Gloria Matta Tuchman fixes a blue-eyed stare and says it all began when a principal dared her to try to change the law.
It’s a story she’s told many times and, like all stories of the sort, it ends with her doing just that. Tuchman, first-grade teacher, refused in 1985 to teach her Hispanic students in Spanish and set off one of California’s longest-running campaigns to dismantle bilingual education.
Last week, after failed legislative attempts, she announced she is joining with multimillionaire Ron Unz to ask the voters to make English the classroom standard.
For more than a decade, Tuchman has been one of the most visible campaigners for English instruction. It’s impossible to leave a meeting with her without a stack of old clippings and writings. Her high-profile lobbying landed her on the front page of USA Today in the 1980s and has transformed her into the bane of the bilingual education establishment, where her name is greeted with groans of recognition.
Tuchman, after all these years, is still trying to change the state guideline that says immigrant children should be taught in their native language. Tuchman believes that instruction offered in English is the surest way to English fluency.
Tuchman has had her mind made up for years. But the story of how she became the unofficial spokeswoman for English goes back further than a principal’s dare, further even than bilingual education itself.
It starts 50 years ago in the West Texas town of Pecos, and it reveals an agitator as complex and charged as the politics of language.
Tuchman, the English crusader, is the eldest of six children born to Mexican-American civil rights activists. The blue eyes fixing you with a stare are, underneath the contacts, the color of caramel.
“I didn’t want them to be Mexicans,” remembered Tuchman’s mother, MaryLydia Garza.
Though Garza grew up speaking Spanish, she refused to teach it to her children.
The young Gloria Matta wanted little of the Mexican heritage herself.
“I refused to speak Spanish; I didn’t want to be associated with any of it,” Tuchman said. Though born in Pecos, she didn’t feel part of the Anglo culture, either. “I knew that I was different, that I didn’t fit in, and I didn’t know why. “
Today, both women say they regret the repudiation. But in the 1940s and ’50s, when Gloria Matta was growing up, Pecos, like much of Texas, was virulently racist.
“Gloria went through hell in Pecos,” Garza said.
Mexicans and Anglos went to separate schools. They lived on opposite ends of town. Mexicans and blacks shared a separate section at the movie theater. An Anglo church stood apart from the Mexican church.
Even dogs were segregated: One pound collected the Anglo-bred pups. The other took the dogs that answered to Spanish.
One summer, the Matta children signed up for swim lessons and were turned away at the water’s edge.
“I asked my parents, ‘Why can’t we swim with the rest of the children? ‘ ” Tuchman said. “And I cried. “
Garza decided her children would swim, and she hounded the pool operators until they relented. All right, they said, you and your children can come, but that’s it: no more Mexicans. Fair-haired and light-skinned, the Mattas could pass; others remained excluded.
The incident inflamed the Mattas’ emotions, deepening their sense of the pain and compromise. Gloria’s parents, now divorced, joined the civil rights movement and LULAC, the Mexican-American organization involved in pushing for bilingual education.
The Mattas, however, opposed the idea of teaching children in Spanish.
“If children speak Spanish already, why should they be taught in Spanish to obtain English? That’s ridiculous,” Garza said. “That’s not going to change anything. It’s only going to retard a child. “
Her words echo in Tuchman, who believes the best way to prepare Hispanic children to succeed in this country is by teaching them English early and often.
Through the years, Tuchman also became convinced that bilingual education furthered segregation, that it singled out those who were different and promoted unequal education:Spanish-speaking kids in one class, English-speaking in another.
The classes were separate just as before, except this time it was supposed to be for the Hispanics’ own good.
“Segregation! We’re still doing it,” she said. “We put the Asians on one track, and Hispanics on another, and you never get to mix. You never get to integrate with anybody but your own culture. “
Celso Rodriguez, a teacher in Orange, grew up in El Paso, Texas in the 1950s and ’60s and shares many of Tuchman’s memories.
“You knew what stores you could go into and which ones you couldn’t,” he said. “Which ones you’d just be ignored. When you’ve gone through something like that, in effect, you lose yourself. ” Many, Rodriguez believes, tried to reinvent who they were to survive.
“I know what that’s like: You work so hard to be American, to sound American and look American and do everything to fit in. You are growing up in a system that is telling you, in different ways, that the culture you come from and the language you and your relatives speak has less value than the new English you’re hearing. “
Rodriguez and Tuchman share similar histories, but their response to the past has put them on opposite sides of the great bilingual education debate.
Rodriguez is now a bilingual education teacher at Jordan Elementary in Orange. Over the past few months, he’s helped organize parents to keep the program in Orange, against the wishes of the school board.
