Alma smiles timidly as she invents an excuse for the teachers, administrators and specialists of her school, saying her mother will be busy with her little brother and cannot come to the scheduled meeting about her academic achievement. The assistant director explains to her that it is important that her parents know how she is doing. The psychologist has to leave, but hands over Alma’s evaluations to the others. Finally, they decide to send her parents a note in improvised Spanish, along with a packet of documents in English that explain their daughter’s situation.
At age 15, with seven years of schooling in Marin, Alma reads English at a second-grade level. This prevents her from understanding problems in mathematics, and she can neither multiply nor divide by two digits. Science is not much better, and her writing is deficient. Nothing seems to indicate that Alma has innate learning problems and her behavior is normal. She gets along with her schoolmates and her teachers’ only complaint is that she doesn’t learn and it doesn’t seem to bother her much. They don’t know exactly how to help her; academic support and resources are available, but she doesn’t qualify for special education.
Her parents, like many immigrants, don’t fully understand this country’s educational system. They arrived illegally, looking for work and a better life. Her father has two jobs and sees his family only at night. Her mother tends to the house and her four children and has a part-time job. No one reads in the family and there are no books or magazines. The principal entertainment is television. Alma and her sisters watch telenovelas with their mother at night; in the afternoon they prefer to watch in English. Although she recognizes words written in Spanish that her mother reads on the TV screen or at the store, Alma cannot read or understand her mother tongue well.
Her parents speak Spanish at home, but Alma and her sisters prefer to use English. At school they are considered to be English learners because their evaluations place them at a deficient level. Alma doesn’t know if her sisters are reading better than she is. Her little brother of just 3 also prefers English.
All this seems to bother Alma very little. She feels like a normal girl, and after high school she wants to work in a beauty salon because she likes hairstyling and makeup and “for that, it’s not necessary to read or do math.”
In the schools of this area, and in many regions of the country, the growing student body consists principally of immigrants. These are mainly Latinos who are at the lowest academic level. Ninety percent of 16 to 25-year-olds recognize that going to college is the route to success in life, but only about half plan to attend and even fewer actually do. Those who give up their studies do so for fundamentally economic reasons—to help their families—but the second excuse is their poor command of English.
The low level or absence of education among Latinos in this country is not new. Lately, however, it has begun to change for the better. This, and the general growth of the Latino population, has resulted not only in increasing Latino faces and names in schools, colleges and universities, but also in the labor, commercial and even artistic and scientific worlds. Yet few of these “successful” Latinos were educated here. Many were trained in their home countries and are part of a so-called brain drain. Their countries invested in their education but were unable to hold on to them and now their work benefits this country.
Latinos consider themselves to be as capable as anyone. The Spanish-language television and radio repeat this, encouraging a group chauvinism in their listeners without regard to nationality; they speak of Hispanic or Latino pride when someone of that ancestry stands out in the arts, sciences, politics, technology, or sports, striving to eliminate the false Latino stereotypes of gardener, servant and criminal. Indeed, the media struggles to end this problem. But the messages are confusing, making it appear that success depends only on personal will and good fortune, and do little to explain why so many Latinos can neither compete nor adapt completely to North American life.
Bragging that they are ready and able for everything but lacking the actual preparation necessary to demonstrate their skills in real life, many wind up in the lowest academic, social and employment ranks, with all the problems inherent to that situation: poor scholastic performance and dropout, ignorance, teen pregnancy, poverty, chaos and familial and gang violence. In addition, the flood of new immigrants, though lately diminished, is still large, and will reproduce the cycle because the marginalized, poor and poorly educated are ignorant about the workings of the prevailing system and will continue to furnish the cheap labor that so benefits the general economy, but leads to living situations like those of Alma and her family.
Victor Reyes is a translator, teacher, native of Puebla, Mexico and longtime contributor to the Point Reyes Light. The Spanish version of this column is available on our website.