The Power of Language

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In Puerto Rico's schools, English and Spanish are tied up with cultural identity, politics, and the island's complex relationship with the U.S. mainland.

San Juan, Puerto Rico

Luis Vazquez knows what it's like to feel caught between two worlds. Born in Puerto Rico 16 years ago, he left for New York City with his family in 1989 after Hurricane Hugo lashed the island. He has grown up speaking mostly Spanish at home, but learning in English at school. Last December, he and his mother returned here to take care of his grandmother. It was not what Luis wanted.

"I literally got dragged down here," says Luis. "One day you're in one country, and the next day you're on this tiny island. It's been tough."

But since then, the island has grown on him. He wants to go to college on the U.S. mainland, then return here to live. But he's acutely aware that among his friends at school, he is the exception.

"I know most of us don't want to be here," the high school senior explains. "Because, well, it's just not home."

Luis is emblematic of this island commonwealth of 3.8 million people--at once of the United States, yet in some ways a world apart.

A place where McDonald's and KFC restaurants blanket urban neighborhoods, but where speaking English off the tourist track can turn heads. Where red, white, and blue U.S. Postal Service trucks weave through downtown traffic past the occasional wooden cart laden with bananas, avocados, or pineapples. And where ads for Florida homes jam the pages of the Spanish-language newspapers.

Teachers join affiliates of the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, but have no collective bargaining power and earn an average $18,000 a year. Images of Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara hang in the office of the AFT affiliate president.

"This is not Honduras or Costa Rica or Argentina," says Alan Austen, a former superintendent on Long Island, N.Y., who directs an elite private school on the outskirts of San Juan. "It's very different from that. But it's not Kansas either."

Luis Vazquez is what's known as a "Nuyorican"--a play on the links between New York City and Puerto Rico and the shuttling back and forth with the mainland that is typical of many families. He and more than 200 other "ninos de retorno"--returned migrants--attend a special school established in 1976 in part to help them make the transition into the island's Spanish-dominant public schools.

The connections that inextricably link Puerto Rico and its people with the mainland exert a powerful influence over education here. And the issue of language--so tied up with questions of identity, culture, and politics--is of great importance to the island's schools. In many ways, the debate over bilingual education that has divided educators on the mainland echoes even more dramatically here, striking at the very heart of who Puerto Ricans are and who they want to be.

Overwhelmingly, people here speak Spanish at home and on the street--a lasting legacy of 400 years of colonial rule. Spanish is the language of instruction in the public schools; English is just another subject, like math or history.

But the current government is pro-statehood, meaning it favors Puerto Rico becoming the 51st state. Not surprisingly, the government wants to boost the use of English in the schools and bring English-speaking teachers from the United States to help.

But the plan faces stiff opposition from the island's two largest teachers' unions and from nationalist groups that fiercely guard their heritage.

The island's language policy in the schools shifted more than a half-dozen times from English to Spanish and various mixtures of each.

"The status question" dominates island politics.

As U.S. citizens, Puerto Ricans can travel freely to and from the States, but do not pay most federal taxes if they live on the island. They may serve in the U.S. military, but they cannot vote in presidential elections. They have a representative in Congress, called a resident commissioner, but no vote.

Puerto Rico receives some federal benefits, including substantial amounts of education aid, but is not consistently represented in U.S. education statistics. Although there have been significant moves to change it, the school system remains highly centralized, with power vested in the gubernatorially appointed secretary of education.

Ceded to the United States by Spain in 1898 at the end of the Spanish-American War, the island has undergone several phases of U.S. administration. Only since 1947 have Puerto Ricans had the right to elect their own governor. Before then, the White House appointed the governor and the education commissioner.

Under those administrators, the island's language policy in the schools shifted more than a half-dozen times from English to Spanish and various mixtures of each. Most of them viewed the schools as the best way to introduce and spread English islandwide. The consensus is that they failed miserably.

Some academics have blamed the failure on deficient textbooks, teaching methods, and teacher preparation. Others say it had little to do with pedagogy and everything to do with protecting Puerto Rican identity from what was seen as American encroachment.

The U.S. military owns roughly 13 percent of the island, and it is American companies that generally offer the highest-paying jobs.

In the face of such influence, Spanish remains a powerful symbol of identity. Even those who favor statehood say Spanish and English would have to coexist. In 1991, the pro-commonwealth government then in power declared Spanish the official language. Two years later, the new pro-statehood government reversed the policy and declared English and Spanish co-official languages.

