A Language is a Terrible Thing to Lose
by Agustin Gurza
Los Angeles, CA
May 18, 1999
"It almost qualifies as political farce. California has more Latino lawmakers than ever before, elected partly by an immigrant constituency anxious for a greater voice in government. But many of these new leaders can't communicate with all of the supporters who helped send them to Sacramento.
Why? No hablan espanol.
Recently, Gov. Gray Davis invited a few of the state's 24 Latino legislators to join him on a mission to improve relations with Mexico. Yet, some of these Latino ambassadors don't speak enough Spanish to comfortably address people in the country of their parent's origin.
Now that's not funny. That's embarrassing, even painful.
Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamente and other Latino officials recently completed intensive Spanish courses at a popular language school in Cuernavaca. Their mission: learn Spanish or polish up their pocho, the hybrid Spanglish developed for survival, not success, by the offspring of immigrants.
Bilingual legislators, like Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa, struggled to hold on to their Spanish while growing up in the 1950's, before bilingual education. 'It was an era when many of our parents, because of the discrimination they faced, were reluctant to speak to us in Spanish,' said Villaraigosa, 46, who practiced his native tongue on the streets.
Today, he added, it's essential to speak a second language in California. Yet, it's getting harder and harder. Being bilingual may be in, but bilingual education is out, thanks to the English-only language police.
Unfortunately, the pressure to assimilate forces Latinos and other immigrants to lose their native language. And language experts worry that public schools have done little to encourage language retention by native speakers.
Proposition 227, which severely curtailed bilingual education in California, can only make matters worse. So while adults pay thusands of dollars trying to learn a second language in costly crash courses, our children are being forced to forget the languages they already know.
On Friday, Lou Correa, the new assemblyman for Santa Ana, addressed a group of professionals volunteering at Anaheim schools, where students speak almost 50 different languages. The multitude of tongues may seem like a Tower of Babel, Correa cautioned, but it's really a solid foundation to build on.
"When these kids learn English, they re going to be the business captains of the 21st Century,' he told the group.
Correa was raised with Spanish at home. Now, he and his wife made an effort to speak to their children in Spanish, too.
'Hablame en Espanol,' the Correas insist.
My parents repeated those very words a thousand times in my home, but we still grew up speaking fractured Castilian. My Spanish didn't improve until I spent a year in Mexico City after high school, enduring merciless teasing about my gringo accent.
On this side of the border, many Latinos are ashamed they've lost their native tongue. They feel cut off from their roots. My own son finds it difficult to communicate with his family in Mexico and Peru.
Miguel spoke only Spanish until he was 3. then he started preschool and insisted on speaking English. It was easier to get him to eat his vegetables than to speak in Spanish anymore.
The same thing happened to Speaker Villaraigosa, who spoke Spanish until he entered kindergarten.
'At school, I lost my Spanish,' he said.
That's some sad sentence. Imagine losing a language in school. What kind of backwardness is that?
Deliberate, says my old friend Luis Moll.
Language is used as an instrument of colonial control, says the native Puerto Rican and professor in the department of Language, Reading and Culture at the University of Arizona.
In the United States, Luis sees the English-only movement as an extension of Manifest Destiny, that delusional American ideology that justified genocide and invasions. And Proposition 227 is a form of white supremacy, he argues, 'well rehearsed with American Indian and African American children before it was applied to Latinos.'
In other words, first take the land, then the language.
That may sound radical, but it makes me wonder. If children learn languages best when they're little, as the proponents of English immersion argue relentlessly, why don't we teach foreign languages in the early grades?
Maybe we're supposed to learn only English when the learning is easiest, then try to salvage a second language when it's too late.