Rethinking Bilingualism (2/98)

Rarely do we actually witness how one individual can change the world, even if it’s only the biggest barrio in the US, "La Raza." Jaime Escalante is that genuine American hero. He achieved his fame, depicted in the movie Stand and Deliver, by transforming a gang-ridden school and community into one that began to produce the nation’s top mathematicians and scientists. He did it at Garfield High School in East Los Angeles in the 1980s through the language of math and simple words such as "you’re the best." More importantly, he taught us that there’s no such thing as an insurmountable obstacle. Today, however, some people from that same community are calling him a vendido, or sellout, because he has endorsed California’s anti-bilingual initiative, slated for 1998. We disagree with his stance, but he’s far from being a sellout.

Escalante, who currently teaches at Hiram W. Johnson High School in Sacramento, points to his experience as an immigrant from Bolivia, a parent, and a teacher to justify his support of this measure. He’s convinced that bilingual education stunts the growth of students. However, upon interviewing him, we ascertained that he isn’t so much against bilingual education as he is disgusted with the inadequacies of under-funded bilingual programs and incompetent educators. In all his years as an educator, he said, he’s yet to meet a truly bilingual calculus teacher. He believes that for students to succeed, "they have to dominate the English language."

Ironically, that’s what bilingual educators also believe. What Escalante supports is actually a far more radical idea: fully bilingual teachers who would teach all subjects, primarily in English, to non-English language speakers. "But they have to be truly bilingual," he said. Today, it’s not uncommon for educators who aren’t bilingual to be granted waivers to teach in bilingual programs.

The bigger problem is the lack of fully-qualified teachers, notes Escalante. He said that in California alone, 20,000 educators are teaching with emergency credentials. "And the worst ones are sent to minority schools." He characterized many teachers as incompetent and sharks: "Trabajan por la plata" (They only work for the money). Few, he says, bother to work before and after school. We asked why he lent his name to the anti-bilingual initiative, which is perceived by many to be patently anti-pedagogical, not to mention anti-Latino. He says he supports it as a wake-up call to teachers, but has no interest in the politics behind it, or in debating the issue.

He did mention, however, that unlike the movie depiction, success at Garfield came after 10 years of hard work, not one. In other words, nothing – particularly language learning – occurs overnight. Yet the initiative calls for placing non-English speaking students into mainstream classes after one year of English immersion.

We often question what people mean by phrases such as "English only" or bilingual education, since these loaded terms often have different meanings for different people. For example, many opponents of bilingual education point to poorly-funded English-as-a-Second-Language programs, citing them as the reason for abolishing bilingual education. ESL programs seek to teach basic English. Bilingual programs have as their goal producing students who are fully competent in college-level course work in two languages. Virtually all language research shows that bilingual programs work. This is why the issue should be debated among educators, preferably bilingual ones, as opposed to people like Ron Unz, the millionaire entrepreneur who is bankrolling this movement.

As two people who were continually called wetbacks and spics in US schools – when there was no bilingual education – we sincerely believe that children would benefit and learn under any system as long as there were caring, competent, and inspiring teachers. But how many Escalantes teach in our nation’s schools?

              – Roberto Rodriguez is the author of Justice:
                A Question of Race and The X in La Raza II.
                He and Patrisia Gonzales authored
                Uncut & Uncensored