As a native-born American who can trace his roots in this country back for more than 300 years, and whose native language is Spanish, I have been surprised at the emotionalism among the opponents of bilingual education. To their view, teaching children English by using the language of the child's home somehow fosters cultural separatism and insidiously promotes Spanish as the second language of this country.
How can a program whose objective is to help children make the transition into English-speaking classrooms be labeled separatist? To my mind, separatism is increased -- not diminished -- by denying linguistic minorities the educational opportunities to enter into the mainstream of American life.
Ironically, events that occurred nearly 8,000 miles away in Iran may give us a better perspective on this issue. A Marine of Hispanic descent, Sgt. Jimmy Lopez, who courageously helped 15 other Americans escape from the embassy, wrote on his jail wall, "Long live the Red, White and Blue" -- in Spanish.
To us in the Hispanic community, this act captures the love of this country that our community has demonstrated for years. Frequently, this is a overlooked. Hispanics have received more Medals of Honor than any other ethnic group in recent American history. Hispanic soldiers fought and sacrificed in the Pacific, Europe and places with names like Chongjin Reservoir and Khe Sanh.
While many think of the Hispanic community as "illegal aliens," "Cuban refugees" or other categories of recently arrived immigrants, Hispanics have been an integral part of this nation's history. That is why Hispanics have difficulty understanding the virulent attacks on bilingual education. Despite sacrifices of the Hispanic community, and despite its willingness to work that so embodies the American ideal, the children of our community continue to be shortchanged by this nation's educational system -- a system that Hispanics, like all Americans, help support through the billions of tax dollars they pay.
Hispanic children in 1980 were at or near the bottom of the educational ladder. Falling behind in grade levels, dropping out of school, being underrepresented in colleges and graduate schools all indicate the failure of our schools in meeting the needs of Hispanic children. Just as alarming is the fact that segregation in schools has increased in the past decade for Hispanic children.
A major reason for the schools' failure to meet the needs of Hispanics has been the language barrier. President Johnson recognized this in the 1960s when he gave his personal support to those of us who were introducing bilingual education legislation. In schools of south Texas, he experienced firsthand the barriers between a teacher and a child who speak different languages. The traditional method of teaching English by total immersion in an English-speaking classroom was the answer for only a few. This method has condemned many Hispanic and other language-minority students to failure. Some children learned, but for many the classroom became a traumatic encounter.
The situation for many Hispanic and other language-minority children continues unchanged. As U.S. District Judge Justice stated in a ruling mandating bilingual education for Hispanic children in Texas last month (United States v. Texas), the educational situation for Hispanics is an "ongoing ethnic tragedy."
The goal of bilingual education is to bridge the barrier of language. By using the language of the home in the classroom, the child's transition into English-speaking proficiency is facilitated: the child recognizes the worth of his or her parents' language and links school life with home life -- a link that is vital for a successful learning environment.
The next time you hear someone denouncing bilingual education, remember that American Marine of Hispanic descent -- like so many others before him -- who defiantly expressed his patriotism in the language he learned at home: "Viva el Rojo, Blanco y Azul!"