SBS 301 Cultural Diversity/Prof. Koptiuch         Fall 2007        Personal Memory Ethnographies

Alejandra Urquijo

Battle of the Languages

    Growing up in a border town, “difference” was something I did not encounter everyday. Throughout elementary and junior high, all of the student body in my school was Hispanic.  I was not racially different from any of my classmates. This all changed when I attended high school. I was suddenly thrown into a sea of culturally diverse people. I felt that we were all the same, white, black or Mexican American students trying to survive the four long, excruciating years of high school. However, one day in my junior year it changed; I finally felt “different”.

    It was a usual afternoon, walking through the hallways of Lincoln High School towards world history, one of my favorite subjects. I remember entering the classroom and walking towards my desk as the bell rang. The classroom door was propped open with a garbage can. Bright florescent lights illuminated the classroom and completed with the sunlight streaming through the open blinds on the windows. I entered the classroom and walked across the gray carpet. I passed rows of beat up desks and an old, wooden podium. I walked to the last row and sat at the second desk. All the students were talking, but to me it sounded like a loud white noise. The bell rang and everyone focused his or her attention to the front of the classroom. It seemed that it was going to be another repeat of yesterday’s happenings. It was our usual routine, or so we thought. 

    On this particular day four of my friends and I had the opportunity to talk. Being that all of us were Mexican American, we were speaking in Spanish. Suddenly we heard out teacher’s booming voice:

“You cannot speak in Spanish during my class”. We are in school and there are regulations about speaking in another language other than English during class.

    Everyone in the classroom stopped talking while focusing their attention on the front of the classroom where our teacher stood behind the podium, and on our little group of Hispanic students sitting at the back of the classroom. There was an eerie silence following our teacher’s demand not to speak in Spanish. It was the silence before the storm. Even though nothing was said, the silence spoke for itself. It was, as we all knew building up into an argument. It was going to be a battle between a teacher’s authority versus student beliefs.
In 1998 Proposition 227 was passed, which stated that classes should be taught in English. For Spanish-speaking students this meant that they would have to withhold from Spanish while at school.

 I am not asking for them to never speak Spanish again, just not here. Plus, not all of my students speak Spanish and it’s not fair to them. They do not understand what the group in the back was talking about. They could have been talking about me or about their classmates. It’s not fair to the rest of the students; they know how to speak in English so they should. It is a common courtesy towards all of us non-Spanish speakers. 

    The five of us explained that we were not talking behind anyone’s back, but our teacher was not interested in our explanations. He just wanted us to stop speaking in Spanish. My classmates and I had spoken in Spanish many times in his class and only that time he did choose to confront us about it. Students were only allowed to speak in Spanish when they socialized. There was no proposition against socializing in Spanish during class or at school. I knew that the high school was adapting new regulations for non-English speakers. They were not to speak in Spanish during class whatsoever; students were to speak everything in English in hopes of helping them learn the language faster. I felt, and still do, that I was not to be categorized with non-English speakers and expected to adapt to the regulations. I had proven that I did know the English language and did not feel the need to adopt the regulations that were established for the non-English speakers. We spoke Spanish during recess/breaks or “free time” our teachers gave us during class. Until now, all of the teachers did not mind our Spanish speaking because they knew that we were fluent in English and classes were being taught in English.

    All these regulations and propositions were created in hopes of lowering immigration. Not allowing me to speak in Spanish due to school regulations and propositions makes it seem that I contribute to the immigration problem. I did not choose to immigrate to the US, my parents made that decision in 1974 before I was even born. My teacher emphasized that there was no Spanish in his classroom. We were all to speak only in English at all times during his class. He said these were the school’s regulations and we should follow them. It felt that because I am Mexican-American and spoke Spanish, I was automatically linked with immigration problems. Never in my life had I felt that I was part of the immigration issues going on in the country. I felt that the teacher used my ethnicity and culture to stop me from speaking Spanish.

    Our classmates immediately started talking to one another to release the tension, as the five of us quietly sat looking at each other. It was an awkward silence as each of us had many thoughts running through our minds. Shortly, the bell rang and we immediately started speaking in Spanish about the incident. No one had ever denied us the ability to speak in our native language. We agreed that it was unfair and one of my friends felt it was racism. Not knowing whether it was actually racism we decided to leave it behind us. Once out of the classroom we said good-bye as each of us went our separate ways towards our last class of the day.  But I never forgot that day I first saw myself as Other in our teacher’s gaze.

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