Bilingual Education for the Mexican Americans - A Way out of the Vicious Circle?
This paper on the Mexican Americans in the south-western states in the United States aims at examining whether bilingual education of this ethnic group could be a means to help the Mexican Americans escape the vicious circle they live in.
The introduction will give a short historical overview over the Mexican Americans’ schooling.
In the main part, the description of what is referred to as vicious circle will be followed by the depiction of the Mexican Americans’ situation in school in the south-western states of the United States. As this situation cannot be considered as good, the Bilingual Education Act of 1968 which marked a first step towards an improvement will be introduced. Apart from that, two models of bilingual education will mainly find reconsideration and will be compared with each other regarding their usefulness to give the Mexican Americans an equal educational opportunity as the Anglo Americans have. Towards the end of the main part, the attempt will be made to answer the topic question of this paper. Several obstacles on the way to ‘good’ bilingual schooling and possible alternatives will be mentioned then.
The concluding remarks will sum up the result of this paper and will shortly focus on the contemporary situation of the Mexican Americans in the American school system.
The Mexican Americans are native to the United States for hundreds of years before the Anglo Americans’ arrival (Duran 1973, 14). For that reason, the cultural exclusion is not only difficult but also immoral and there is no reason for sending them away and oppressing them.
However, the educational system has always been chaste-like with the Mexican Americans building the lowest chaste and the Anglo Americans on the highest rung (Cordasco 11). In the 1930s the existing unwillingness of mixing in school can be seen from two sides: First of all the Anglo Americans did not want to be taught together with the Mexican Americans because they considered them to be lousy, filthy, lazy, disinterested, unconcerned about education and to be part of an inferior race (Johnson 98). Moreover, they were blamed to slow down the Anglo Americans’ process of education (Cordasco 12). Secondly, apart from this stereotypical viewpoint, the Anglo Americans were of the opinion that the Mexican Americans benefit when being taught in Mexican-only schools and could more quickly overcome their “English language handicap” and, with that, become “americanized”. Other reasons that were said to justify the Mexican American segregation were their poor attendance and health and their different social background (Cordasco 12).
But after the Second World War the Mexican Americans demanded better education and a couple of parents stood up for the integration of their children who they saw where being segregated just because of their descent (Cordasco 13). This case of 1945 marked the beginning of the illegality of segregation in schools.
Despite this first success, segregation has not even stopped until today.
According to bilingual education of the Mexican Americans in the south-western states, programs and debates about it only came up in the 1960s.
Bilingual Education for the Mexican Americans - A Way out of the Vicious Circle?
The statistics reveal that Mexican American pupils as compared to Anglo American pupils generally lag behind in schoolwork by at least three years (Duran 347). They can be considered the most retarded ethnic group in the United States. The Negroes are one year in advance. The Mexican Americans even have a lower educational attainment than the Puerto Ricans and the Cubans (McKnee 112).
There are many different factors playing an important role with regard to the Mexican Americans‘ high amount of retardation. First of all, they have different social advantages: Many of the Mexican American families are poor as they have a low income. They do mainly do manual labour such as fruit picking and farming. For that reason, these families need their children to work on the fields and to do the harvest which makes these children miss a great amount of time in school. As Thomas and Taylor found out in their research on children of migrant families (Duran 1982, 348), most of the children have to work over a period of seven months annually, a fact that leaves only five months of school per year. But this is not the only reason for their retardation. Secondly, the American school system has to be made responsible as well as it is said to “function[s] best when conforming middle-class administrators and teachers professing middle-class values, address themselves to middle-class students who possess the same value orientation or are in the process of acquiring it. Lower class and minority students who do not fit in the mold are less likely to be educated [...]” (Johnson 88).
The Mexican Americans represent an ethnic minority although already in 1960 they made up 12% of the total population of the Southwest and 2,3% of the total population of the United States (Brussel 15). Today they are considered the second largest minority after the African Americans and are constantly increasing in number (McKnee 111). The factor that makes them most apparently not be part of that kind of school system, is the language they speak. The fact that their mother tongue is Spanish often makes them fall behind in school as the education they are offered is (mostly exclusively) in English. Because of not belonging to the group of middle-class students in any way - neither concerning their attendance, their language, their social habits nor their qualifications- the Mexican Americans are often sent to Educable Mentally Retarded classes (EMR). Especially their linguistic disability is often equated with a lack of intelligence and therefore excludes the pupils from the process of education.
Moreover, they “[...] are more likely to become dropout statistics”(Johnson 88).
This exclusion makes them often leave school as soon as they can, which is at the age of sixteen or as soon as they can pass for that age (Johnson 163). As Johnson makes clear, half of the males and nearly half of the females at the age of 14 and over have not gone beyond the eighth grade and finally drop out of school (163) “without an adequate knowledge of English and without the foundations of education in health, work skills, social practices and personal duties” (Johnson 163). As the statistics reveal, there are areas in California in which around 36% (as in Bakersfield and Stockton) or even 42% (as in Fresno) of the inhabitants with a Spanish surname have had four years or even less of education, a fact that Johnson considers to be part of the educational dilemma of the Mexican Americans in the United States. Compared to that, the numbers for the Anglo Americans are much different in this respect: only 5,5% of them have spent such a short amount of time in school. Apparently, this makes the inferior education of the Mexican Americans obvious.
