SBS 301 Cultural Diversity/Prof. Koptiuch         Fall 2009       Personal Memory Ethnographies

Gabriela Trevino

Habla English!

It was 1995 and my parents had just sold our house in Glendale, which was the first home I had ever known. We had just moved into our new and bigger house in Phoenix and I recall feeling immense anger at my parents. They had forced me to leave behind my beloved friends and familiar school. Thus, I reluctantly started school at Montebello Elementary School, which led to new experiences that I found hard to welcome.

I was a student in Mr. Riley’s 5th grade class and on this particular day the school was on a rainy day schedule. This meant that lunch recess was spent inside the classroom instead of on the playground. My friends Erica and Sandra and I were walking back to our classroom after a pleasant lunch. Sandra and Erica were Mexican immigrants who had recently come to United States with their families in search of economic opportunity. Therefore, they weren’t accustomed to the American culture and especially the English language. Once we entered the classroom we decided to sit and work on one of Mr. Riley’s jigsaw puzzles. While we were trying to put the pieces of a nature scene together, we conversed in Spanish about our favorite things.

Sandra, Erica and I held a conversation in Spanish about the recent novela or Mexican soap opera on television. We innocently gossiped about how Alex just killed Irene to keep all her money, in the novela Bajo Un Mismo Rostro, or Under the Same Face. It was early August and the monsoon season brought heavy rains on this day. Both Sandra and Erica made me feel at home in this new school due to the similar culture we shared and their friendship removed the fears that I had about change.

Just at that moment we heard a woman’s voice say, “Ladies, I’m sorry to remind you, but this is America and we speak English here!” Surprisingly, it was Ms. Brown. Ms. Brown was an older woman, who was Mr. Riley’s teacher assistant; she had a strong and extremely strict character. My heart dropped because I felt as though we had committed a terrible crime. As a child, I didn’t understand the reason why I wasn’t able to talk to my friends in the language with which they were most comfortable. I glanced over at Erica and Sandra’s faces, which were marked by anger and frustration by Ms. Brown’s comment. The way I interpreted her comment was that only American customs are of importance. After the incident we were restricted from ever having conversations in Spanish while in class.

I felt it was impolite to speak Spanish while in the class because those who didn’t understand the language were not taken into consideration. Gabriela should know better than to go along with their Spanish speaking ways and it is important for Erica and Sandra to speak English since they just recently moved to the United States. The girls needed to familiarize themselves with the dominant language and speaking it often would help them.

Ms. Brown was a white woman in her mid-forties and she always walked around the classroom with a stern look on her face. I remember clearly the strong scent of her floral perfume and the black and white dresses she wore signified her restrictive view of the world. It seemed as though Ms. Brown always had some type of feedback for my friends and I about schoolwork and activities, which was rarely encouraging. Thus, we tended to avoid her presence whenever possible.

I had lived my entire life in Arizona and teaching was always my passion. I did not have the opportunity to go to college to get my teaching certificate, so I was a teacher’s assistant at Montebello Elementary where I assisted in a fifth grade class. I strongly believe if immigrants come to America for a better life, they need to learn to speak English! I don’t believe non-English speaking students should be given special classes in their native language; they need to learn the language quickly and become part of an English-only classroom like everyone else.

After the time of my incident, Illegal Mexican immigrants were viewed as nuisance in the U.S. and especially in Arizona, which was extended to the entire Latino community regardless of citizenship. Discrimination was the norm in the experience of people of color and it directly affected Hispanics. In 1995, my incident was only another example of this unfairness; as speaking Spanish was not deemed the American way. Three years later in 1998 the passage of Proposition 227 in California mandated “English only” in public schools; non-English speaking students would be placed in special classes where the teacher speaks English all the time and then they would be moved to a regular class after 1 year.

Growing up with a Hispanic background in the United States exposed me to two different worlds, which have equally shaped my identity. The Mexican culture was a dominant part of my life as I learned to speak Spanish before English as a child. This allowed me to effectively communicate with older generations of my family and learn the importance of my heritage. Once I entered the school years of my life I was able to speak, read, and write fluently in both English and Spanish. As a bilingual student I helped my non-English speaking classmates understand the daily activities of the classroom. In contrast to my experience of the way cultural differences shaped my own identity, this particular instance of my life showed me that America does not widely accept cultural difference. I understand that everyone who lives in the U.S. should strive to be fluent in the English language, but it does not mean they should have to forget the language and culture of their origins.


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