Senator Ralph Yarborough filed the Bilingual Education Act in 1968, which was aimed to remove the language barrier to an equal education. This was later approved by Congress. Prior to that, Mexican Americans in Texas, like my mother, were 10 years old at the time. My mother had grown up speaking Spanish as her primary language. When Senator Yarborough attempted to demolish the language barrier to create a community between Anglo American and Spanish speaking people he also stripped young children, like my mother, of their association to their heritage and culture for generations to come. I, for example, don’t know any Spanish. I did not grow up hearing it in the household and have very little connection to it except for a phone application called “duolingo” that I downloaded on my phone that helps me learn Spanish.
I asked my mother one day why she hadn’t spoken Spanish to me as a child, and she told me a thought provoking tale.
“We would get punished at school for speaking Spanish,” she explained.
After the bill was passed in 1968, Texas schools decided to make schools speak only English. Even in a community like my mother’s, a ranch town of 4000 people made up of mostly Spanish land grant families with very little whites, kids were prohibited from speaking their native language in order to make them learn proper English.
Mexican Americans were often forced to spend two to three years in the first grade to learn English. Mexican schools often had to use run down facilities and second hand teaching materials. As a child my mother did not want to be spanked or suffer serious consequences for speaking Spanish. She came to understand that speaking Spanish was bad, period. Her mother’s mother (my great-grandma) only spoke Spanish. She would feel ashamed at home to hear her parents speaking the forbidden language. What was a child to do?
Over the years my mother’s Spanish drifted away. She lost the fluency, she lost the correct pronunciation and she basically stopped speaking it all together.
“I regret not speaking to you in Spanish,” explained my mother to me. “Had there been another adult in the house speaking it, so that you, too, could have learned in conversation, it might have helped both of us to become more natural speakers.”
I desire to speak Spanish but I am coming into it as a fluent English speaker. I have to retrace my steps and relearn a part of my heritage from an application instead of learning it naturally from the words of my mother and how her mother’s mother spoke to each other while going about the daily life. Learning it from a book or an application is harder and colder. There is no connection or reference point. It just becomes a bunch of words or a name game instead of a meaningful conversation. As Latinitas’ writer Lucia Benavides says so eloquently in her article the “Mind the Gap,” “Unfortunately, the work of our great-grandmothers, grandmothers, and mothers is not yet finished. It is up to the women of our generation to keep the momentum going and continue to change the country in hopes of a better life.”