The summer after college graduation I interned for a hotel workers union in Los Angeles, Calif. Working with the union completely swept me off my feet. I fell in love with the passion, determination, and strength of the workers, the majority being Latina/o immigrants. I couldn’t believe how the fight to unionize could give someone so much courage; enough courage to walk into management’s office making demands and expecting change. A year after that summer I moved to New York City.
Moving to New York City only became a reality because I was admitted to a program to teach bilingual education, an area I would probably not have been able to teach in California thanks to the English Only movement.
As I began my first year of teaching, I did what I always do — over analyzed. I thought about the parents and families who risk their lives crossing deserts, rivers, and/or oceans to reach the United States; the mythological dreamland of opportunity, freedom, equality, and respect. The “American myth” created by loved ones who preceded them and shared stories about their new lives in dollars, and by the media, like the magazine my mother once saw which led her to envision the United States as a land without trees but rather solely covered with concrete and tall buildings. She was disappointed to find San Fernando Valley green and lined with trees.
Despite the fact the United States has a free education system and federal aid for college, I thought about and questioned the entire system and how it shapes the experiences of people living in the United States. A system that denies federal assistance to undocumented students and has many students going to college full time and simultaneously working full time to pay for school. Students who often have to turn down admissions to top colleges because attending a local school will be more affordable. The children of immigrants, whether first generation US born or recently arrived who are placed in English immersion programs which impose teaching and learning in English and fail to acknowledge the knowledge they bring with them. Other children are placed in so called “bilingual” programs that break legally binding mandates by demanding bilingual teachers not teach in Spanish thanks to the No Child Left Behind Act and its impact on accountability which resulted in the adoption of English Language Arts and other standardized tests from the 3rd grade on.
I became a bilingual teacher to empower my students. Witnessing the transformation of unionized workers gave me hope in the future of our society; the young minds and hearts eager to learn; children of parents who left everything behind to give their children a better opportunity; and the possibility to agitate, educate, and organize communities.
I became a bilingual teacher to contribute to the struggle of fighting a system that aims to weed out students of color in order to maintain the status quo. A system that will claim a lack of parental involvement, an inherent violent nature or the need to procreate are reasons the Latina/o community doesn’t succeed in a country that gives them “free education”.
Free does not equate fair, dignified or just.