A lawsuit challenging bilingual education in Albuquerque schools attacks the very heart of Chicano culture, says Roberto Roibal, a third party in the lawsuit.


No, it simply demands that Albuquerque Public Schools successfully teach children English, says Linda Chavez, a lawsuit backer.


Chavez’s group, the Center for Equal Opportunity, will pay about $25,000 in legal fees for the 14 Albuquerque families who sued the school district in federal court in March.


The lawsuit seeks to end classes in which children are taught in their native language if that language is not English.


Chavez spoke on the issue for about an hour Thursday evening at the University of New Mexico Law School before she was cut short.


More than 200 people, including many protesters, attended Chavez’s talk.


Pro-bilingual education activists waved signs and heckled throughout the talk at Bondurant Lecture Hall. One woman, Libbie Palmer of Cedar Crest, was taken from the hall in handcuffs for a time for refusing to put down a sign.


Palmer was given a public-nuisance citation, UNM spokesman Frank Martinez said this morning.


Protesters held up signs calling Chavez a “vendida,” or sellout, for seeking to get rid of programs they said help preserve New Mexico’s Hispanic culture.


Earlier Thursday in an interview, Chavez explained why she opposes bilingual education.


“Speaking Spanish to a child six hours a day does not teach them English,” she said.


Roibal said his group, the Southwest Organizing Project, entered the lawsuit as a third party to make sure attorneys for APS and Chavez’s group didn’t strike a deal to “water down” current bilingual programs.


Roibal says there’s a better way.


“We agree that there are problems with bilingual education, but her solution is to get rid of it. Let’s fix it.”


The lawsuit would affect more than school programs, Roibal said.


“A language is the bellwether of the culture,” he said. “It’s the heart of the culture.”


Passionate reactions are nothing new to the issue of bilingual education in America’s schools. Just ask Chavez, an Albuquerque native, political columnist and former director of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights under the Reagan administration.


She also helped back California’s Proposition 227, which successfully eliminated bilingual education from California schools this year.


“I get protested a lot when I speak on these subjects in the Southwest,” she said.


Chavez said that the district unfairly “segregates” children with Hispanic names by placing them in bilingual classes — sometimes when they speak English only.


The district must “come up with a program that produces results,” she said.


“The consequences of not learning English in the U.S. is to live a life of poverty,” she said.


But Virginia Duran Ginn, director of the district’s Cross Cultural Programs, says it’s wrong not to offer bilingual classes.


“It’s simply a vehicle to help children access general education,” Ginn said.


Ginn said about 24,500 of the district’s 85,804 estimated students use bilingual classes. The district will spend $11.6 million on bilingual classes this year, according to the preliminary budget. She said teachers who teach in Spanish, Navajo and Vietnamese can create an “equal playing field” for students who need to catch up to students who primarily speak English.


She said critics are too quick to judge.


“There are critics who think just because a kid is speaking playground English, that child should be successful in their academic English,” she said.


Children need three to seven years to learn English thoroughly, Ginn said.


Chavez said she would not be opposed to a bilingual class that successfully taught children English. But she said, “I have yet to see such a study.”


For Alberto Martinez, a retired teacher, anthropologist and community activist, the lawsuit is “dangerously frightening.”


Martinez’s experience is distinctly New Mexican. His father was Jicarilla Apache and his mother Chicana. He speaks Spanish and Apache.


He said bilingual education is protected by New Mexico’s Constitution — and eliminating classes from schools would be disastrous for New Mexico culture.


“Everything disappears without language,” he said.


Chavez must be stopped, he said.


“We don’t want to allow this movement to continue,” he said. “We have to unite.”


Chavez is determined to continue. She said her group has looked into other lawsuit possibilities in Texas and Colorado, and would like to win a case in the Supreme Court.


Martinez is not surprised.


“I think she’s a brilliant woman,” he said. “I wish she was on our side.”


Associated Press reports were incorporated into this story.


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