“I don’t understand Spanish. I’m not going to learn it. I live in America and it’s an English-speaking country … so if you want to speak to me, speak to me in English.”
-Mary Black, former school bus driver in Idaho, after pouring water on a Latino boy
Video recently surfaced of a school bus driver in Idaho, Mary Black, saying the above to Miguel Martinez, a young 8th-grade Latino boy riding the bus, She added in disgust “I wouldn’t want to touch you” as she proceeded to pour water on him. This is infuriating. As a second generation Xicana mother raising a young Brown boy of Mexican and Guatemalan descent who speaks two languages, because I have known for far too long how our Brown children have been told they are “dirty” for simply speaking and existing.
Fear of a Taco Truck Nation
The importance of destroying languages when destroying a culture cannot be debated, because if language wasn’t important these schools and policies would have never existed. “English Only” policies are nothing new and not only restricted to the Southwest. These policies have impacted these lands since the first invader landed on the shores of what is now known as the United States, and continued with the enforcement of mission and boarding schools for Native students as well as Mexican schools that were used to segregate Mexican children. The forced colonization of Native Americans also continues today. One example is when a 12-year-old Native Menominee girl in Wisconsin was suspended from playing in her school’s basketball game for speaking her native language at school, according to a 2012 article in Indian Country Today Media Network.
During the 1920’s, assimilation projects were put in place by the U.S. government due to the increase of immigration to the U.S. due to the Mexican Revolution. According to the Library of Congress, Mexican migration grew from 20,000 per year during the 1910’s to close to 100,000 per year during the 1920’s. This was under the context in which my father’s side immigrated to the United States. Pushed out due to the Mexican Revolution, I found census documents that showed my family lived in El Paso, Texas, during this time. It was also during this time and in between El Paso and settling permanently in East Los Angeles, my paternal grandfather decided his children should not speak Spanish.
Mexican schools were challenged in 1943 during the Mendez vs. Westminster case for their separate and unequal education as they segregated Mexican students and denied them opportunities to learn violating the 1t4h amendment of the U.S. constitution. This case would become the precursor to the landmark case of Brown vs. Board of Education which legally ended separate and unequal education policies nationwide. Throughout the Mendez vs. Westminster case, the Orange County school district provided so-called "experts" who claimed Mexican students couldn’t speak English and tried to justify they were separated due to language although students were never given language tests. The so-called “experts” also claimed Mexicans were “dirty,” lacked proper cleanliness, had no manners, and called them “retarded.” Mary Black saying she wouldn’t want to touch this student in this manner was reinforcing an old belief that Latinos are dirty and inferior and working as an educator for over 12 years now, I know there are more Mary Blacks out there.
My father and mother entered East LA schools in the late 1950s and 1960s where they can recall knowing and seeing Mexican students being hit in schools for speaking Spanish. My mother retained the language as her family had come to the U.S. at a later time from Jalisco, Mexico, and maintained a “Spanish only” policy in the home. My father on the other hand lived under an “English only” policy in his home. I decided later to learn Spanish on my own as an adult, but remember the loss I felt as a child not being able to speak to my own (maternal) grandmother and feeling somewhat redeemed when I went to speak to her on my own as an adult to gain her blessing to go away to school while she was in the final weeks of life.
At 12 years old as a middle-schooler in the Inland Empire of California, I participated in my first walkout during Proposition 187 in 1994. With Proposition 187, then-Governor Pete Wilson proposed to ban undocumented people from all social services. In this campaign (which was voted into effect—but later struck down in courts—doctors and teachers would be able to deny services to anyone they suspected of being “illegal." Although I am second generation, I remember the sentiment and general fear of “they do not like us (Mexicans)” during this time. My mother also worked as a bilingual aide at an elementary school. I remember her coming home saying the kids at her school were afraid to come to school because of Prop 187 and that the parents of the children were also afraid. I knew then no one should live in fear or be targeted for who they are. Later attacks via racist policies on language continued in 1998 with the passage of Proposition 227 also known as “the English in Public Schools” initiative, which ended bilingual education in California as we knew it.
The forced assimilation and “English Only” policies targeting Spanish-speaking populations (as well as those who speak Indigenous languages) continues today. I am certain that injustices like what happened last week in Idaho 12-year-old Miguel Martinez happen far more often than they are reported. Racist anti-immigrant and “English Only” sentiments remain, and as long as they remain policies will continue to be proposed and implemented. With the current political climate under President Obama, who deported and is continuing to deport undocumented immigrants at record high numbers while also stating that immigrants must "get in line" and learn English in order to have a chance to become citizens.
Knowing the above I realize that the campaign of Donald Trump isn’t the only thing we must worry about, because it is more likely on a given day that my son and myself will encounter someone like Mary Black, and I know every day that no matter how much I am ready, I know nothing will fully prepare me for someone attempting to strip my son of not only of his language, but his culture and ultimately his humanity. I know because I have risen from struggle, and every day I must be ready for the fight.
Irene Monica Sanchez is a Xicana, mama, activist, danzante, artist, writer, poet, educator and Ph.D. Originally born and raised in East and Southeast Los Angeles, she claims the Inland Empire of California as her home.