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Badass Bilingual Bitches

A state law calling for English-only in the public schools. A national movement of “Americanization.” Educators and administrators working to erase the home culture of their students. Sounds like today, right? Nope. Think 1900s Laredo, Texas and enter Jovita Idar and Leonor Villegas de Magnón who said, “Fuck that, our children deserve better.”

Under the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo of 1845 (which secured Texas as an American state), Mexican Americans were to enjoy the same equal rights under the law, including education, as the Anglo settlers, but as you can imagine, this was not carried out in fact. Instead there was defacto segregation in the schools based on school boundaries and the majority of the tax money used to support the schools (paid by both Mexican Americans and Anglos) went to support the Anglo schools leading to deplorable conditions in the Mexican American schools. The focus of the schools was different too; because Mexican American students were expected to go into service, they received practical training instead of academics. Girls were taught housekeeping, sewing, and cooking in preparation for a life as domestic servants to Anglos.

Furthermore, there was a state mandated English-only policy in the public schools and a concerted effort to Americanize Mexican American children. The lack of the Spanish language in addition to the systematic negation of Mexican culture caused children to need to reject their Mexican cultural heritage in addition to the Spanish language in order to try to assimilate into the “American way of life.” The irony is that even after rejecting their backgrounds, the Mexican American students that attended the public schools would never be seen as equals in the eyes of the Anglos who were in charge.

Because of the rampant racism in the public schools, many Mexican American women opened escuelitas, or private bilingual schools, where they were free to teach the language and culture that they chose. Jovita Idar and Leonor Villegas de Magnón were two such women. Villegas operated her own private free bilingual kindergarten out of her home, and Idar headed la Liga Femenil Mexicanista (the League of Mexican Women) which operated their own free bilingual kindergartens.

Even 100 years ago, Idar recognized the fear of many who believe that in a bilingual program children will not learn English and aimed to maintain the home culture and language while simultaneously preparing students to advocate and fight successfully for their rights in the English-only public arena. This was why she was in favor of teaching both Spanish and English. In her article for La Crónica, “The Conservation of Nationalism,” Idar stated:

[This] does not at all mean that our children should not be taught the language of the land that they live in, since it is the means that will enable them to communicate directly with their neighbors, and that will equip them to appreciate their rights. What we simply meant to say was that we ought not disregard the [Spanish] language, because it is the official stamp of the race and the people. (as cited in Enoch, 2008, p. 121).

This approach was in direct conflict with the Americanization approach mandated by the Texan government which ignored and even sought to destroy the Mexican identity of Mexican American students and Idar didn’t give a shit.

Additionally, Idar and Villegas were friends and both wrote on many revolutionary and progressive topics for La Crónica, a Spanish language newspaper owned by Idar’s family. When the Mexican Revolution began, the two crossed the border to tend to the wounded soldiers. Together they founded La Cruz Blanca (the White Cross), a equivalent of the American Red Cross, and traveled Mexico in order to nurse soldiers during the revolution. At one point, Villegas converted her house and school in Laredo into a hospital and even had her students helping to tend the wounded. Their entire lives were totally badass and I highly recommend reading about them and the early Mexican American feminist movement, which operated almost completely separately from the national Anglo movement.

At a time when Americanization was being pushed throughout the country, Villegas and Idar said, “fuck that,” and became pioneers of bicultural and bilingual education in the Southwest. Their beliefs and practices are still prominent in the mission of multicultural education today of educating children to successfully navigate two cultures and languages instead of erasing one in favor of the other.

 

Further Reading

Acosta, T. P., & Winegarten, R. (2003). Las Tejanas: 300 years of history. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press.

Beatty, B. (1995). Preschool education in America: The culture of young children from the colonial era to the present. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Bush Gibson, K. (2003). Jovita Idar. Bear, DE: Mitchell Lane Publishers.

Cotera, M. (2002). Our feminist heritage. In F. H. Vásquez & R. D. Torres (Eds.), Latino/a thought: Culture, politics, and society. (pp. 215-9). Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Enoch, J. Refiguring rhetorical education: Women teaching African American, Native American, and Chicano/a students, 1865-1911.Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press.

McArthur, J. N., & Smith, H. L. (2010). Texas through women’s eyes: The twentieth-century experience. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press.