Generally speaking, this kind of education neither prepares them sufficiently for the labour market nor does it provide them with the requirements they need to have in order to get a good job afterwards or even a job at all. Moreover, the chance to get a higher education is taken from them. Due to the fact that they have often not even finished school, they will probably only be able to do manual and low skilled work as their parents do. But already in the 1970s the restructuring of the city’s economy, the decline of the heavy industry and the replacing of workers by technology has started and since then it has become more and more difficult to get a well paid job in the field of manual labour. Consequently, education has become even more important. For that reason many Mexicans have to cope with poor earning ability or, even worse, with unemployment.
Only very few of them are in business and industry and among the graduates from institutes of higher learning. Acuña regards education as “the stairway to heaven” and schools as “the main hope to rise above a destiny severely limited by class and race” (289).
Unemployment makes poverty more probable or, as most of the Mexicans families are poor, makes the younger generation step in the footsteps of their parents. That way they are not able to get out of their lives which are determined by poverty. Although the impact of poverty is great for the Mexican Americans this fact has largely been unnoticed for a long time. However, it is true that already in the 1960s more than one third of the measured family incomes fall below the defined poverty level. As Moore puts it: “Mexican Americans can be shown to fall nearly at the bottom of the ladder” (Moore 71). Poverty affects the life of a Mexican American family in various ways, especially in housing. In the 1960s more than one third of the Mexican Americans in urban areas lived in overcrowded and dilapidated houses (Moore 71-72) and the whole surrounding was decaying and slum-like (Moore 72-73).
Inevitably illnesses as for example pneumonia are very current in such areas. But as the poor often do not have the financial opportunity to pay any medical service, poverty also is responsible (among other factors) for the fact that the Mexican Americans' longevity is much shorter than that of the Anglo Americans, more precisely, Anglo Americans generally live ten years longer than Mexican Americans (Moore 73).
Poverty, bad housing, poor health and the likeliness to suffer from diseases more than others make the Mexican Americans be once again culturally disadvantaged: Parents who have had no education themselves and maybe do only speak poor English cannot prepare their children for what the schools will demand from them. They are primarily concerned with earning enough money to survive instead. That way, the difficulties the child will have in school, the discrimination of the others due to its ‘otherness’, the insufficient knowledge of the English language and many more things directly lead to the child’s retardation in school. The following steps can be easily imagined: dropping out of school, unemployment, bad housing and living conditions and illnesses (Duran 1982 347).
Under the circumstances given, as the Mexican Americans have to go through this vicious circle again and again, they cannot live independently from the rest of the population and will probably always stay where they are if everything stays the way it is.
The question that has to be asked now is what could be or even should be changed in order to break this perpetuating vicious circle and to make possible that the Mexican Americans can lead a better life.
“Whenever a teachers’ convention meets and tries to find out how it can cure the ills of society, there is simply one answer; the school has but one way to cure the ills of society and that is by making men intelligent. To make men intelligent, the school has again but one way, and that is, first and last, to teach them to read, write and count. And if the school fails to do that, and tries beyond that to do something for which a school is not adapted, it not only fails in its own function, but it fails in all other attempted functions. Because no school as such can organize industry, or settle the matter of wage and income, can found homes or furnish parents, can establish justice or make a civilized world”. — W. E. B. Du Bois (http://www-hoover.stanford.edu/publications/he/22/22a.html)
As the lack of education can be seen as an important - or maybe THE - cause of the Mexican Americans’ situation, one should reconsider the school system in the United States that makes “minority students [...] less likely to be educated” ( Johnson 88).
For that purpose and in order to get a better image of what school is like more exactly, seen from an Mexican American point of view, it follows a description of the Mexican Americans’ situation in school. For use of clarification, a comparison will be made with other ethnic groups in case need be. The focus in this examination lies on the 1960s.
Generally speaking, the history of the education of the Mexican Americans within the educational system is one of educational neglect (Zarate 1, cited in Carter, 1970). Segregation has never been required by statute in any of the five states where the Mexican Americans are concentrated (Cordasco 11). In 1948 already, the Federal court had ruled that segregation of Mexican American children is illegal. However, this fact has not always been respected in the history of the education of the Mexican Americans, it was more the contrary which was the case and not only in the field of education but in other aspects of life as well (Cordasco 11-13). But Education is the most important inequity in the life of a Mexican American and compulsory education is sometimes ignored by the children’ s parents as they need them to work in the fields although there is a legal right to equal education (Pinchot 60).
 cited in Kenneth James King, Pan-Africanism and Education: A Study of Race, Philanthropy, and Education in the Southern States of America and East Africa (Oxford, Eng.: Clarendon Press, 1971), p. 257. )