It is against this backdrop that Secretary of Education Victor Fajardo's "Plan to Create a Bilingual Citizen" sent teachers to the streets of San Juan in protest last spring.

The plan calls for extending English classes from 50 minutes a day to 90, using English and English-language textbooks in classes such as math and science, establishing teacher exchanges with mainland districts, and emphasizing reading in English in the early grades. The first stages of the plan are being put in place this school year.

Officials from the island's AFT and NEA affiliates say history is repeating itself. But this time, they say, English is not being imposed from the outside, but from within.

And though they agree that boosting students' English skills is a worthy goal, they say that can be achieved by improving the existing--and beleaguered--English program. And the union leaders question why the government is focusing on English at a time when even students' test scores in Spanish are low. Public education here faces a litany of problems familiar to any urban superintendent on the mainland: crowded classrooms, outdated facilities, middle-class flight, and a lack of up-to-date materials.

Opponents of the plan say the government's initiative is a thinly veiled attempt to curry favor with the U.S. Congress, to Americanize Puerto Ricans, and to give the impression that the island is further along the path to bilingualism than it truly is.

"We want to learn English well and we know we need it," Jose Eligio Velez, the president of the NEA affiliate here, says in Spanish. "But this is a political show."

Education department officials say their plan is purely pragmatic and that the critics are trying to distort its aims. They acknowledge that the island lacks qualified, certified teachers capable of teaching students in English, but say they are trying to fix that.

Until the island's status is resolved, many here say the debate over language and how it is taught in the schools will continue.

They argue that the plan will bring greater equity between the island's public and private schools, some of which teach almost exclusively in English. Secretary Fajardo points to last year's test scores, which showed that only 37 percent of 9th graders in public schools were competent in English.

Bilingualism, the government argues, is an economic imperative. The need for English is clear, they say. Federal courts and agencies on the island generally conduct business in English. And many universities on the island use English textbooks.

"Puerto Rico is not the same Puerto Rico as it was in 1947," says Juan Rodriguez, a special assistant to Fajardo. "Our students have to be ready to get good jobs, move to other states, and attend top universities."

All this comes as Congress considers granting Puerto Rico residents a 1998 vote on the island's future political status. Historically, language has been a major sticking point among those in Congress who do not relish the idea of a Spanish-speaking state joining the union. ("Proposal in Congress Would Set Statehood Vote in '98," in This Week's News.)

Until the island's status is resolved, many here say the debate over language and how it is taught in the schools will continue.

"This debate is part of our larger confusion," says Ana Delma Ramirez, a mother who has lived and worked on both the island and the mainland. "It's never clear. Are we here or there? Who are we and to whom do we belong?"

Ana Ramos Morales knows the questions only too well.

She is the principal of the Padre Rufo Bilingual School, where Luis Vazquez is a senior. Morales left the island with her family at age 3, went to public schools in New York City, then returned to Puerto Rico for college.

"The kids here can relate to me, because I'm just like them," she says. "I know what it's like not to be from Puerto Rico or the United States."

Roughly 60 percent of her 360 charges in grades 7-12 are Puerto Rican students from the mainland who would not make it in the island's all-Spanish public schools. The others are Spanish-speaking students whose parents want them to have more exposure to English. The returned migrant students attend classes taught mostly in English and learn Spanish as a second language.

While academics have studied the circular migration between the island and the mainland, which surged in the 1950s, solid numbers are hard to come by.

Some educators estimate that returned students make up as much as 10 percent of the island's public school enrollment. Morales has her own numbers: a list of more than 100 such students waiting to get in. Padre Rufo is one of just two regional schools set up to serve these students, though there are plans to open more.

Disregard the bright green, circa 1926 building with its open-air courtyard, rustling palms, concrete floors, and noisy metal fans that spin thick humid air, and you could almost be in a classroom in New York City; Bridgeport, Conn.; or Orlando, Fla.--the sort of places many of these students left to come here.

Olga Concepcion, a 12th grader who arrived here three months ago, has met several teenagers from the Orlando high school she left behind. In a theater class, students chatter away in English--mimicking MTV characters Beavis and Butthead--as their teacher shouts directions in Spanish. In a senior Spanish-as-a-second-language class, students stammer and giggle their way through a passage on Freud in Spanish.

But there are also signs of the tensions and uncertainty that lie just beneath the surface for many of these teenagers. On a bulletin board that hangs in a narrow classroom, a member of this year's senior class has scrawled a poignant message:

"I love everybody of Class '98, even though their [sic] isn't love in return! I'm Puerto Rican and don't judge me 'cause I talk English."

