Friday, April 07, 2006

Turning Pepe into Peter

by RudyG

I've slaved for the last week completing a Denver Public Schools teacher's course on how to teach mexicanitos English. The course had little to do with how that is done and more to do with how to fill out the chingos of bureaucratic forms required to change Pepe into Peter.

There's only one officially sanctioned school of thought in Colorado about English Language Acquisition, as they call it. Legislatively, politically, financially, curricula-wise, it all amounts to the same thing: use the children's knowledge of their first language, Spanish, to get them learning English as soon as possible, and then dump the Spanish instruction, which involved the least amount of time anyway, with the smallest amount of money, staff, books and materials dedicated to the Spanish language.

I sometimes feel I'm deceiving Pepita as I help her learn to write stories in Spanish. At the same time I know I'm helping her acquire storytelling tools, I also know that much of the literary constructs associated with Spanish do not transfer into English prose. I want to warn her about how the system will soon drown her in English learning, not to get her dreams up too high about one day writing fantasies in Spanish. But I don't.

To boot, the school I work at includes in its mission statement the phrase "a bilingual community", which is more humane and civilized than other schools where the Spanish language is treated much like a child's bedwetting problem: Pepe'll get over it as he grows up, but, the sooner, the better.

If I sound bitter, it's because I've become more intolerant of liberal window-dressing the older I've gotten. For any specific Spanish-speaking child, ideally DPS "allows" bilingualism for a period of 3 to 5 years. After that, the child is directed to learn everything only in English. Then monolingualism prevails.

When Pepita bring her homework story to me in the morning and proudly says, "Mira Maestro, lo que escribí anoche," I'm sometimes tempted to tell her to enjoy it while it lasts, because once her English immersion begins, for a long time her English prose will frustrate her maybe enough to question whether she ever even was a writer.

The farcical theme behind such an educational structure means not only that bilingualism is abandoned, but also biculturalism and all its advantages. The diversity that liberals so revere cannot exist in an English-only environment. When Pepe enters the first grade speaking nearly only Spanish, he also comes in with his Third World innocence, respect for learning, and simple desire to explore. By the time Pepe's turned into Peter, his mind's been sullied with all the best of gringo society--from Nintendo war games to McDooDoo's fat food, from Bush's colonial-war mentality to American standards of gas guzzling and paving parking lots.

Of course, I'm not decrying Pepita's learning of English; I'm ruing her loss of Spanish. Nor do I think I'm looking at the world through a pair of rose-colored, Latino-only glasses. Spanish is not part of some sacred way of living. But it is not just a lingo; it is an integral part of Pepita's way of looking at the world.

When Pepe stands in front of the class to read his recuento of how his father wound up in the hospital and might loose his foot from an injury received from jumping trains to get back across the border to be with his son, the entire class tends to quiet down, sharing in the experience all of them are a part of. One day he might be able to write just as powerful a story in English on the same topic. But after his English-only education begins, he will probably never return to revise his original, much less attempt to publish it. After all, it's just in Spanish.

Last week over 50,000 Denver people protested Bush's new assault on immigrants; maybe a half million did so in Los Angeles. I doubt any of their signs read "Spanish only." In fact, most mexicano parents worry that their kids aren't learning English fast enough! They too are under the delusion that learning English will fix their kids' problems. They find out soon enough what us Baby Boomer Chicanos learned from growing up here: the problems brown people face are not rooted in how well we speak and write English. In fact, we're not the problem at all.

What is the problem is an intolerant, guilt-ridden society that tends to blame those who don't yet speak English well, those who have values that don't correspond to those great middle class values all true Americans hold, the same values that elected Bush, permitted him to invade Iraq, and allow their fellow Americans to continue global-warming the entire planet.

In a couple of hours I will again begin class and have to decide which of the many raised hands I call upon to share their latest literary creations, done in Spanish. I can't let them know that each time I do so, I help bring them closer to the day when no teacher will permit anything to be read in Spanish. For nearly all of the Pepes and Pepitas, that day comes sooner than middle school. But I try not to think about how suave a real bilingual society would be like, at least not too much.

Rudy Ch. Garcia


daniel olivas said...

rudy, great post. onward!

Joe Ortiz said...

Pepe is Mexican slang for Joe or Jose, whereas Pedro means Pete. Other than that, great blog!

Joe Ortiz

Anonymous said...

Pepe/Peter: What a pendejada!

Thanks for correcting me, Joe (or Jose or Pepe or whatever I should say) and for your post.