“Bilingual education allows a child, who is going to be learning a new language, the time to continue his education, to continue learning about science, about math, about literature, about history _ and in the process, learn English,” he said.
Many Hispanics remain supporters of bilingual education, believing it is the best way for their children to learn English without forgetting where they came from.
Though some Hispanic parents have pulled their children out of bilingual education, publicly criticizing the program remains a difficult thing for many to do.
More than any other foreign language in the United States, Spanish remains fraught with meaning that extends beyond mere grammar. Pro-English is still seen by many Hispanics as anti-Spanish, anti-Mexican and an arm of the anti-immigration forces.
Tuchman has been called a racist and an immigrant-hater for joining the English-only movement, labels she resents.
“I lived through discrimination. I know what real racism is,” she said. “It’s ugly, and it has made me a stronger person. “
She says she has received crank calls and hate mail and is so worried about her safety that she brings bodyguards to big meetings.
To those who suggest she is trying to deny her own background, Tuchman cites her love of Mexicoand her decision to use her Spanish surname as well as her married name.
“That’s an identity I feel very proud of,” said Tuchman, who describes her roots as Spanish, Irish and Mexican. “I wanted to make sure people knew where I came from. “
The blue contacts, she says, are strictly utilitarian.
“I kept losing my contacts, so I got tinted ones,” she says, before pointing out that many Hispanics have blue eyes.
“It’s nothing more than wanting to save money. “
The Mattas, who had lived in California before moving to Pecos, moved again after two years to Mesa, Ariz., where the family eventually opened a Mexican restaurant.
There, the Mattas hoped to escape some of the stifling smallness of Pecos. The move kept Gloria out of Pecos’ segregated junior high, but painful memories of the dusty Texas town never left the family.
Tuchman’s mom: “I thought it was a dirty word _ Mexican. To this day, when someone calls me a Mexican, I see blue and red. It has left a mark that you never forget. “
The memories helped forge Gloria’s resolve, and she credits them for propelling her single-mindedly for all these years.
“No one was ever again going to tell me I couldn’t do something,” she said. “This drives me with a passion. “
As an elementary education major at Arizona State University, Gloria Matta met Terry Tuchman, who is Jewish. They married six months after she graduated in 1963.
Through LULAC, Tuchman’s parents helped establish the model for Head Start programs in Arizona. And Gloria Tuchman soon went to work for one, in an area of Phoenix with many black families.
No other white teachers would take the job, Tuchman remembers.
“I just always worked with minorities,” she said. “I always said, ‘If I can make it, I can help others make it. ‘ ” In the late 1960s, Tuchman and her husband moved to California, where she took a job at Washington Elementary in Santa Ana. In 1972, she became part of the original staff at Taft Elementary down the street, where she remains today. Her husband is the principal at Twin Lakes in El Monte.
When her boys were born in 1969 and 1974, English was the language of home. When her boys were growing up, she didn’t speak Spanish well enough to teach them, she said. She has since spent time at a language institute in Cuernavaca and speaksfluent if slightly English-accented Spanish.
Through the 1970s, the Spanish-speaking population of Taft continued to rise, mirroring similar changes across California and the country. At the same time, the national movement promoting bilingual education continued to grow, fed by memories of the racism many Mexican-Americans could not forget.
In the early 1970s, federal guidelines and a Supreme Court ruling bolstered the case for bilingual education. In Lau vs.
Nichols, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that schools had to take “corrective action” when the language barriers of students kept them from participating in classroom instruction. Many interpret the ruling to mean that children who can’t understand the coursework should receive it in their native language.
The issue became one of equal access, and the U.S. Department of Education issued a set of guidelines for schools.
By the early 1980s, California was saying that teachers with significant numbers of students who spoke a language other than English should learn the language. Depending on their language skills, some students might require instruction in their own language, the state said.
That’s when Tuchman’s principal approached her and asked her for the first time to speak Spanish to her Hispanic students. She refused. He reprimanded.
If you don’t like the law, change it.
Tuchman’s first step was to run for the Tustin Unified school board. Tuchman, who still lives in an unincorporated area between Tustin and Santa Ana, won in 1985. She soon joined the Hispanic caucus of the California School Boards Association and pushed to balance the ethnic makeup in schools. She said that’s when she started adding the Matta to her name.
Tuchman served as board president twice, but in 1994, the voters turned her out. That same year she lost a bid to become the state’s superintendent of public instruction.
But her fight to end bilingual education didn’t waver: In Tustin, she had led the district in turning away from instruction in a student’s primary language. The district was one of the first to get a federal grant to teach mostly in English. More districts followed last year, when the state set up another waiver to the rules emphasizing native-language instruction. Tuchmanworked behind the scenes helping draft their resolutions.
