February 9, 2007

U.S. Schools Benefit from Mexican Largesse

By Louis E. V. Nevaer
New America Media

At a time when Americans throughout the country are frustrated by the failure of public schools to teach their children, Mexico is increasing its efforts to help struggling school systems deal with immigrant children who speak Spanish.

“We are grateful that the Mexican Consul and the Mexican government have taken such an interest in helping Denver Public Schools and its students,” Jerry Wartgow, Superintendent of the Denver Public Schools, said when Mexico donated 30,000 Spanish-language textbooks for elementary students. “This donation is just one example of how we can work together to improve the lives of all children through education.”

From San Diego to Orlando, from Chicago to Las Vegas, the Mexican government, through its 42 consulates throughout the United States, is accelerating its ambitious “foreign aid” program designed to deliver millions of Spanish-language textbooks to American schools this decade.

“This is more than an ‘outreach’ program,” notes Raquel Romero, director of Mesoamerica Foundation, a Mexican nonprofit organization. “This is part of a concerted program to educate Hispanic children in the United States, and to help the United States make the transition into a bicultural society this century. It is a way of understanding that Mexican culture is expanding across the border, that it is in ascendance, and that Hispanic and Latino children in the United States will never be blond, blue-eyed Anglos.”

Mexico’s efforts are part of a subtle program, one that traces its origins to the presidency of Jose Lopez Portillo, who governed 1976-1982. A university professor before entering politics, Lopez Portillo feared that English would dominate Mexican business life. To defend the integrity of Spanish, he launched a program called “Palabra,” or “Word,” that sought to inculcate an appreciation for the Spanish language.

This campaign proved so successful that as Mexican television and radio programs began to be exported throughout the Spanish-speaking world, “Mexican” Spanish began to emerge as the “standard” spoken Spanish. This process was not unlike what occurred in the United States in the mid-twentieth century. As the CBS, NBC and ABC broadcast companies established national networks, regional accents – the Southern drawl, the New England clip – gave way to a “neutral” English, exemplified best by Walter Cronkite and Johnny Carson, both of Midwestern stock. It is this “Nebraska” accent that is the “standard” English for the national networks, and local reporters who want to make it in the big league have to drop their regional accents in favor of “Nebraska” English.

Similarly, in Latin America, it is “Mexican” Spanish that is the neutral accent, and reporters from Buenos Aires to Madrid, New York to Lima, have to speak in this manner if they want to make it in the big league.

Emboldened by this success, Mexico’s subtle, but ambitious, effort to emerge as the leading cultural force in the Hispanic world accelerated. In 1989, president Carlos Salinas launched the “Paisano Program,” designed to assist Mexicans, and their U.S.-born children, increase their cultural, social and political literacy about Mexico. This program not only reached out to Mexicans living in the United States, but it also helped them resist assimilation into the American mainstream, something seen as desirable, since Hispanics find Anglo culture cold and distant, fraught with ruined families and strained social relations. The alienating nature of American society, first exposed by David Riesman in his groundbreaking book, The Lonely Crowd, was a fate Mexico wanted to spare her children living on the other side of the border.

Mexico is intent on fighting “Latino Cultural Illiteracy,” or what happens to good Hispanics who grow up ignorant of their culture. Vicente Fox called Mexicans who emigrated to the United States in search of work “heroes,” and launched the Program for Mexican Communities Abroad as a set of policies for empowering the Mexican Diaspora. What has alarmed Mexican officials is the loss of Spanish fluency among the children born to Mexicans in the United States.

“These ‘Latinos’ are incapable of reading Spanish more complicated than what one finds on a Taco Bell menu,” an official at the Mexican Consulate in New York said. “We want them to be fluent in Spanish, so they can be successful both in the United States and in Mexico.”

Mexicans blame this cultural alienation – not being fluent in Spanish, not being entirely accepted by their Anglo compatriots – as one reason why Hispanic youth drop out of school, resort to substance abuse, join gangs and end up in prison. An example of their cultural and linguistic illiteracy is seen among gang members. When two gangs in conflict reach an agreement to cease hostilities, there is a word for this. In English, it is “truce.” In Spanish, it is “truega.”

Latino illiterate gang members, who are fluent in neither English nor Spanish, use the word “trucha.” “Hey, bro’ there’s a trucha” makes as much sense to an English speaker as “Oye, ‘mano, hay trucha” does to a Spanish speaker.

This cultural and linguistic ignorance is what Mexico is striving to address.

“Reaching out to young Hispanics in their formative years, and while they’re in public school is the way to go,” Raquel Romero said. “Mexico has to be there for them, reminding them that they come from a great civilization, and can be proud of their who they are, and where their families come from.”

That Mexicans should be proud of Spanish offends some American conservatives, however. “In U.S. areas with large Hispanic (including illegal) populations, the Mexican consul donates to the local public schools the same textbooks that are used in every elementary school in Mexico, grades one through six,” Phyllis Schlafly wrote in her article “Is it Assimilation or Invasion?” which was widely circulated among nativist organizations. “The books, written in Spanish and including all academic subjects, teach that America ‘stole’ the southwest from Mexico and that Mexico is entitled to take it back.”

The books, correctly, point out that the United States reneged in its obligations under the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo which ended the Mexican-American War in 1848 when the U.S. Congress established a commission to review property titles in 1851, designed to expropriate the land of Mexican nationals who were now living in U.S. territory.

The cultural importance of Spanish was an idea that defined Vicente Fox’s term as president, from 2000 to 2006. Two months before taking office in 2000, speaking before the Congress of the Spanish Language in Madrid, Fox exhorted Mexicans in the United States to speak Spanish. Fox said, “To continue speaking Spanish in the United States is to ‘hacer patria’ (fulfill one’s patriotic duty).”

They have done just that: the United States has the fastest-growing Spanish-speaking population in the world. Felipe Calderon, Mexico’s new president, has moved forcefully, ordering that Mexican diplomatic missions throughout the United States reach out to America’s failing public schools and assess their educational needs.

Mexican American folklorist Américo Paredes has called what we are witnessing as “Greater Mexico” – achieved one textbook at a time. While Americans may fret that Johnny Can’t Read, Mexico wants to make sure that Juanito Pueda Leer.

New America Media contributor Louis E. V. Nevaer is author of the forthcoming book, “HR and the New Hispanic Workforce” (Davies-Black Publishing, March 2007).

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