It was especially hard the first few years. I remember getting into a lot of fights because I thought people were laughing at me. I remember being ridiculed. I remember that horrible feeling that the teacher might call on me in class and ask me to read out loud, or to answer a question. To me it was very humiliating and very embarrassing, and it actually changed my personality. I think it affected me for a very, very long time.

It was overall a very horrible experience. School was not at all very enjoyable. I went only because I had to go. And whenever I had the chance, I didn't go. The idea that there's people who want to take away the bilingual programs we have now--even though they are not nearly adequate--and force everybody to go through that kind of humiliation, is, I think, just outrageous.

I think if people understood what's really involved, and what the supporters of Proposition 227 want to do, I don't think a lot of people who support it now would support it. And I think a lot of people would really oppose it. I think it's important that people do understand what's going on. That's the reason why I'm talking in this interview--because I'm talking about some things that still hurt to think about--but it's worth going through that if it will help people understand what it is that they put children through in schools when they make them go through these kinds of programs.

RW: One of the things you were telling me about was how Spanish was spoken in your home, and the "English only" atmosphere made it hard for your parents to get involved with what was going on at your school. That must have been tough.

A: Yeah, my parents had this attitude that the people at school knew what they were doing, and that they (my parents) didn't know what they were doing. In other words, they saw the school as their betters and run by people who were very intelligent. That may or may not have been the case, but they also saw themselves as being ignorant and stupid and that definitely was not the case. And, I think the one goes along with the other. If you don't think you have any right to question the authorities and you don't think you have ideas that are as good as theirs, it sets up a really unequal situation. And my parents were always up against that. Especially my father. But even my mother didn't like the idea of having to go up against the school authorities and call their judgment into question. It was a very hard thing. It was like people had learned their place and their place was doing what other people told them and not questioning what other people said.

RW: Back to what you were describing, about being thrown into a classroom where you didn't understand what was being said by the teacher--Ron Unz, the Silicon Valley millionaire who bankrolled putting 227 on the ballot, is claiming that this "English immersion" theory is the best way to learn.

A: First of all, it wasn't that I was stupid. I wasn't. It's just that I didn't understand what they were saying. If I could understand what people were saying to me, then I could make use of all the things that I had learned up to the point where I started school.

For example, when someone says something to you about mathematics, and you can understand it, and you already know how to add numbers, then if they ask you what's two plus two in a language that you can understand, or two minus two, you may not get the answer but at least you know what the question is. But when someone asks you a question in a language you don't understand, how can you answer a question when you don't even understand what the question is? And when they grade you for not having correctly answered the question, the real problem isn't that you couldn't answer the question, the real problem is that you didn't understand it. That makes you feel stupid. It's like nothing that you've learned up to that point seems to be very important in terms of learning--like you ended up with a bag of shit, that's worthless, and they're going to give you everything that's good. And up to now, you've never had anything that's good. It doesn't make you feel very good about yourself or the culture that you come from or the people you come from. To start out school that way is a huge burden to put on somebody's back. You're going to get enough of them as it is. You don't want to start out with that one.

RW: You were around during the struggles in the 1960s that gave rise to the bilingual education programs that they have now. How does it make you feel to see the kids up in Northern California walk out of school to protest Proposition 227 and to defend bilingual education?

A: It makes me feel really good because a lot of people may not know it but that's what it took to get these programs in the first place. People got tired of being treated the way they were being treated and they decided to do something about it. And, through demanding things and struggle, and boycotts, and a lot of other things, people began to win some concessions. One of those concessions that they won included bilingual education. And the idea that the system could take this away now and nothing is going to happen is being shattered by these protests today.

You can see the people who are going to be most directly affected by 227, and their opinion should count for something--not just the politicians and people who are going to make the decision based on very little understanding. Right now it looks like there's a lot of young people who are saying, `Hey, we're not going to put up with this.' That's a good spirit. There's a possibility that with this fighting spirit the backers of 227 maybe won't be able to implement things like this. And if they do, they're not going to be able to do it easily.

Again, I think 227 aims to put certain people back in their place. And the place they have for those people is on the bottom.

