Bilingualism Si!, Intolerance No!

Being multilingual is good for our kids and good for the country ... Vote Yes on Prop 58

By Enrique M. Buelna
Published on LatinoLA: November 7, 2016

Bilingualism Si!, Intolerance No!

The 1990s was a tough period for Latinos in California. We were under attack from all sides: first with Proposition 187 (to make undocumented immigrants ineligible for public benefits), then with Proposition 227 (anti-bilingual education). Sadly, both pieces of legislation passed. But while Prop. 187 eventually died in litigation, Prop. 227 became law.

When Proposition 227 passed in 1998, it did so under the guise of helping immigrant children and their families who were somehow being deprived of acquiring English in the schools. The opponents of bilingual education touted themselves as experts and saviors of poor immigrant children who were failing in school, not going to college, and (more importantly) not becoming truly assimilated. These reformers saw no intrinsic value in the languages these children brought from home: if they were going to learn English, those languages had to stay out of the schools.

What evidence did these opponents of bilingual education have to support their ideas? None (that was credible). Like reformers of the past, these advocates had gut feelings and their own notions of what is right and wrong. Like proponents of Native American assimilation and boarding schools of the 19th and 20th centuries, these experts were going to save immigrants--and Latinos specifically--from themselves.

The early progressive reformers, as they were called, believed that Native Americans had nothing of value to offer American society. Native children were treated like empty vessels to be filled with all the goodness of Western civilization; they were going to rebuild them from the ground up and make them true Americans.

In a similar way, the fight against bilingual education has had the same ring of ignorance, intolerance, and racism as the "civilizing" project had for Native Americans. The folks pushing to dismantle bilingual education were, and remain, individuals who understand little about language education and acquisition. More importantly, they know little about what it means to be Latino in the United States.

In the 1990s, California underwent a demographic shift that saw Latinos, largely Mexican Americans, expand dramatically. Californians "suddenly" woke up to find Latinos everywhere. Republican candidate for governor in 1994 and a Silicon Valley multimillionaire, Ron Unz, led the movement which viciously attacked Latinos as the enemy within. Indeed, according to Unz, there was no comparison between European immigrants, like his grandparents, and Latinos: Europeans "came to WORK and become successful . . . not to sit back and be a burden on those who were already here!"

Now, while some celebrated the growing diversity, others saw signs of national collapse. Individuals like Unz as well as many others such as Alice Callaghan became part and parcel of a misguided movement that viewed Spanish as a barrier to English acquisition. They saw Spanish as something you do at home, but it had no place in the public sphere. The message was clear: Spanish had to go. As this movement was primarily anti-Latino, other languages played little role in this malicious political atmosphere.

But what about those of us who didn't want their saving? Well, the English Only folks egotistically and arrogantly ignored our pleas. Through scaremongering and obfuscation, they helped pass Proposition 227--"English for the Children"--and forced that bad medicine down our throats. Prop. 227 was the perfect ruse: who could say "no" to teaching English to children? In effect, the attitude was one that identified immigrants, but Latinos in particular, as broken and in need of fixing--whether we liked it or not.

So what has happened in the intervening 18 years since the passage of Proposition 227? It appears that history has not been kind to our would be saviors. In fact, the climate of support for bilingual education has expanded--not diminished. Across ethnic lines and citizenship status, Americans have increasingly embraced the idea that learning a second language is actually a good thing--especially as we live in an expanding global society. And, more importantly, they see our schools as playing a vital role in this endeavor.

All credible research published in respectable academic journals conclude that bilingual programs are highly effective at helping children acquire academic English.

In a recent interview with both Unz and Callaghan, they remain quite entrenched in their positions despite the preponderance of evidence that supports bilingual education. But this is typical. Unz, for example, seemed resigned to the possibility that Proposition 58 might pass and blames "affluent Anglo parents" for selfishly supporting bilingual education so their kids can speak Spanish. The real victims, Unz calculates, will be the poor, Latino immigrant children. Callaghan, too, criticised bilingual education for delaying kids' ability to learn English: "If the school refuses to teach them English, where are they going to learn it? They're not going to go to college if they don't have academic English down well."

What gets me upset about these would-be, modern day reformers is that they know little about our experiences. My parents are Mexican immigrants and I grew up with Spanish as my first language. Indeed, I was surrounded by Spanish--we spoke it at home, heard it on the radio, in the streets, on television, and heard it in the homes of every relative we visited. From telenovelas and norteñas to Jaime Jarrín on Los Angeles Dodgers radio, Spanish was ubiquitous.

And, yet, I was still able to go to college and earn advanced degrees, including a doctorate in history. I earned these degrees not because language was a barrier, I earned them in spite of the contemptuous and bigoted attitudes of those who would say that I am less of a person, less of an American, because I hold on to Spanish--as well as my identity and history as a Chicano.

I remember, with great clarity, how teachers tried to anglicize my name to "Henry," how they demeaned any contributions Mexicans made to American history (or ignored it altogether), and how any attempt to use Spanish was viewed as a personal failure on my part. Those memories remain seared in my mind.

The supporters of bilingual education have never, ever suggested that English should not be taught in our schools and that Spanish should take its place. Bilingual education has always been, and always will be, an education strategy to transition children from their first language into English--and to do it in a respectful and mindful way.

I understand the importance of the English language, as do all parents, and I wouldn't give it up for anything--it is a part of who I am. And, it turns out that my brain is big enough to handle another language. Go figure! So, don't lecture us about language or the importance of English, we understand this quite well. We don't need any rescuing of any kind--we're doing just fine.

About Enrique M. Buelna:
Enrique M. Buelna, Ph.D., is a professor in the History Department at Cabrillo College in Santa Cruz, California. He is also a regular contributor to Mad Latinos. E-mail comments to
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