Earlier this year, Fronteras reported a series on the Latino education gap in the United States. The centerpiece of the series was the radio documentary Not Quite Trilingual, in which reporter Devin Browne followed a little girl through the public education system in Los Angeles for five years.
Irene Rosales heard our series, and it spoke to her. Years ago, Irene also struggled with language in school, and we invited her to share her story in her own words.
Irene Rosales and her husband, John.
My name is Irene Gonzalez Rosales. I'm an author and retired teacher, living in San Antonio. I grew up in South Texas in the 1950s. Spanish was my first language. In my preschool, the Carmelite nuns taught us in Spanish. But when I reached kindergarten, I was taught only in English — a language I barely understood. If I spoke Spanish, I got in trouble. School terrified me, and I barely spoke there. I was held back after second grade. So was my older sister, a third grader. My mother panicked. That summer, she took us to Mexico to live with her sisters, who were both teachers. That was when I truly started to learn. I will never forget, early on, when my aunt was teaching me a math concept, and the light bulb in my head lit up. I suddenly understood what my teacher in Texas had been teaching in the class. Every summer, my sister and I went to Mexico and learned in Spanish. Like magic, I started to transfer that knowledge into English. It was a real bilingual education. I could not have learned English well otherwise. It makes me sad that some of my fellow Americans do not understand that a strong United States depends on its children. No child should be made to feel that his family’s language is worthless or useless. A child heard that language from the time he was in his mother’s womb. If he is told to suppress that language, it hurts. I was lucky to have a “bilingual education” before it was even called that. The opportunity to learn in Spanish and to embrace two languages changed my life. It would be a great advantage for every child in America.