Saving Spanish for Students

Angela Eklund

A former secretary of Devonshire Elementary School has filed suit against Charlotte-Mecklenburg School district after being terminated for speaking Spanish to parents.

Ana Mateo was hired as a bilingual secretary, a position designed to reach out to students and families that aren’t fluent in English. When a new principal, Suzanne Gimenez, arrived on the scene in 2008, Mateo continued to communicate in Spanish with parents who knew little English, despite Gimenez’s announcement that Spanish could no longer be spoken in the school.

Mateo was fired on Sept. 24, 2008 and the case was referred to the U.S. Justice Department by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

This is an excerpt from the lawsuit: “During September 2008, a Spanish-speaking parent came to the school crying and stating in Spanish that someone at the school had placed a stick in her 7-year-old’s buttocks. Mateo asked Ms. Gimenez if she could translate for the parent. Ms. Gimenez refused and told the parent her 7-year-old son could translate. The parent continued to cry and eventually left without having her issue resolved because she could not understand Ms. Gimenez’s responses.”

This is a situation where a child was allegedly abused and effective communication was denied in an effort to prove a point. But the only point Gimenez has made is that she should have been fired, not Mateo.

The U.S. maintains a chronic problem with concepts beginning with bi-: bisexuality, bipartisanship, and now, bilingualism. A Spanish teacher of mine once made an important observation; when you enter a new country and you speak both English and their native language, they aren’t nearly as hostile towards you as we would be if you had a foreign accent. To foreigners, having an accent means you are smart enough to be bilingual. Here in the United States, even fluent English-speakers are judged for their accents due to the stereotype that has evolved around foreigners.

Studies have shown that the U.S. population in 2050 will be 24.3 percent Hispanic, tripling the population of 31.4 million now. Over 30 percent of Hispanics residing in the U.S. in 1999 were foreign born, nevermind currently. It is important for our school systems to accommodate all citizens and their children in the learning process. For some, the opportunity for their children to learn was what drove them to our prosperous country. In this particular school, one third of the students are Hispanic.

The applications of a bilingual program are limitless in a changing America, especially for young minds that can be easily molded to learn new languages quickly and effectively. Schools have a responsibility to teach the citizens of America, and that includes those who haven’t learned to speak English yet.  It may be our national language, but it is far from our only one.