YOU KNOW THAT the battle over bilingualism has gotten down and dirty when they bring mommy in.
The mommy in this case is MOME, or Mothers of Multicultural English, a new grass roots movement of largely immigrant mothers who are imploring officials to provide as much English language education as soon as possible for their children. It is, among other things, a big, collective “phooey” to bilingual education.
“They want to resegregate the local school system,” says Anita De La Garza, a Flushing, Queens, mother who founded the organization that calls bilingual education “a costly 20-year failure.” MOME favors teaching students in English rather than bilingual education where students learn in both their native language and English.
“The Creoles won’t talk to the Puerto Ricans, the Chinese won’t talk to the Hindis,” she says. “English is not only the language of the country, but of all transportation, shopping. It’s all in English. You cannot get a decent job without English. When you deprive people of English, you’re not doing anyone any favors.”
De La Garza, who is not Hispanic but is married to a Mexican-American surgeon, heads a growing movement among some Latinos in New York who want their children educated in English over Spanish. Her organization has 600 new members in New York City from different ethnic groups, including the support of Danny Ortiz, station manager of Spanish-language radio station WADO.
Dr. Yolanda Hojos, a Cuban-American from Forest Hills, Queens, who has a grown daughter in college, has joined the movement.
“I want to help the people who speak less English than myself, to explain to people that it is very important to speak the language when you live in the country, even if it’s broken English,” says Hojos, a retired anesthesiologist.
But many other New York Latinos here believe MOME impedes their long-fought battle for bilingual education.
Luis Reyes, a Board of Education member and staunch advocate of bilingual education, calls MOME “a carbuncle on the ass of progress.”
Bilingual education aims at teaching children in two languages, preserving both their heritage and self-esteem and at the same time keeping them apace of their academic subjects. A recent U.S. Education Department survey found that Spanish-speaking children who were taught partly in their own language make at least as much as progress as those “immersed” in English. It also found that students in Spanish-language bilingual programs actually became fluent in English at a slightly faster pace than those in immersion programs.
Other studies have shown that bilingual education has helped reduce dropout rates among non-English speaking students.
Last year, 54,064 Spanish-speaking public school students – about one of every six Hispanic students in the system – were placed in mandated bilingual education programs. Bilingual students stay in the program on an average of two or three years, and leave if testing shows they’ve learned well in English, says John Acompore, director of bilingual program development and improvement for the city school system.
Two years ago, the standard for leaving the program became more stringent, requiring that students score in the 40th percentile. Previously a student only had to score in the 20th percentile.
Reyes says his goals and MOME’s goals are not different, but that MOME is misguided. Reyes was an active member of ASPIRA, a Hispanic educational organization that sued the Board of Education to require bilingual education and won in 1974.
“There are some people who have such a concern about assimilation that they are willing to jettison language, and along with it, culture,” says Reyes. “Some of them are coming from a perspective of racism, others are well-meaning people who are not educators and are reacting to the growth of language-minority programs. They may be confused and insecure.”
Reyes’ reference to racism stems from the fact that MOME operates under the direction of a larger, more controversial and well-funded movement called U.S. English, which states as its goal making English the official language of government.
In 1986, the founder of U.S. English, John Tanton, wrote an internal memo saying that if borders were not more vigilantly patrolled, “Whites will see their power and control over their lives declining . . . Perhaps this is the first instance in which those with their pants up are going to be caught by those with their pants down.”
The remarks were apparently a reference to the possibility of whites being outnumbered by Hispanics, whose birthrates are higher. After disclosure of the memo, Linda Chavez, then president of the organization resigned in protest over his remarks. She later became staff director of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. Tanton also resigned.
MOME members deny they are either aware of or support any anti-immigrant or anti-Hispanic sentiments that Tanton may have expressed.
“No way, no way,” says Danny Ortiz of WADO. “If I was to support the English-only group, I would be crazy. We are a Spanish-language radio. I’d be shooting myself in the foot.”
Ortiz says he supports MOME because he believes students cannot adequately be taught in two languages at the same time. “Hispanics today feel strongly about their language,” he says. “On the other hand, they plan to compete in the world by knowing the language. . . . It’s up to the family to stand behind you at home and make sure you don’t give up your roots.”
But learning several languages at home, as Ortiz and De La Garza advocate, takes hard work. Raphael Baladejo, a father of four in the Bronx, says his own children refused to speak Spanish to him.
“Their past is being erased little by little,” Baladejo, a Puerto Rican, says. “Every time one of us has a baby here, I feel like we’re getting a thousand miles away from our heritage. If they lose their language, it’s not right. The way I picture it, the day will come when there will be no Puerto Rico . . . You’re annihilating them little by little without their knowing it.”