SBS 301 Cultural Diversity/Prof. Koptiuch         Fall 2012       Personal Memory Ethnographies

Elizabeth Ramirez

Bilinguals Under Attack

Do you speak Spanish? That’s the question I hesitated to answer on a job application. Of course I know Spanish. I am fluent in both English and Spanish! So why was I afraid to answer that question you might ask? I could tell you why in a few words but you wouldn’t understand. I have to take you back thirteen years so that you can see what I saw and feel what I felt.

Arizona is a melting pot of ethnic cultures. I grew up in the metropolitan area in West Phoenix where poverty can be seen in certain sections of town. It is also predominantly composed of Hispanic-Americans. I knew how to communicate in two languages, and my teachers always told me I counted as two people in one body. At school I was always at the top of my class. Yet, one day it came to my attention that I was treated differently than the white students only because I spoke a second language.

I could read, write and speak in both English and Spanish. Yet, every year I was given the English as a Second Language (ESL) exam. This exam was similar every year, with questions asking “Where is the pencil?” or directions that said “Put the pencil under the table.” These were the types of questions I was tested on. I honestly felt that the teacher was trying to insult my intelligence. I was always at the top of my class so why was it necessary for me to take this exam?

As a primary school teacher, each year the state of Arizona requires that I give a test to my students to test his or her English comprehension. In general, this test is only required for those students who are minorities and whose primary language at home is something other than English.

By 5th grade I realized that the test was given only to the ESL students simply because our registration at school indicated Spanish was our primary language spoken at home. Because I grew up in West Phoenix, you may have figured out that obviously it was only the Hispanic students who took the test in my elementary school.

Every year I would be upset when the teacher would pull me out of class to take the exam to test my English comprehension. One day I had had enough of it. In 5th grade, after the exam was over I asked my teacher, who was a White female, if she thought I was stupid. She replied, “No, why do you ask that?” I replied, “I am given the same exam every year. Not to be rude but you can’t really test my English comprehension if you give me a test this easy.” What she replied next upset me so much that I regardless of how much I try, I cannot forget this incident.

I have tested many students and none ever complained about this comprehension test. However, there is always that one student who is smarter than you think. At her young age, I never expected my student Elizabeth to question me on why this test was being given to her. She could not understand why if she was one of the intelligent students that excelled in all subjects presented in my class, she was forced to take this test year after year. Of course, I explained to her that it was necessary to test her English comprehension because she is a minority whose primary language is Spanish. I specifically brought it to her attention that according to the state’s education system, Mexicans have a harder time adapting to this foreign language, well at least foreign to them.

The day my 5th grade teacher told me that it was known that Mexicans have difficulty in adapting and learning the English language, I felt as if I was an inferior being. All of my excitement of being bilingual vanished in that instant. I did not understand whether being bilingual was a good or a bad thing.

I will never forget the expression on Elizabeth’s face. She seemed to be both appalled and disappointed. I am not sure if she was insulted by my comment. She did not tell me anything back. She finished her test and went back to the class to continue working on her assignment.

Here I am an American citizen who has been educated in the American school system since preschool and the state does not think I am smart enough to speak and understand English fluently after all these years? Honestly, there were some white American kids in my class that had the hardest time when we did English related papers or literacy assignments. Those are the kids that needed help. Not me!

Students do not fully understand that there are certain measures to take in order to make sure everyone is successful. For this reason, we must take precautionary steps and make sure that the education they receive is the best. We must make sure minorities can understand English. Otherwise, why bother teaching them at all. It is not as if they will understand.

At an early age I learned that being Mexican-American was my pride and joy but also my burden to bear. I felt victim to white oppression. Some may say this is a bit harsh to say, but considering what Arizona and the country were going through in the 1990s, I have every right to be upset!

The world around me had been rapidly changing even before I was born. Minorities were seeking equal treatment in employment, housing, and education. We have come a long way in the way our constitution has evolved to provide a sense of ‘equality.’ Dating back to 1849, all of the U.S. states permitted segregated schools. Speaking specifically about my ethnic group, Mexican-Americans eventually challenged segregation. In 1945, Mexican-American parents challenged the segregation of Latino students in separate schools. By 1963, the nation’s first bilingual education program in public schools began in the state of Florida. Years later, in 1974, the Equal Educational Opportunity Act passed, which meant bilingual education would be more widely available to those who could not speak or understand English. Unfortunately, by year 2000 the situation at schools was not getting any better. Arizona did away with bilingual education. Voters endorsed a requirement for English immersion in schools, which in turn banned bilingual education.

Luckily, this country has come a long way, even if Arizona continues to struggle with these types of issues. Now Latinos as well as other minority groups have more rights and equal opportunity as those who are considered ‘white.’ Latinos have been granted some of those privileges that whites possess. Latinos were pronounced the nation’s largest minority by the census in 2003. This goes to show that minorities can someday become a majority. This means we contribute to this country as much as any other person who was born here and speaks only English. This was proven in 2006, when Mexicans decided to show whites what a day without a Mexican could be like for the United States.

As I grew up, hearing people around me speaking Spanish was a great feeling. Knowing that I can communicate with others in a language in which I was raised and can communicate effectively makes me feel as if I am worth two people. I am worth two people because I am bilingual. My story shows that it is ridiculous that in grade school for students to speak Spanish is not considered a good thing. It is assumed that our English skills are bad because of our ethnicity. Yet, once we are in high school or college it is required to learn a foreign language. Ironic, isn’t it?

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