I didn’t realize I was of Mexican descent until I moved from a majority Latino city in Southern California to a majority white city in Southern California. I grew up in Santa Ana, California where my elementary school was pretty diverse. We had white, Asian, Latino, and Filipino students, although my nuclear family was part of a close-knit Latino community through our Catholic church. My parents were involved with helping “at-risk” youth get through all of their trials and tribulations. They were also involved in grass roots activities, like protesting against negligent apartment owners where many of their “at-risk” youths lived. I can remember one time participating in one of the protests and seeing Jorge Ramos interview some of the grass-roots organizers like my parents. That experience is part of the reason why I decided to read his most recent book called, Lo Que Vi.
My parents immigrated to Brownsville, Texas from Tamaulipas, Mexico in the late sixties. They came here legally, although my maternal grandmother came to work in Texas many times as an illegal immigrant in order to make ends meet. My paternal grandfather brought his family to the U.S. as a bracero worker. My paternal grandmother was born in South Texas, but moved to Mexico without a birth certificate, so when she came back to the States she had to get “papers” proving her citizenship, which ended up being Mexican due to lack of proof that she was born in the U.S.A. My mother was 13 when she immigrated and my father was 16 years old. Four years later they married and by the time my mother was 22 years old she had her third child. I lived in Brownsville until I was two years old and in California until I was 18 years old.
Language gurus state that after a certain age an individual will speak in the language that is considered to be their mother-tongue. This was the case for my parents. In our home they always spoke in Spanish to each other and as the years went by they spoke in Spanish to us less and less. I remember constantly hearing Spanish in my home, from the radio station, television, and friends that would come over. My parents never forced us to speak Spanish, they just always spoke it. To this day my mother speaks to me in her beautiful Spanish, while I speak to her in my “educated English.” As I grew older and realized that I understood two languages; my interest in improving my Spanish also grew.
I was tracked in high-school partially because I probably didn’t do well on standardized assessments and partially because the counselor knew my mother was raising three daughters alone. I guess you can say she knew her statistics. After my father passed away we moved to an “all white” city. I got asked many ignorant questions like, “Where do you tan?” to “Does your mom know any good sewers?” This is one of the ways I realized I was different, other than the fact that the only Latinos I could see in our community were the ones mowing the lawn or cooking food in restaurants.
The only other language experience I had, other than my exposure to Spanish at home, was my two years of high-school Spanish, both if which I passed with an easy “A.” I know my story is very much a cliché as a first generation born and raised in the U.S., but I like to think that it is somewhat unique, at least the years beyond high-school. We moved to Texas, where I started taking classes at a community college. I was forced to take remedial reading and writing. Ok, so maybe the few years after high school are still a little common amongst first generation Chicanos.
At 20 years old I experienced two events that changed the course of my life forever. I traveled outside of the USA for the first time, visiting my maternal grandmothers’ home state of Jalisco and I transferred to a four year university, the same one I am attending for my Ph.D. In Guadalajara I realized that I was American and at UT I realized that I had had a horrible education. I was put on academic probation after my first semester!
In December of 1996 I knew that I had to make a deliberate decision to continue my studies, while at the same acknowledging that I was walking a fine line of being a part of a stupid statistic that apparently was very clear to high school counselor, which ultimately meant dropping out of college and working at a hourly paid job for years on end. The following semester I tested out of all four Spanish classes, required to graduate, which helped my G.P.A., but also made me realize that I know Spanish, not as well as a native speaker, but I knew what sounded correct and what did not. After that strenuous year, I focused on making it through my studies and improving my Spanish by reading anything I could find that was written in Spanish. Since my trip to Guadalajara, Jalisco in 1996 I have traveled every summer to a different Spanish-speaking country in efforts to improve my Spanish. I have spent anywhere from a week to a month and a half each summer in another country. After twelve years of trying to speak Spanish eloquently and without an English accent I have come to terms with the fact that I will never be as fluent or close to fluent as a native speaker until I at least live in a Spanish-speaking country.
After I graduated in 1999 with my Bachelors of Arts degree I sought after several different job opportunities. No one would hire me. I had spent the last five years just trying to stay afloat. All of my time went into studying, all of it. I wasn’t involved in any clubs, nor did I venture abroad to study. I didn’t have the funds nor did I have the time to waste because I was too busy literally studying. As I was applying and sometimes interviewing for positions with different companies, an idea dawned on me. Not only was not being prepared for college detrimental to my “student life”, it was also detrimental to my post-graduation life. No one would hire me because I didn’t have a well rounded college experience nor did I have a degree that would allow me to do a specific job, like accounting.
I realized that the education an individual receives prior to college can have a huge impact on what their life in college and beyond is like. I ended up resorting to what I was doing to help me eat and live while in college, which was dental assisting and the pay sucked! In 2002 I was utterly sick of being a dental assistant. I had tried working my way up as a bank teller and as a recruiter’s assistant, but both jobs were unfulfilling nor interesting to me for that matter.
During the summer of 2003 I was reflecting about some of the volunteering experiences I had had abroad; one was in Honduras and the other in the Dominican Republic. Both revolved around teaching children. That’s when I had an epiphany; I remembered that when I started community college I wanted to teach English Literature at the college level, somewhere along the way I got distracted with my pursuit of becoming a dentist. It dawned on me that all of my volunteering experiences revolved around teaching children either about dental hygiene or English. This is when I decided to apply to be a bilingual teacher for the Austin Independent School District and in 2004 I got accepted to the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor for a Masters in Elementary Education. It was during that year that I realized how much more I could learn and grow after acquiring the skills to study as an undergrad.
Since 2003 I have worked as an inner-city bilingual educator. When I first started I thought I had a lot in common with my students, but as the years go by I realize we have less and less in common. The only common factor we have is the language we speak.
Through the combined experiences of my personal education as a Latina in the USA and the opportunities I have had as a teacher; I have gained an interest to advocate for learning additional languages in public and private school settings. I have also acknowledged that my expertise and strengths lie within research and advocacy rather than actually teaching in a classroom or teaching teachers. I think I am good at what I do as a bilingual reading specialist/writing coach at a local elementary school, but I believe research and advocacy come more naturally to me.
There are several research interests I have, all of which stem from interpretations of experiencing a “bilingual life,” but also from what I have observed amongst children who are learning an additional language. They include, but is certainly not limited to how the language an individual speaks can define the identity they perceive of themselves. I wonder how the identity they perceive of themselves plays out in the different facets of their lives. I also believe that most individuals who come from lower class upbringings have what I call a *language deficiency, especially if they speak something other than Standard American English. I wonder if having a language deficiency affects their pursuit of higher education, certain jobs, and social status. Lastly, as I delve into research and advocacy for bilingual/bicultural education I hope to develop a sense of clarity in my writing and in the manner in which I speak about my work. This is one of the reasons why I am an avid reader of books by authors like Jorge Ramos whom write about what they see.
**A language deficiency is when an individual has limited vocabulary and lacks the knowledge of proper pronunciation of words or use of phrases.