RW: What else do you remember about what it was like in school?

A: When I went to school, and it wasn't that long ago, there was nothing written about Chicanos or Mexicanos living in this country. I'm not saying everybody else had their history adequately dealt with, because that was true for most people of color, just to be straight up about it, and also a lot of other sections of society.

But because I was curious and I liked to read, I would go to the library and look through all the books. I remember one time looking and looking and looking for a book that had anything to do with Chicanos. I would go home and ask my grandmother, and my grandmother would tell me stories. And I would talk to my uncles, and they would tell me stories about working on the railroads and about helping build the roads and bridges. Then I knew people that had worked in the fields. But that wasn't written about anywhere. It was like that didn't matter. It made me feel really funny, because it was like you walk down the street and you have no shadow, you have no history--like you came from nowhere, and nothing that you ever did was of enough consequence that anybody bothered to write it down. There was no yesterday. And when you don't have a yesterday, how can you dream about having a tomorrow? You don't even have today because that's not written down.

And then a book came out, and it was written about Chicanos. And I tell you what--people who didn't read fought to get that book. You'd see four, five kids sitting around and one guy, the one who could read the best, would read the book out loud. It was incredible. We were so proud, and it made us feel so good when we read the book.

RW: You weren't taught the history of the Mexican and Chicano people.

A: You're right. We were taught that the United States "annexed" a lot of Mexico. They don't want to talk about how they stole land from the Indians. They committed genocide against them. They enslaved the Black people and brought them over here against their will in chains--the ones they didn't throw in the ocean on the way over.

They took the lands of Mexico. For example, if I went into the Bank of America and said, listen, I'm here to "annex" your money, how long do you think it would be before I was in jail? They annexed whole states! Huge territories. And, by the way, when they settled the war with Mexico, one of the things they did was draft the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, under which the people who lived here of Mexican descent were guaranteed their civil rights, including their rights to their language and their culture. And that was respected just like the way they "respected" all the treaties they signed with the Indians--which is to say they didn't respect it at all.

RW: You told me earlier about what it was like when you visited the University of Mexico--coming out of the experiences you had in the California school system.

A: I went with a friend of mine to the University of Mexico. We drove from California to Mexico City. It was a really interesting trip. We got to Mexico City, and not too long after we got there, he took me on a tour of the University of Mexico. It's an incredibly beautiful campus. It's got some really fine schools of Engineering and Anthropology. It's really a first rate university. And I think it existed almost a hundred years before the first university in this country.

When I got there, and we were going around doing sightseeing, I was on top of a tall building. When you looked down, you could see the students walking around on the campus. And I remember, the idea struck me when I looked down: I thought, Oh my god! These are all Mexicans. They were going in and out of the school of Engineering, Physics, Medicine. It was all university classes. And I remember thinking, "I've been taught my whole life that this was impossible." That what I'm seeing here could not happen. It was the first time I realized how deeply the system had ingrained in me that me and people like me were inferior--that we were not capable of grasping mathematics or physics; that we were only good to work with our hands; that we shouldn't think about doing anything else.

And the other thing that it brings to mind is a story I heard of a young man in high school in Los Angeles, and they kept trying to shunt him into shop classes. Now I think shop classes are fine. I don't think there's anything wrong with going to them. But he didn't want to go to shop classes. He persisted, and he ended up getting his doctorate at Harvard. If he would have listened to the school authorities, he would have just ended up in another shop class. And I think that's what they want to do to a whole group of people. And it's not limited to Latinos, but it does include Latinos.

They're saying "get back on the bottom, that's where you belong." And the reason you "belong" there is you're not capable of anything better than that, so why should we waste our money and our resources on you.

RW: When you got out of high school, how much Spanish did you speak?

A: Well, you know, for those people who say, you learn English this way--I would have learned English anyway. I did learn English. But by the time I learned English, I was no longer able to speak Spanish. And, by the way, I dropped out of high school in the ninth grade. By the time I dropped out, I could speak good English. I didn't drop out because I couldn't speak English, I dropped out because I couldn't stand school. And this goes back to my beginning years in school.

