Reclaiming Our Identity Through Dual Language Education

Luz and Paloma on their first day of school

When thinking about what type of education I wanted for my two daughters, I had only one nonnegotiable requirement: they would go to a dual language school. With such a stipulation in place, my choices were few, offering me a much-appreciated respite from the near-constant school analysis that seems to consume our generation of parents. 

When I explained my choice to friends, they nodded; after all, we can pretty much all agree that learning a second language is a benefit. But most didn’t see dual language as all that critical. After all, it is possible to learn a language later in life with enough dedication. Why did I feel so strongly about getting my girls in a dual language school starting in Kindergarten?

As a Mexican-American growing up in San Antonio, my family didn’t really speak Spanish at home. In fact, the only time I heard Spanish was at my grandma’s house when she wanted to have an adult conversation with someone else and didn’t want me to know what was going on. Sure, I took Spanish class at school, but knowing my colors and numbers and memorizing vocab lists didn’t come close to making me bilingual. Luckily, my dad and another parent decided they would send both me and a friend of mine to Mexico for a month after 8th grade, and in that short period I gained the confidence to communicate. Years later, I took it further by choosing to spend a semester of college in Madrid, Spain, living with a wonderful family who took the job of speaking to me in Spanish only very seriously.

Today, the hard work has paid off. I can communicate with native Spanish speakers. But I’ll probably always struggle for words at times, and I’ll definitely always sound like a non-native speaker. My accent, hesitation, and frequent need for google translate are all dead giveaways.

As a teenager and young adult, I found myself often feeling ashamed that my Spanish wasn’t all that great. When I was a student at Yale University, I felt like an imposter at M.E.C.H.A meetings—it seemed like all the California Mexican-Americans spoke Spanish well. What on earth was wrong with me? And furthermore, why hadn’t my parents made a point to speak to me in Spanish when they could have? I threw myself a royal pity party. It wasn’t until I started digging a little deeper that I realized that my parents weren’t to blame at all. To understand why, I had to understand our history.

My dad is 78 years old. The son of Mexican immigrants, he was born and raised in San Antonio, and grew up speaking Spanish as his first language. On the first day of first grade, he raised his hand and asked—in Spanish, of course—if he could use the restroom. The teacher said no immediately, and continued speaking in English, a language that he did not yet understand. The message was clear: we speak English here, and English only. Sure enough, he had an accident. It’s a memory that still stings today, and one that unfortunately is all too common. A whole generation of Mexican Americans were punished in school for speaking Spanish, and often humiliated in the process.

A few weeks ago I shared a post on Facebook about how grateful I was to be sending my kids to the city’s first all dual language public school, Mark Twain Academy (side note: KIPP, a public charter school, also offers all dual language in its elementary schools, Esperanza and Un Mundo). Little did I know that post would trigger such strong reactions and start such a rich dialogue. Friends and family members came out of the woodwork to share their experiences. One cousin told a vivid story about how her own mother always hated the smell of crayons because it took her back to first grade, when the teacher would hit her knuckles with a ruler anytime she or her Spanish-speaking classmates dared utter a word in their native tongue.

Let that sink in a minute. These are six-year-olds we are talking about, being hit and shamed for speaking the only language they knew.

I was also virtually introduced to Marcella Ochoa, a native San Antonian and filmmaker now living in Los Angeles. Ochoa wrote and directed a film about her own parents’ similar experience in the ’50s in Texas. My Name is Maria de Jesus recently premiered at the San Antonio Film Festival and was screened at The Tobin. Ochoa wanted to show not only what happened to that generation, but also how a whole second generation of children who don’t speak Spanish were impacted.

For the first time in my life, I finally understood why so many Mexican Americans of my generation don’t speak Spanish—it was purposely extinguished in schools all across the city, state, and Southwest.

Now that I understand my own history, I can be an advocate for my own children and other children in the community. My proud, sweet daughters—both who have Mexican names—will always see their heritage and our language as something to be proud of, to celebrate. In addition, speaking a second language will afford them more opportunities in life. Already, they are starting to communicate with and learn from native Spanish speakers, relying on them for help in tackling Spanish schoolwork. If either wants to go to college in Mexico, Spain, or South America she will be able to do so with confidence. And numerous studies have shown that learning two or more languages has immense, long-term cognitive benefits for all students.

A recent report by the American Councils for International Education stated:

“All students—no matter their native language—stand to benefit from dual language immersion programs.

During the last decade, multiple research studies have demonstrated the significant cognitive benefits derived from early language learning, as well as the potential long-term educational and career benefits that multilingual students accrue.”

Just a few weeks ago I took my oldest, who has been in dual language for two years, to Mexico City for the first time, and I was delighted to see her speaking with other children at the Papalote Museo del niño, DF’s legendary children’s museum. It’s amazing how much she understands already and how much more she is learning every day.

Today I am eternally grateful that KIPP, SAISD, and other schools across San Antonio and beyond are finally embracing dual language and fostering cross-cultural understanding and appreciation. We’ve come a long way.  How sweetly ironic is it that Mark Twain—a school that once punished Spanish speakers—is now the first all dual language public school in the city?

Estoy orgullosa de mi cuidad, orgullosa de mi cultura, y orgullosa de tener dos hijas bilingües

, , , , ,

One Response to Reclaiming Our Identity Through Dual Language Education

  1. Mary October 4, 2017 at 9:39 am #

    Excellent article! For decades, the educational system has been plagued by misinformation about and plain old racism towards children who speak a language other than English. So happy to see San Antonio schools taking a step in the right direction by fostering and encouraging second language skills in children