Battle of the Tongues

Lorena González doesn't want to use the "B" word. " 'Bilingual' has too much history attached to it," she says. "And besides, from what I've heard, you're very anti-second-language out on the West Coast. Especially Spanish. Not us! What we're saying here is that we want a dual-literate city."

González refers to her home of San Antonio, Texas. As vice-president of the San Antonio Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, González has initiated a bilingual campaign that has sent a ripple through cities from Miami to Mexicali. Her chamber is pushing for San Antonio to become an English/Spanish-speaking city -- officially. They are calling for all San Antonio schools to integrate Spanish into their system over the next five years. And that doesn't mean just teaching Spanish speakers to become proficient in English. The idea is to get everybody speaking both languages, to become fluent, literate, and familiar with both cultures, beginning at the prekindergarten level.

"Why are we doing it? Money," says González. "Not sentiment. Employers are now paying more here in San Antonio if you have a second language, preferably Spanish, because of our proximity to Mexico. If you look at it from an economic standpoint, the potential growth of a city like San Antonio to compete globally depends greatly on trading with Mexico and Central and South America."

González says speaking Spanish used to be an issue of family togetherness, cultural pride. "I was typical of my generation," she says. "I learned Spanish so I could communicate with my abuelita -- with my grandma -- and my aunt, and my padrino, my godfather. Today, it's no longer solely that issue. Just getting a good job here often means you have to be bilingual. We'd gotten so many calls at the chamber from employers looking for [Spanish/English]-speaking employees. One of our largest banks here -- Frost [National] Bank -- is prepared to pay up to $10,000 more on starting salaries if you can speak Spanish and English. People are listening to that."

And unlike what she might expect in California, González has not hit a brick wall of an Anglo establishment. "It's been 95 percent positive. We have 13 chambers in our city: African-American chambers, the Anglo chamber, women's chamber‚ all of them are behind it. So we have had tremendous support."

Over half of San Antonio's population already speaks Spanish, but González says all school districts, including "very prominent rich, white school districts, as well as African-American school districts," have signed resolutions in support of the chamber. "Many of them have now formed parent committees, which are going to be addressing the need. As a chamber we can't tell schools how to do their work. What we are telling them is that 'the workforce and the employer need to [have these skills]. So, as the educators, you need to prepare these children....' "

There has been some negative reaction. "There have been letters to the editor, writers thinking this is a Mexican issue, that we're 'trying to take over,' " says González. "They say, 'What about those people who only speak Spanish? Why aren't we forcing them to speak English?' We are. We're saying it's a dual-language program. Always we insist that the first language must be English. That's a given. We are not promoting one over the other. It absolutely must be English, plus a second language."

González says she would expect more resistance to such a concept in California. "There's been so much opposition to 'services to immigrants' on your side of the country. Many people interpret this as an immigrant issue, and it's not. But it could be construed as that, especially after those propositions you've had about foreign languages and health services."

González's big test came when she presented the idea to the annual meeting of the National Association of Bilingual Education, held in San Antonio in February. "It turned out I was speaking to the choir. All these people know the importance of multi-language. What was revolutionary was the fact that a chamber of commerce was addressing the issue. For the last 50 years the issue has been addressed by educational entities, and there has been no tie to the business community. So now here I am up before 2500 people, and I'm telling them, in effect, 'It's the economy, stupid,' and they roared their applause. What we're saying is, to fuel the empowerment of our city -- the growth of our city on a global level -- we need to have students literate in English and Spanish, and even a third language, perhaps Japanese."

At San Antonio Independent School District, the city's second largest and one of its poorest, González says parents -- women and men -- were moved to tears while telling about their struggles. "They have been battling with their school district to try and find the funds to invest in dual-literacy programs," she says, "and all the passion they feel for this education for their children came pouring out.

"We went before their school board to introduce our initiative and to ask them to support it by signing a resolution. I decided that it would be more powerful to have the children and the parents and the administrators assist us in this presentation. Well! We were nothing compared to the children. African-American, Anglo, and Hispanic children stood up and told the trustees in two languages how they would be worth more, be more valuable to the community [by] speaking two languages, and how they wanted to talk to everybody in the world. They were wonderful. We found that same kind of passion at some of the wealthy, Anglo school districts. The Anglo parents are equally as passionate about their children learning Spanish."

Would it work in San Diego? Some charter schools and public schools do run voluntarily attended dual-language programs, but most schools have gone along with 1998's Proposition 227 and nixed even Spanish-to-English bilingual education.

