A teacher once paddled Alejandra Sotomayor in front of her fourth-grade class after a classmate told on her.
Alejandra had slipped up while in the cafeteria, saying in Spanish that her shoe was untied.
She knew better.
On her first day of school, as she walked hand in hand with her older sisters, they warned her to stay quiet all day or face punishment for speaking Spanish.
Today, Sotomayor is driven by her experiences in an English-only school as she leads a fight against a proposal to ban bilingual education.
On that first day at Liberty Elementary, she sat in the back, right side of a dimly-lit classroom for 1C — an Americanization program for students new to U.S. schools. Small heads were in front of her. Tall children, too old for first grade but dumped in there anyway, were to the left.
The teacher took a stick and pointed to the ABC’s on the wall, and pronounced the letters one by one.
“The teacher would stand there and point to the alphabet. Point and point and talk and talk. The room was silent,” Sotomayor said.
Two weeks later, a sobbing Sotomayor told her mother she didn’t want to go back to school. Her mother told Sotomayor what to do in class the next day. When the teacher pointed to the first letter, say “A!” and so on.
Sure enough, the next day, Sotomayor followed her mother’s advice while the teacher reviewed the alphabet. The teacher signaled her to come to the front of the class. Sotomayor was ready for the real first grade, the teacher decided.
But that didn’t help. Sotomayor relied on the help of a smart girl to get through the English-only schooling. She also had to change her name to Sandra because her teachers couldn’t pronounce Alejandra.
“I was disengaged. I could not find myself in school at all,” Sotomayor said.
After high school, Sotomayor dropped out of the University of Arizona at age 19 when a professor ridiculed a writing assignment. She soon became a teacher’s aide at Wakefield Middle School 20 years ago and only returned to the UA at the urging of a colleague.
There, Sotomayor’s first UA bilingual education class was “a social awakening for me.”
“I finally understood. I found who I was in society,” said Sotomayor, now a curriculum specialist at Wakefield and president of the Tucson Association for Bilingual Education.
In her science classes at Wakefield, Sotomayor put her bilingual education training to use. Every year, her students created science projects in Spanish. But to enter them in the regional fair, they had to translate them to English, showing their skills in both. She averaged five winners a year — sometimes beating out specialty schools like Booth-Fickett Magnet School.
“I’ve seen the power of language alive in their lives,” Sotomayor said.