I was 5 when I learned English. Although I was born in Los Angeles, my parents took me to Mexico soon after to wait for my father’s immigration application to be processed. I spent my first few years watching the popular Mexican TV show, El chavo del ocho, and acquiring a taste for cajeta, a delicious Mexican caramel. I was a few months into preschool when my parents were given the green light to return to the United States.
Our family settled down in Bell, California, a historically diverse suburb of Los Angeles. My first day of kindergarten was daunting. The school was so much bigger than my preschool in Mexico and what it lacked in greenery, it made up for in cement. The kids, however, were the same: loud, excited and ready to play.
It wasn’t until we were in the classroom that I realized half the children I had been playing tag with didn’t speak my language. My heart sank as the teacher started speaking and I realized I couldn’t understand what she was saying. Panic crept up my little spine and I started looking for my mom, dimly remembering the wave she gave me as a stranger led me into this terrifying building.
Suddenly, as I was deciding whether to cry or make a break for the door, something wonderful happened. My teacher began speaking in Spanish. She explained that we were in a bilingual classroom and she would be alternating between the two languages. My mind stopped racing, my heart slowed down, and I redirected every bit of nervous energy into trying to learn this new puzzle she had presented; and so began my first English lesson.
I picked it up quickly and before long I began losing my Spanish. My parents didn’t realize how much I had forgotten until my grandmother came to visit and I struggled to answer her questions. Horrified, my parents instituted a new rule: English at school, Spanish at home.
Their discipline instilled within me a strong connection to my heritage, but it was the school’s decision to embrace children like me that gave it balance. Whether a child of immigrants or an immigrant themselves, learning English at school opened up a new world of Power Rangers, Gameboys and slap bracelets – quintessential American experiences during the mid-90s that connected us to our classmates regardless of background. To this day, one of the fastest ways I make friends is by asking a peer what their favorite Pokémon is.
In 1998, three years after I started kindergarten, a ballot measure passed that ended bilingual classrooms in California. It separated Spanish-speaking and English-speaking students, but classes were only taught in English. Without teachers to meet them halfway or bilingual classmates to support them, Spanish-speaking students actually had a harder time mastering the language. A Stanford study in 2015 found that these classrooms often kept students longer than they should have, in addition to lacking sufficient pathways to core courses necessary for them to obtain a degree at a four-year institution.
While California finally reversed the proposition in 2016, we have to ask: How many eager children like me were kept from reaching their full potential without the kind of help I enjoyed? How can a nation demand integration when it does not open doors to do so?
“Because this is America” is not a strong enough answer. This country was built from bits and pieces of international ideas and traditions, all of which faced hurdles in finding their place in this relatively new country. After seeing this happen over and over again, we should be helping people to adapt, not pushing them out.
Paola Marquez is CLINIC’s Communications Outreach Manager