Unfortunately, says English teacher Wallace Rodriguez, returned students are often judged for exactly that reason. And some of his Spanish-speaking students resist learning English precisely because they see it as a threat to their identity.

"I try to explain to them that English is not just an American thing, it's international," says Rodriguez, who as a 15-year-old moving to the island in 1975 from a Chicago suburb was called "gringo" and "Americano" by his island classmates. "English shouldn't be political, but it is here."

Senior Sairi Santiago was born in Puerto Rico and moved to Rochester, N.Y., in 2nd grade. The energetic 17-year-old, who returned to the island two months ago, considers herself equally Puerto Rican and American. But that's not how some of her peers see it.

"They consider me a gringa here because of English," she says. But back in the United States, "in my car, I had a big Puerto Rican flag. It makes me angry because we're out there in the States representing where we come from and all that. But all of a sudden it doesn't count here and we're not really accepted."

On the island's northern coast, about 22 miles west of San Juan, the town of Dorado boasts two luxury resorts and several American pharmaceutical plants.

Many residents view English as an economic necessity. At Luis Munoz Rivera Community School, a tidy green building amid squat, pastel-colored homes, a poster on a classroom wall trumpets the "Hello Tourist" project. It brings interested 6th graders inside area hotels to learn about the tourism industry.

The crowded K-6 school runs on multiple shifts that keep it open from 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. About three-quarters of its 580 students come from poor families.

Three years ago, before Puerto Rico's education department introduced the "Plan to Create a Bilingual Citizen," this school established a bilingual option at each grade level. Students who elect that option receive up to an hour of English instruction daily and are taught in English and Spanish in science and math.

Janet Ferrer-Colon, who teaches English and science, says the need for a new approach to teaching English was glaring.

She lifts up a packet of well-worn manila sheets with fill-in-the-blank English exercises and grammar drills. "This was English here," she says with obvious distaste. "When I saw this I thought, 'Are we in the Stone Age?' There is no way they could really master English with this."

When the school switched to a more bilingual approach, parents like Carmen Medina signed on. In the busy tourism season, Medina works at one of the big hotels nearby.

Her kindergarten-age son is learning English, she says, for opportunity. "The high-paying jobs here are with the American companies, for better or for worse. Having English means more opportunity."

Luis Munoz Rivera is one of Puerto Rico's community schools, the island equivalent of charter schools, where parents can apply to enroll their children.

Sonia Bermudez sends her 5-year-old son, Carlos, there so he won't have to go through what she did. She grew up on the island, attended public schools, and started college here. But she eventually quit college because, she says, she had problems studying with the English textbooks. She dreams of moving to Florida, where her brother lives, but says the language barrier has kept it only a fantasy.

"I never want that to happen to my kids," she says in Spanish. "Never."

In San Lorenzo, about an hour's drive south of San Juan, Raymond Rodriguez has a tougher time selling the language he teaches in 50-minute increments each day.

Despite its proximity to the capital, this town of 36,000 in many ways feels like a different world. Breadfruit and banana trees dot the green hills that frame the small valley in the island's lush interior.

Spanish and math teacher Felipe Caez says he has students with serious problems reading and writing in their native language, so he questions how effective more English would be.

This, some argue, is the real Puerto Rico.

Apart from the two doctors and the engineer the school principal can think of, the teachers at Maria Cruz Buitrago Secondary School are the area's predominant professionals. In addition to the local businesses, one large Johnson & Johnson factory operates nearby. Most of the 650 students come from poor families.

"Unfortunately, people here don't see the need really for English," says Rodriguez, mopping his brow in the October humidity during his 11th grade English class. "The kids tell me 'I don't need English to sell bananas or run my shop.'"

Those who want to go to college can get by with their basic English, but most are far from being able to read, speak, write, and understand the language on a par with Spanish, he says. Mix the politics with the lack of will, lack of teaching materials, and lack of an environment to practice the language, Rodriguez says, and it's easy to see why most of his students graduate without being bilingual.

Some teachers are so apprehensive about the government's bilingual plan, he says, that they have stowed away Spanish-language textbooks for fear they will be forcibly replaced with English ones.

Spanish and math teacher Felipe Caez says he has students with serious problems reading and writing in their native language, so he questions how effective more English would be. His face reddens as he holds up a tattered algebra book he says is 10 years old.

