July 26, 2007

"Official" Hispanic Interns in Washington

Thirty-four Latino college students are currently serving as congressional summer interns, reports the Washington Post. Among other things, they object to being called Hispanics, preferring Latino instead. They feel that Hispanic is an "oppressive, colonial term that emphasizes the Spanish (European white) part of their identity." So why did this program choose the name, Hispanic?  Esther Aguilera, president of the summer program, says that a few years ago the U.S. census used the designation, Hispanic, "making it the official term."

We might ask how terms like Hispanic get to be official.  It's usually up to legislatures to try to make such decisions, as they have recently when arguing about a "national" language. Language Log has been on this matter, as the recent posts by Ben Zimmer illustrate (here) and (here). As far as I can tell, however, the U.S. Census Bureau lacks the authority to designate Hispanic as the official way to define these students.

The reporter's interviews with interns point out the conflict these students face in trying to hang onto their Latino identity while also taking on whatever identity that is considered American. That's a hard thing to do and it reminded me of the time I spent, back in the mid 1970s, trying to help the San Francisco Public Schools address the issues put before them by the U.S. Supreme Court decision, Lau v. Nichols 414 U.S. 563 (1974). 1,800 of the 2,856 Chinese speaking students in that school system did not get supplementary English instruction and, of course, they did poorly in school. They filed a class action suit that wended its way to the Supreme Court, which ruled that the schools should develop a plan to remedy the problem. Not knowing how to create such a plan, the school's administration called on the Center for Applied Linguistics for help.

Realizing that this was a very sensitive social, political, and educational issue, Rudy Troike and I began by flying from DC to San Francisco weekly for multiple, all-day sessions with leaders of the Chinese, Hispanic (yes, that's the term we used then), Filipino, and Japanese communities to try to get their input and guidance about what kind of supplementary instruction in English they would agree to and ultimately accept. There we found many of the conflicts and confusions that are still being reported in the Post article.

Of the four language groups, we met the most resistance to teaching English at all (especially TESOL classes) from the Spanish speakers, who argued strongly for preserving classroom instruction in Spanish. The Chinese were also interested in preserving Chinese language instruction (although it was never clear which Chinese language should be used), but they were more willing to have supplemental English instruction. The Filipino representatives were more interested in in preseving Filipino culture than in using Tagalog for instructional purposes and they seemed willing to have TESOL classes. The Japanese community leaders  felt little need to have their children taught more English, since they were topping out in the scores anyway. They wanted their children to learn Japanese as their second language. Out of these meetings came a plan that was a mixure of transitional bilingual education, as it is called today, with more intensive English instruction for those who wanted it. Not perfect, but at least a start.

However much these four groups differed about the 1974 Court's ruling for supplementary instruction in English, they all desperately wanted to preserve as much as they could of their cultural heritage. Almost all wanted to keep their language background  alive. Based on the newspaper's report of these Latino summer interns, it doesn't look like things have changed much. Some lament that they've lost the language of their ancestors but yearn to keep some remnants of the culture. All seem to struggle with their identity... as we all do in one way or another.

Posted by Roger Shuy at July 26, 2007 01:43 PM