Bilingual proponents fear return to old days; opponents not worried

TUCSON, Ariz.—Advocates of bilingual education say what they fear most is a return to the old days – the bad old days, in their estimation.

Leonard Basurto, director of the bilingual education program in the Tucson Unified School District, has them indelibly etched in his memory.

He says the district’s English immersion program, which operated for nearly a half-century until 1967, left many Hispanic students emotionally scarred.

“I attended those classes, and so did my parents,” the 55-year-old Basurto said. “It was similar to a kindergarten class. The teachers were not language specialists.

“It’s terrifying to think that we could go back to those days,” Basurto said. “Speaking your own language was like a crime. It was an infraction.

“We used to have to hide, I and my classmates had to make sure that the teacher was not around when we spoke Spanish.”

If caught doing so, students were reprimanded and sometimes given trash cans to pick up rocks on the playground before morning classes or at recess, he said.

“Usually we were told that we shouldn’t speak Spanish because it wasn’t good for us and because the Spanish that we spoke wasn’t good Spanish. I had a sixth grade teacher tell me in two classes of mine that we spoke garbage Spanish and that we didn’t know what we were saying, and that for that reason we should stick to English.”

He and his Mexican-American classmates, all born in the United States, “were made to feel as foreigners in our own land,” he said.

“My brother was put in (an immersion) program and he was devastated, and he’s never gotten over it,” said Kathy Franco, a parent of two bilingual education students. “It was very bad for his self-esteem. My parents basically had to take away his Spanish. Every day they sent home negative notes from school.”

“It was a time that was silent, scary,” said Alejandra Sotomayor, president of the Tucson Association of Bilingual Education.

She recalled being paddled for speaking Spanish, and said, “You feel marginalized in a lot of ways.”

Maria Mendoza, state chairman of English for the Children Arizona, a Tucson-based organization that opposes bilingual education, said she learned English in New Mexico through an immersion program, as did everyone else before the 1960s, “whether you were French or Italian or Polish or Spanish.”

Mrs. Mendoza, a tutor certified in the intensive phonics method of teaching reading and writing, said she experienced no punishment, and emphasized that society today “will not allow child abuse.”

Hector Ayala, 44, co-founder of the group, was born in Mexico and moved to Nogales, Ariz., when he was a third-grader. “The best thing that the education system in Nogales did was teach us English,” he said.

Ayala added that when the 1-C program was in effect, “we had an atmosphere of xenophobia and out-and-out racism. That doesn’t exist any more.”

Spanish will be allowed on the playground and won’t be frowned on, he added; “It would just not be the language of instruction.”

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