"How are they going to do all this when there's not even a budget for new books in Spanish?" he asks in Spanish, his voice rising. "This is pure politics. We are not the United States. No other country establishes its education system with the assumption that its students will leave, that it will export its talent. So we teach them English so that if someday they leave for the United States, they'll be OK?"

Some teachers on the island say they are skeptical about the government's plan, but many also say they fear to say so publicly because of possible repercussions. Caez takes a deep breath and says quietly: "And now let's see what happens to me."

At the private Baldwin School, many graduates do leave the island, if only to head for Yale, Princeton, and other prestigious mainland colleges.

In the mornings and after school, the line of parents in minivans and sport utility vehicles snakes up the road that leads inside Baldwin's iron gates. Built on 23 pastoral acres of what used to be countryside and is now part of San Juan's suburban sprawl, the pre-K-12 school serves about 735 students.

In addition to the college-prep curriculum, many parents send their children to Baldwin because of its emphasis on English. While all Baldwin students take Spanish, the rest of the curriculum is taught in English. Roughly 75 percent of the students are native Spanish-speaking Puerto Ricans; the remaining fourth hail from the U.S. mainland and countries around the globe whose families live and work here.

Unlike the bare-bones programs of many public schools, Baldwin boasts a slew of extracurricular activities and sports teams. The campus features several playing fields, a swimming pool and field house, air-conditioned classrooms, a fully stocked library, and plenty of computers. Tuition runs from $4,750 to $6,200 a year.

Many middle-class families have abandoned the island's poorly financed public schools for private Catholic or nonsectarian schools.

The school's director, Alan Austen, compares Baldwin to "an affluent, metropolitan suburban public school" on the mainland. He ought to know. Before coming here three years ago, he was the superintendent of the 3,400-student Comsewogue, N.Y., system on Long Island.

Where basic literacy once distinguished the social classes on the island, now it is bilingualism, says C. William Schweers Jr., an instructor of English as a second language at the University of Puerto Rico in Bayamon who has written extensively about language issues in Puerto Rico's schools.

Many middle-class families have abandoned the island's poorly financed public schools for private Catholic or nonsectarian schools. More than 20 percent of Puerto Rico's schoolchildren are educated in private schools--far higher than the 11 percent U.S. average, according to the Council for American Private Education in Germantown, Md.

Though not all private schools emphasize English as much as Baldwin does, Puerto Rico's private school students tend to outscore their public school peers on the College Board's English tests.

At Baldwin, there's little evidence of resistance to learning English. In the courtyard, on the soccer field, and in the classroom, students effortlessly switch back and forth between Spanish and English--sometimes in the same sentence.

"We are a Puerto Rican school, on Puerto Rican soil, teaching for the most part Puerto Rican kids. We just happen to teach in the English language," Austen says. "But these children are as Puerto Rican as any child in San Juan."

Which is not to say that the issues of identity, culture, and politics do not surface here. Puerto Rico's relationship with the United States inevitably comes up in American history classes. And some of Jaime Ramirez's students want their required Puerto Rican history class taught in Spanish.

"They say, 'We don't want it in English, it's our history,'" he says. "We get into debates a lot about language. The issues of identity and language are part of the class. The concepts of nationality are integral in history."

Senior Sarah DeBergalis is one of Baldwin's "continentals"--the term used to refer to students from the mainland. Her family moved from Indiana seven years ago when the pharmaceutical company her father works for transferred him here.

Though she didn't enjoy being told "American go home" on the street when she first arrived as a non-Spanish-speaker, the articulate 17-year-old says she can understand the frustration some of her peers feel toward the United States and Americans' ignorance about Puerto Rico.

She recalls a trip to Washington as part of a student conference a while back. Since she was coming from Puerto Rico, the organizers considered her an international student and put her in a group with students from places like Norway. "I thought that was pretty weird," she says with a laugh.

Sarah plans to head back to the mainland for college. She's not sure if she'll come back to Puerto Rico or not. But her friend, Zahira Diaz, has no intention of leaving.

The poised, 17-year-old senior was born and raised in Puerto Rico and has attended Baldwin since kindergarten. Her family is here. Her friends are here. She plans to attend university here and become a lawyer. And she has no qualms about who she is.

"I don't feel any less Puerto Rican because I speak English. It just makes me more complete," Diaz says, sitting under the school courtyard's wooden gazebo. "But I think in Spanish. I dream in Spanish. That's me. That's who I am."

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