And I want to ask the people who are pushing Prop 227 a question: What about all these Black kids who drop out of high school? Or the poor whites? They're not dropping out because they don't understand English. They're dropping out because the school system pushes them out. One of the interesting things about the demonstrations I read about in the Bay Area is that some of the students walked to the brand new Concord police building, where they spent millions of dollars putting up this police building, and complained about the inadequate schools they go to. When they go to school, the buildings are all falling down. They're completely inadequate. But this society is spending a lot of money on prisons, police and jails. I think that's the other message. They do have a place for us, and it's not in the schools. It's in that place they're spending all the money on.

So, what actually happened is I ended up going to college. I went to junior college for a couple years, and then I got a chance to go to the University. At the college I went to, they had a class called "Spanish for Chicanos." It was really something very emotional. Just like I hated the beginning years of school, I loved the time I spent, especially in a class like this. The professor told us, "Look, nobody here speaks very good Spanish, or you wouldn't be here. There's two things that you have to understand. One, it's not your fault that you don't know how. Someone stole your culture. Someone stole your language. Someone told you that it was inferior to other cultures and other languages. This is important for you to know." Then he said something else that was important: "You also have to know that nobody but you can get it back. It's you that's going to have to get it back. It's not going to be easy, and it's going to take years and years and years. It's a lifelong process but you can do it." And I did. So I was able to regain what had been stolen from me, what I had lost. But I don't recommend this as a way of doing it. I don't think people should have to go thru the suffering and misery and pain and agony. There's no necessity for it.

RW: You were telling me about a class you took in junior college that was almost illegal.

A: Oh, yeah, I went to junior college in Los Angeles and I wanted to take a class that was taught in Spanish. I think it was an anthropology class or something. And they had to teach the class at 7 o'clock in the morning so that it ended before the beginning of the official school day, because it was against the law in the state of California to use any language other than English as a language of instruction, except in foreign-language classes. Can you imagine that? On a university level?

RW: I was at a Refuse & Resist! meeting recently that was discussing attacks on immigrants, and a white guy there asked a question. He said, "What I don't understand is, why don't they teach all the kids in our school system Spanish? You can't get along without knowing it."

A: I think that's a good idea. There's an interesting story I heard--in East Los Angeles they had something quite a while ago called the Malibar Project. It was a pilot program, where for once the government actually invested some money in a positive program. They asked the parents there in that school, in a largely Mexicano, Chicano neighborhood, which language do you want your child do know? or languages? And overwhelmingly the parents said they would like their children to be able to read, write and speak both Spanish and English. A few people chose English only, and a few people chose Spanish only. But overwhelmingly the people chose to be able to speak both languages. It makes sense. Both languages make sense.

Then another example was that in a largely white, middle class suburb, they were going to offer bilingual classes starting in, I think, the first grade. But they could only do it in one class. And there was limited space. I read a story in the newspaper about how the parents were there starting at 3 o'clock in the morning, or some really early hour, waiting to enroll their children in one of these classes. I think there's a real hunger for it, and I think people would like to be able to communicate with people they see all the time.

And, the question I have to ask is, why not? Why do we have to keep spending money for jails? And why aren't our children learning to communicate with each other? If you could speak three languages, it's even better than speaking two. But I don't think that's the attitude of these people who are running society.

RW: Anything else you want to say to our readers ?

A: The people pushing things like the Unz initiative, and directing attacks on immigrants and people on the bottom--they keep pointing to the fact that test scores are low and all this. They should have to answer a couple of questions.

First of all, how is it that California, which was once the leading state in spending on education, now is next to the very last? There's only one other state in the whole country that spends less on education per capita and that's the state of Mississippi. Do you think that might have something with how poor the schools are doing?

The other thing is, the schools in richer districts sometimes spend twice as much money per student on educating people. And we're talking about situations where people already can speak English, and come from homes where learning is a part of everyday life. Where the parents graduated from college. And where there's an expectation that you're not only going to go to college, you're going to go to one of the better colleges. I think that has something to do with what comes out of the schools. The idea that it has to do with the language students speak is nonsense.

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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