“Her primary focus was always English,” said Tustin board member Jane Bauer, who served with Tuchman. “She had very strong beliefs and always told the story of how her father wanted to make sure they learned English. “
Bauer, a Democrat, often clashed ideologically with Tuchman, who describes herself as a conservative Republican.
Bauer agrees that all students should learn English, but she thinks English-only instruction isn’t the only way to get there.
“I think it’s very important for kids to learn to speak English,” Bauer said. “But I think different kids learn in different ways. ” Tuchman, however, sees only one way: English. She has formed committees, written editorials and preached up and down the state, seeking converts.
Last year, she teamed with Assemblyman Brooks Firestone, R-Los Olivos, to draft a bill that, in its original conception, promised to replace bilingual education with English instruction.
As the bill wound its way through the Legislature, however, it began more and more to resemble the status quo. Tuchman withdrew her support and lobbied against the bill, which was eventually defeated.
When she announced that she would help organize an initiative to promote English, Firestone said he was not surprised.
Right now, California favors primary-language instruction but allows other methods with a waiver. Tuchman wants to turn that around. Make specialized English instruction the norm, while allowing primary language and other methods with a waiver.
“I think the initiative is an expression of frustration,” Firestone said. “It’s an expression of the majority of Californians who know something needs to be done, and the inability of the Legislature to act.
“Gloria has very, very strong feelings on this issue. “
Throughout her budding political and media career Tuchman remained an elementary teacher at Taft, practicing the brand of education she preached.
Thanks mostly to Tuchman’s lobbying, Taft Elementary is today a mostly English school, though its 1,053 students speak 17 languages.
Bilingual aides help the children who don’t understand the curriculum well enough to follow along. It’s an addition that satisfies the federalrequirement of “equal access” and one that Tuchman supports.
Eight in 10 of the students at Taft started kindergarten speaking little or no English. By the time they get to Tuchman’s first-grade class, they’re sounding out printed English words.
Recently, a line of students in Tuchman’s class waited their turn to read to a visitor.
“Say! Look at his fingers,” read Alfredo Juarez from Dr. Seuss.
“Eleven! This is something new. “
Alfredo started kindergarten speaking only Spanish. It’s still the language he speaks at home, because his parents understand little English.
But jumping into a new language in kindergarten wasn’t hard, Alfredo said.
“I learned it quick,” he said, snapping his fingers for effect.
In Tuchman’s class, as in the rest of Taft, students who come in speaking a language other than English learn their lessons in a slower, more patient version of the language. Visuals, borrowed from the school’s program for deaf and hard-of-hearing children, help connect sounds to objects.
Taft has become the district’s quasi-magnet for English instruction. And staff repeat “English, English” like a mantra.
Still, many Spanish-speaking parents at Taft say that while they can teach the language at home, they would prefer the school have some instruction in Spanish.
“I like the system at Taft, but I would really love a bilingual program,” said Esperanza Heredia, whose daughter, also named Esperanza, is in Tuchman’s class. “Kids are so smart that they can handle both languages without a problem. “
Last year, 16 percent of Taft’s students from non-English-speaking backgrounds were classified as English proficient, about four times the average rate for Santa Ana schools.
Anaida Colon-Muniz, who headed up Santa Ana’s language development programs, warns against comparing schools that draw populations of different social and economic backgrounds.
She worries that Tuchman’s ballot proposal will hurt children who need special help the most.
“There are situations where immersion has had success, particularly when kids come from families where there’s some English,” she said. “But it’s difficult for one person to pass judgment on an entire system and assume because it works in one first-grade classroom that it can be generalized throughout the population. “
Colon-Muniz, like many educators today, said it doesn’t have to come to a matter of one method over another _ different combinations work for different kids. But bilingual education has so shifted into the political arena that it’s difficult to find someone who doesn’t have an opinion on what language students should learn in.
Most everyone, though, regardless of philosophy, agrees the goal should be to get students to master English. It’s the how that creates the rift.
The irony of the high-level debate, and perhaps of Tuchman’s decade-old mission is this:
In California, because of a severe shortage of teachers and a badly implemented system, most students, regardless of native language, are still taught in English.
Recently, Tuchman and her mom reopened a small personal battle that has nothing to do with bilingual education but that they believe begins to right all that went wrong more than 50 years ago.
It had to do with their birth certificates, drafted long ago.
There, where it asks for race, someone had typed in “Mexican. ” It’s on Gloria’s and it’s on Mary Lydia’s, and both saw it as a ploy to exclude.
Finally, Garza wrote a letter. Change it to white, she demanded.
“Mexican,” Tuchman said, “is not a race. “
She paused, making eye contact.
“Before I’m anything else, I am always an American. “