I wrote this article back in 2005 for the Bilingual/Bicultural Family Network . What is disappointing to me is that things don’t seem to have changed much since then. Or have they?
By Corey Heller
Have you heard of 16-year-old Zach Rubio? Did you know that he was suspended for speaking Spanish in the halls of his public school?
If you don’t speak Spanish and if you aren’t a teenager, why would Zach Rubio and his dilemma have anything to do with you?
Actually, Zach Rubio has everything to do with you, your family and all of us who are raising our children multilingually and multiculturally. Zach Rubio is the quintessential poster-boy for the politics of bilingualism inside and outside of the school grounds.
Jennifer Watts, the principal of Zach’s school, and the authority who gave the suspension orders, wrote, in her explanation for the suspension, “This is not the first time we have [asked] Zach and others to not speak Spanish at school.”
Say what?! Zach had actually been asked in the past to not speak Spanish at school?
She didn’t say that he was asked not to speak Spanish during English classroom instruction or not to speak it in response to his teachers. She did not say that he was asked to not speak Spanish in any specific situations at all. She simply said, “at school.”
This is where Zach Rubio’s suspension has everything to do with us and our experiences as bilingual/bicultural families in the US, regardless of language and culture.
As we all know, children in our society spend many of their waking hours in school, where they form friendships, emulate peers, and look up to their teachers and school administrators. As a nation, we sometimes lament the power that the outside world has over the lives of our children, from the influence of language to the overpowering desire to fit into the community culture.
For multilingual and multicultural families in particular, a child’s healthy development of self identity depends on a balance between life within the home and life outside the home.
Therefore, it is absolutely essential that our children have the opportunity to fully experience the society in which they live, yet at the same time, the bonds which tie a family together must be respected by our schools, workplaces and society as a whole.
If they are not, then we take the chance that the youth of our 21st century will feel that they must make a choice between who they (and their family) are and what the world is telling them they should be. This is a volatile situation, to say the least.
Each of us may assume that suspension for speaking a second language in the halls of a school is not acceptable, but why do we assume this?
Are you sure it isn’t a punishable crime to speak a second language in your country? How can you be so certain? Are you certain that if you are in a public building you do not first have to leave the building and then stand 15 feet away from the entrance before speaking your native language so that others can’t hear you, like anti-smoking laws in some U.S. states?
Making the assumption that we can speak our native languages anywhere we like comes as second nature to us. Language and culture are so intrinsically a part of us, we assume that laws must be in place to protect our rights. But ultimately it all comes down to politicians and judges in their roles of authority over the matter.
Ironically, it took a legal immigrant, Zach’s father, to remind the school authorities that they were not following their own policies: “So I went to the principal and said, ‘My son, he’s not suspended for fighting, right? He’s not suspended for disrespecting anyone. He’s suspended for speaking Spanish in the hall?’ So I asked her to show me the written policy about that. But they didn’t have one.”
Many would argue that this isn’t a language issue at all, that this is an immigration issue and has everything to do with our tentative relationship with Mexico on the U.S. southern border.
As T.R. Reid writes in his article for the Washington Post, Spanish At School Translates to Suspension, “Conflicts are bursting out nationwide over bilingual education, ‘English-only’ laws, Spanish-language publications and advertising, and other linguistic collisions. Language concerns have been a key aspect of the growing political movement to reduce immigration.”
Yes, this is an immigration issue; an issue of economics and fear. To many, Zach Rubio represents the loss of U.S. jobs, a lower standard of living, lack of healthcare for Americans and anything else that can be piled on.
Nevertheless, we can not let this detract us from the fact that the same laws that protect Zach so that he can speak Spanish in the halls of his public school are the exact same laws that protect you and me so that we can speak a second language in the halls of schools and other public institutions.
It is possible that no one would complain about my children speaking German in the halls of their school because German is not necessarily associated with poverty, mass immigration and a decline in the prosperity of the U.S. Yet, what if all of a sudden Germans were the “bad guys” (again) and speaking German in the school hall was a no-no?
I certainly would be relieved to know that laws stand between my children speaking our home language and a disciplining school authority, no matter what our income bracket happened to be at the time.
The irony in all of this is that where language is seen as a global asset by most countries around the world, Zach’s bilingualism is seen as a threat. Rather than praising Zach for continuing to use his language which connects him to his family, especially during the difficult teenage years when family ties are most tenuous, he is outright warned and ultimately punished for using his family language.
Would the 21st century not be an exciting era in which to live when someone like Zach were encouraged to share his language skills with monolingual children and peers in the schools; to visit classrooms with Spanish teachers to inspire children to be like the cool 16 year old who values family, does his homework and speaks Spanish AND English, rather than associating Spanish speaking with gangs and violence and poverty?
All multilingual and multicultural families want is for the world to understand that it is possible to value a multilingual/multicultural citizenry while at the same time cherishing and valuing the bonds of community and country.
This dichotomy we see today simply can no longer continue – there are simply too many of us! Look around and you will find multicultural and multilingual families everywhere, families who are devoted both to their country and their native origins and languages.
It is too late for the world to ignore this fact and, as Janet Murguia, the national president of La Raza, says about the case with Zach, “A fully bilingual young man like Zach Rubio should be considered an asset to the community.” Amen!
The suspension of Zach Rubio may be an isolated, extreme example of attitudes toward language but it highlights the experiences many face when speaking their second language in public. How many times has someone been told, “Why can’t you just learn our language?” when speaking with their child on the playground or the bus?
Zach’s story reminds us that it is time for our world to think outside the box, to accept the paradigm shift of our changing world and to come together to find ways to retain our unique cultures and identities while at the same time respecting the multilingual and multicultural mix of our 21st century families.
This was written back in 2005. What are your thoughts about the state of Politics and Bilingualism in the United States today? Has it changed? Has it evolved for better or worse? Does the average American still use the term “bilingual” to mean a Spanish-speaking-immigrant? And how often do those of us who are bilingual in the United States perpetuate the image of a bilingual as a “Spanish speaker” each time we use the term “bilingual” to mean “someone who speaks Spanish” rather than someone who “speaks two languages”?