Tomorrow is my birthday and aside from good health and mental, emotional, and spiritual well-being, I only have two wishes. One, is to go and see Coco, the movie. I hear it's an intense, beautiful movie—a tear-jerker.
The other is that all my friends and family read this compelling account that expresses in the clearest of terms, how and why assimilation to U.S. culture for many Mexican Americans and other language minorities is and has been a violent proposition. This is certainly so to the degree that it entails cultural and linguistic annihilation which happens to define so much of what passes for "education" today.
Like Dr. Medina, I am also from West Texas and this story resonates on a really deep level. For me—and I think for the majority of most language minorities—the violence is mostly symbolic, beginning with the taking away and distortion, of our names and cultures. The accents in our written names also drop. Ángela and Angela were my childhood names, but in school it was just "Angela," anglicized, with no accent. I call this process of forced de-identification from one's culture, language, and community-based identities, "subtractive schooling," in my own work.
However, in Dr. Medina's case, it went beyond the symbolic to also consist of brutal and humiliating physical violence that for me harkens back to the forceful assimilation experience of the American Indians to Euro-American standards and values in the infamous Native American Boarding School experiment where many children died. Coined by Army Officer Richard Henry Pratt, "Kill the Indian, Save the Man," was a reigning motif and rationale for the perceived necessity of the schools themselves.
Consider reading this historical account by scholar Ward Churchill of this terrifying and deeply shocking and saddening chapter in our history as a country. Another powerful text by David Wallace Adams that I have some of my students read is titled, Education for Extinction: American Indians and the Boarding School Experience, 1875-1928.
Crazily, this motif was the "benign" response during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to the actual killing of Indians which was policy and practice. Not surprisingly, then, many children literally died in the schools that held them in forced captivity—a logical, if horrific, outcome of stripping them of any and all vestiges of their "Indian-ness."
Thankfully, Dr. José Medina survived schooling to tell his story. Today, he is a cultural and linguistic warrior in his position as Director of Dual Language and Bilingual Education at CAL.
The takeaway from this story should never be, "Well, you made it Dr. Medina, so what's wrong with the system if it worked for you?" No, José, like myself, are the exceptions. The takeaway instead should be, "We need to stop harming and traumatizing children in our nation's assimilationist classrooms and opt through policy and practice for additive, late-exit bilingual—preferably, dual language— education, culturally relevant pedagogy, authentic caring, and Ethnic Studies. Ideally, all can work in concert to disrupt the corrosive effects of subtractive cultural assimilation.
Dr. Medina also provides helpful guidance in this regard. Read on!
Sinceramente, Yours truly,
By: Dr. José Medina, Director of Dual Language and Bilingual Education, Center for Applied Linguistics, Washington, DC
It started when I was kicked out of Kindergarten. My parents, in their early twenties and recently having moved to El Paso from Ciudad Juárez, took me to my local elementary escuela in one of the large school districts in the city. Because I only spoke español like my parents, and also, because I was a nervous child, I did not react positively to school. I kicked, I bit adults, I urinated on myself, and I would run out of the classroom daily. After several weeks, the principal informed my parents that I "had to mature" and, therefore, would need to stay home and be brought back as a first grader.
I guess I was afraid that I would never be enough if people knew my real name – if people knew that Spanish, not English, was the language closest to my heart.
My Godmother, mi madrina, informed my parents that they should enroll me in a local Catholic School because there, the nuns would be able to "fix" me. On the first day at the private school, I once again did the things that got me kicked out of public school. However, this time it was different. Una monja, a nun, who my parents understood to be the principal, had a gurney rolled into her office from the nurse's office. I was placed on the rolling bed, strapped in so that my arms and legs were not able to move, and I was rolled through the school hallways to my first-grade class.
Even as I remember this life-altering event, I can see my young Mamá and Papá with tears in their eyes, seeing their firstborn child tied and delivered to his classroom. My teacher introduced me to the rest of the class as the new student – Joe. So, I lay there, watching my parents escorted away from the classroom, urine-stained clothes on my body, and flat on my back, wishing that I was somewhere else…anywhere…but not in that classroom.
Continue reading to find out more of José's journey....
Days later, having decided that I no longer wanted to be tied to a gurney, I told myself that I had to learn English…that I had to "act" like the other students. I asked my parents if I should let my teacher know that my name was José. Mi Mamá me dijo, "haces lo que te diga la maestra." Do what the teacher tells you. So, I dutifully and without objection, became Joe.
In that moment, when my identity and name were taken from me, my life was forever altered. Spanish, my beautiful native language, la música de Juan Gabriel, my favorite telenovelas on the Televisa Network, and the TV show el Chavo del Ocho – were forbidden in my English world, in my school.
As you read this, some of you may be thinking, "but José, you made it; you are doing great for yourself." Stop. Realize. I am the exception, not the norm.
English learners today may no longer be tied to gurneys in a physical fashion, but many are still lying flat on their backs with their hands and legs bound by metaphorical straps. Some of you may even know teachers that are responsible for such situations. Perhaps, even you, have been the one tying language learners down without realizing it.
We are good people. We are educators. And, we became teachers because we wanted to help others have educational access. As we serve students who are adding English to their repertoire while in U.S. schools, we must remember the following three things:
- Value all that a student brings into our classroom. If an English learner enrolls in our school and is placed in our classroom, we should not say to others that the student "doesn't know a thing." Each language learner is a unique and awesome individual who is just waiting for us, their teacher, to create connections between that which they know and that which we want them to learn. Just because a student does not speak and/or understand English, it does not erase all that he/she brings into the classroom!
- Have an additive mindset about language learning. Our job is not to transition kids to English. The students' native tongue is not something to be exploited in order to ensure success on standardized assessments. We must instead, value our students' first language and culture as we strengthen connections between the native tongue and English simultaneously. English and other languages can co-exist in the mind and the heart of a student beautifully!
- We must learn, practice, and write our students' names correctly. My real name is not Joe. My true name is José. José has an accent over the letter "e" and if you don't place the accent when writing my name, you are diminishing my language and culture. María is not Mary. Françoise's name should not be changed to Frankie. Nuan is a beautiful name, so we must learn it. The name Akmal-Alam signifies a beautiful universe and does not deserve to be change to Alan. We learned how to pronounce the names Dostoyevsky and Schwarzennegger and we must now, also give value to the names of the students and families we serve!
It took me decades, really not until my twenties and thirties, to slowly begin to take ownership of my birth name, my family background, my culture, and my language. I guess I was afraid that I would never be enough if people knew my real name – if people knew that Spanish, not English, was the language closest to my heart.
So, there are those that to this day call me Joe – and I graciously respond because that is the name that at the age of six was given to me by an educator. But, now that I am fully capable of owning ALL that I am, I prefer to introduce myself using my real name.
¡Hola, mi nombre es Dr. José Luis Medina Hernández Franco López Jr. Díaz-Cruz!
Dr. José L. Medina is the Director of Dual Language and Bilingual Education at the Center for Applied Linguistics (CAL) in Washington DC. In this role, Dr. Medina provides dual language technical assistance, professional development, and job-embedded support to dual language programs across the United States and globally. He is a former dual language school principal and has served as an administrator and educator at the elementary, middle, and high school levels. Dr. Medina is one of the authors of the third edition of the widely-used Guiding Principles for Dual Language Education and also serves as the Director of the National Dual Language Forum. Dr. Medina can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @josemedinajr89.