Mendoza, S. (2004). The book of Latina women: 150 vidas of passion, strength, and success. Avon, MA: Adams Media.

San Miguel, G., & Valencia, R.R. (1998). From the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo to Hopwood: The educational plight and struggle of Mexican Americans in the Southwest. Harvard Educational Review, 68(3), 353-412.

Villegas de Magnón, L. (2004). La rebelde. Houston, TX: Arte Público Press.

 

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Mona Se Queda

I teach bilingual special education and I like guinea pigs.

16 thoughts on “Badass Bilingual Bitches”

  1. The problem with pushing bilingualism in America is that since most of us have no need for fluency in other languages besides English, we’ll never end up using it (and language is very “use it or lose it”).  How many of us actually remember the Spanish we learned in high school?  It’s one of the “benefits” of being an American: everyone else already speaks our language.  Bilingualism would be nice, but I don’t support slapping kids with even more graduation requirements so they can get into better colleges, graduate with a degree that ends up being useless, and have to make loan payments they can’t afford.  There are more pressing things to fix in the educational system right now than whether kids are learning languages they’ll never retain anyway, short of year-long immersion programs in foreign countries.  Americans don’t live in a political/social climate that makes it necessary to speak two or three languages from birth.

    1. The article isn’t about “pushing bilingualism”; it’s about facilitating full educational possibilities for children who were already bilingual, and surely with the number of speakers of languages other than English in the USA, that’s still a current concern (35 million Spanish speakers; 1.5 million speakers of Tagalog, 2.6 million Chinese speakers, ref).

    2. I agree, if you don’t want to take a foreign language, that’s your prerogative.  As QoB stated, I am referring to bilingual and ESL education which is completely different than foreign language education.  Bilingual education is for children that grow up speaking a language other than English.

      Extensive research has shown that the best way for them to succeed in school AND in English is through bilingual education as opposed to English only immersion.  Unfortunately, many people (and some states for that matter) do not follow the research.  My point was that Idar and Villegas stood up for the rights of bilingual children.

  2. Well this wasn’t what I was expecting, but that didn’t mean it was less interesting. I think with language is as with culture: keep your own, but adjust/make place to the culture in which you live now. Not only to make your own life easier, but to create less ..’bumps’ in society.

    And somehow I have never heard about people bitching about Asians talking in their first/second language (of course, they’re not “‘real”’ foreigners anyway, they work too hard and mingle too little*), but if it sounds Arabic (down here anyway) ‘Ooooh they need to talk in This Country’s Language or Go Home!’
    Hypocrisy, meet thy match.

    *mention of this being more black and white than I know it is.

    1. Up here it tends to be that way between persons from India (because a lot of my statesmen still call First Nations people ‘Indians’) and Latinos/as. Most of the people from India come here to study engineering and architecture at one of our universities, so clearly they’re “above” the Latinos/as who tend to be here for migrant work.

      What’s really incredible is when White people tell First Nations people to “go back where they came from”.

      1. What’s really incredible is when White people tell First Nations people to “go back where they came from”.

        Oh, that’s very cringe worthy. Luckily most Dutch people realize we’re a bunch of people that popped up here from everywhere and we’re all used to be Belgians/French/Germans/ex-colony and so on.

  3. From personal observation, those who cry, “one nation, one language,” tend to be the sheltered/ignorant types who have very myopic worldviews. If you walked into almost any country beyond US borders, you would quickly realize that being bilingual is the norm and being trilingual is common enough not to raise eyebrows. Most people that I knew in Africa spoke four languages out of necessity. To be monolingual in this day and age only holds you back, and I don’t see that trend reversing.

    1. Here here!  Coming from Canada, I studied French and took History, Geography etc in French and I reckon I turned out okay!  Plus, when I got lost in France this year I could still manage to ask (using extremely poor grammar) for directions.

  4. Very interesting!  This seems to be a point of contention still, not only in the states bordering Mexico, but throughout the U.S.  You’d think that there would be some allowance for preservation of the Mexican-American culture and language, since it was so ingrained in the area’s culture, but of course, whiteness and English are the American way, right?

    This is one reason why I hesitate when people talk of proposing a law stating that English should be the U.S.’s only national language, particularly since those who are most insistent on it–in my experience, at least–don’t have a very good grasp of English themselves.

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