A juvenile court judge in this town near Nashville startled many when he issued an order to a Mexican immigrant mother: Learn English or risk losing your child.
The case involving Felipa Barrera has evolved into more than a custody dispute -- it is also putting a spotlight on how Hispanic immigrants are treated by the legal system.
Barrera, who came to the United States in the mid-1990s, is in the middle of a trial to try to regain custody of her 11-year-old daughter. A judge has to decide if it is a case of neglect and abuse, or a cultural misunderstanding.
Her attorneys are asking a judge to set aside a decision by Wilson County Juvenile Court Judge C. Barry Tatum that gave temporary custody of the child to an unrelated couple, Emily and Warren Patterson. Testimony resumes Tuesday.
Tatum had told Barrera in October that she would need to show basic English proficiency when she returned to court in April, although he backed down on that order in the later hearing.
But lawyers for the Pattersons say the case is not merely about language. The child, Linda Barrera Cano, has said her mother yanked her ear and a relative hit her with a large stick.
Barrera said she loves her daughter and denies hitting her. Her lawyers say their client would not even be in court if she were not a poor immigrant, one who speaks only an indigenous Mexican language, Mixteco. Many Mixteco-speaking immigrants remain isolated when they reach the United States because they do not speak Spanish or English.
"A lot of courts and hospitals don't realize just because someone is from Mexico, it doesn't necessarily mean they know Spanish," said Konane Martinez, an anthropologist at the National Latino Research Center at California State University at San Marcos. "It's a completely different language."
Like other southern towns, Lebanon has seen a sharp increase in Hispanic immigrants. Their numbers in Lebanon have more than doubled from 500 in 2000. Mixtecos, who come from poor regions of southern and northwest Mexico, account for nearly a third of that increase.
At one of her first court appearances, Barrera did not have an interpreter. When Linda was initially placed in foster care with one of her elementary school teachers in March 2004, Barrera was not able to tell her side of the story within 72 hours, as required by law, said Jerry Gonzalez, one of Barrera's attorneys.
Barrera did not get her first court appearance until 21 days later and was not given a lawyer until August, Gonzalez said.
Amanda Crowell, the Pattersons' attorney, has argued that Linda has no bond with her mother because she lived most of her early childhood with her grandmother in Mexico.
At the time Linda's teacher filed for custody, Barrera was living in Virginia, and Linda lived with her brother, his teenage wife, their children and other relatives.
Several months after Linda was taken from her brother's home to live with the teacher's family, she was placed with the Pattersons, who want to adopt her. Emily Patterson is a guidance counselor at Linda's school.
Gonzalez said Tennessee law does not consider it neglect if a child is left with a relative. He also said that Mixteco culture has an expansive view of what constitutes a family.
"Mixteco concept of family is different than our concept of family," Gonzalez said. "If I sent my child to go live with my sister and her family in Delaware, to me that's a different family. In their culture, that's not a different family. So her mother never gave her up."
The Pattersons and Barrera declined to comment.
The Pattersons have said that when Linda came to them, they had to instruct her about hygiene, such as brushing her teeth and taking a shower.
"She was like a hopeless little puppy," said Danny Hill, Linda's school principal. "I saw a hopeless little girl. Her eyes were hopeless."
Now, the Pattersons say, Linda is flourishing in school and is fluent in English. To send her back to a non-English-speaking household would set her back, they say.
Hardy Turner, whose two daughters are friends with Linda, said she believes the Pattersons are her family. "She's had a taste of love, and she doesn't want to go back," Turner said.