"We would not support that in any way. Our school board is very solid on this being an English-speaking society," says Dr. Jeff Mulford, Valley Center Union School District superintendent. Ironically, Mulford's district has its own voluntary dual-language program that involves about 300 of its 2800 students. "There's no way our school board would agree to have a dual-language district. It's a conservative school board, in that sense."

Mulford points to Canada's experience as an officially bilingual nation and the Quebec separatist movement based on language. "Look at what's going on there with French and English. It's difficult for a society to operate like that. I think we need to be an English-speaking society. That's the native language of most of the people in this country, so that's the way our school board would lean. They would not support the San Antonio plan in any way, I think."

"[The San Antonio plan] flies in the face of Proposition 227, which prohibits any instruction in Spanish, at the elementary level, period," confirms Dr. Johanna Vetcher, assistant superintendent at South Bay Union School District, where 41 percent of the 10,000 students are officially dubbed "English-language learners." Vetcher knows this issue well. She has led an effort to "minimize" the effects of 227. One program already in place was a dual-language program at Nestor Elementary, supported by federal funding. "We started off teaching kindergarten and first grade four years ago, and each year since then we've rolled into second, into third, into fourth. Each class is a mix of 60 percent English speakers and 40 percent Spanish-speakers. They help each other. This is our fourth year. It is phenomenal. You go and visit, and you see kindergarten and first-grade students communicating. English speakers communicating in Spanish any which way they can. They think the teacher can't speak English. Early years are in Spanish. That gradually changes as the children grow up."

Vetcher says the federal funding dries up this year, and though the program is very popular, "In California there's not a widespread cry for English-speaking students to learn Spanish. Nobody's beating down the doors." Even she doesn't see a San Antonio-type scheme working here. The political-cultural climate's not right. "I can't overemphasize how much pressure we're already under in making sure that we are able to document academic improvement from one year to the next...in English. We're not looking to take on some initiative that becomes cumbersome to implement. There's not a cry out there."

Oceanside Unified School District's Laurie Alexander goes further. "I really want to see how our [English-only] program plays out. I think that students and parents recognize that they need to become proficient in English, that English is the language of our economic world."

This is the point San Antonio's González doesn't buy. "In business, the best language to speak is the language of your customers," she says, pointing to the level of business her state does with Mexico. Texas companies ship $21.9 billion worth of goods there annually, according to the San Antonio Express-News. San Antonio businesses, she says, must encourage that relationship.

"Every year, this chamber takes a delegation to Distrito Federal -- Mexico City -- the capital. We meet with the president at Los Pinos, the Mexican White House. And I will tell you that we sit at the table with the president of Mexico and his cabinet, and we carry the dialogue in English. Because our folk -- our delegation -- can't speak Spanish. The president and all his cabinet are [obliged to] speak in English."

Even Mexico's border towns, says González, are better prepared to bridge the cultural gaps than their better-funded U.S. counterparts. "They're way ahead of us on bilingual education. The department of education from the state of Nuevo León [visited us]. It turns out they have a resource -- bilingual teachers -- that we have a great need for here in our city. They are very interested in addressing that void. They have met with some local community colleges and with us, and we are going to pursue a relationship [whereby] we can utilize some of their teachers, hopefully, in some of our school districts."

In Miami, where dual-language programs have long been in place, González says they are now working on promoting a third language, Portuguese. "Because they are doing so much trade with Brazil."

But Miami shares a disturbing problem with San Antonio, and probably San Diego. "Our language is deteriorating, bit by bit, with each generation," says González. "My parents were a fluent Spanish-speaking generation. I am not as sharp. My children, although they speak Spanish, it's not as true a Spanish, or as sophisticated as mine. That's happened in Miami and it's happening here." Stopping this degeneration would be the other benefit of a truly dual-language education, she says.

Meanwhile, González's chamber of commerce has hit the airwaves to promote its idea. "We have these incredible commercials that are being aired pro bono by every station. Our local cable station is airing them on MTV, CNN, ESPN, and others. They're addressing the youth about the importance of having a second language. And they feature very casual-attitude kids who are challenging other kids to come in and be part of this great new idea. Some are in English, some in Spanish, some in both. It's cool."

González has one thing to thank California for: it was the push to make it "English-only" here that inspired the San Antonio Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. "Four years ago, when California was having all its 'English-only' stuff, we signed a resolution called 'English Plus One.' So the concept is not new. It's just its approach that's new."

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