March 2015
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Andrés Ramírez, Florida Atlantic University, Boca Ratón, Florida, USA

Dr. Sonia Nieto holds a bachelor’s in science in elementary education from Saint John’s University in Brooklyn, New York. Born and raised in New York, but as proud a Puerto Rican as any can be, Sonia continued her studies at New York University, where she pursued a master’s in Spanish literature in Spain. She then moved to the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, where she finished a doctorate in curriculum development with minors in multicultural education and bilingual education.

At UMass-Amherst, professor Bob Suzuki’s course on foundations on bilingual education gave her the language to label her thoughts and beliefs—what she had been experiencing and thinking about. As a young teacher, Sonia was hired, “to her surprise,” in the P.S. 25 in the Bronx, the first bilingual school in the Northeast and second in the United States. Such an event, prompted by the vision of then principal Hernan LaFontain, proved to be the true beginning for her career. To this day, P.S. 25 continues to be an excellent bilingual school serving a multilingual population of diverse cultural backgrounds. In this interview, Sonia describes the exceptional path that led her to be the author, advocate, and lifelong teacher she is as she inspires with her always refreshing depth, humanity, and clarity of thought.

Please tell us a bit about yourself. How does your personal story intersect with bilingual education?

I was born and raised in New York. I have never lived in Puerto Rico; I have visited many times. But at home we spoke only Spanish. That’s why when I went to school, I didn’t speak any English. My family was a very close-knit family. Several of my father’s brothers also came from Puerto Rico with cousins and other family. It’s a very close-knit, big family. My mother’s sister came some years later, so we also got to be with them. So family has been really important to us. Neither of my parents graduated from high school. My father didn’t finished fourth grade, even. He had to leave school so that he could work on a farm in Puerto Rico. He was the second oldest son, but when his brother, who was 7 years older, got married very young…that left my father as the oldest one, and his father had already died. His mother was very young and his father was very old when they got married, so after they had around 12 kids (I think 8 of them survived), he died. My grandmother was left a young widow with eight children.

That is when my father started working so he could contribute to the family. He was born in 1901 and came over to the U.S. in 1929; he came when he was 28 years old to seek a better life as so many immigrants have. My mother came in 1934 from Puerto Rico, and she came by herself which is pretty amazing in those years. She came from a very difficult childhood, and I think she just wanted to get away. She went to Brooklyn. She met my father, and they got married in 1941. My parents were older when they got married, which was unusual; my father was 40 and my mother was 32 when they were married, and they had the three of us, my sister, me, and then my brother.

Until I was 10, we lived in a community with growing numbers of Puerto Ricans with few vestiges of European immigrants and [a] slowly growing African American community. Then we moved to a neighborhood that was mixed Puerto Rican and African American mostly. When I was 13, we moved to a more middle-class neighborhood, we bought our first house, a small two-family house, the only house we ever lived in. I always say that it was only because I moved to that neighborhood that I was able to accomplish everything that I have. Because then, I was able to move into a junior high school and then to an excellent high school, and I got [a] very good education. If I hadn’t gotten that education, I don’t think I would be here today. That’s why I’ve always told people that zip codes matter. It does matter where you get your education, and it’s not just what the color of your skin is, what your race or ethnicity is, what language you happen to speak. What matters most [are] the opportunities and the resources that are spent on your education. Kids from middle-class and wealthy families have a better chance, because a lot of resources are spent on their education.

I did not have access to bilingual education. When I was in school in New York, I started school speaking only Spanish, and there were no resources for people like me. My sister, who was a year older, had an ESL teacher. I think that must have been an experiment, because by the time I got there, there was no ESL teacher. So, I had to learn English “a la nada, a la fuerza [out of nothing, forced into it].”

Luckily, I was able to do that, but many of my classmates did not. There were lots of stories of children who were left back, or who were put back a year when they came from Puerto Rico, and so on. I think it was a difficult time. What is interesting is that I became a bilingual teacher in the first bilingual school in the Northeast, which is in the Bronx—it’s still going, P.S. 25. I went to the interview, and the principal asked me about this idea of bilingual education. I said: “I don’t know if we need it. After all, I didn’t have bilingual education, and I am doing fine.” Interesting that we think that our experience is the “normal” experience. He also asked me about parent involvement, because the school was founded on these principles: bilingual education is good for kids, and parental involvement is helpful for kids’ learning. I answered to this question in a similar way. I said: “Well, I don’t know…my parents were never really involved in my education, and I did okay.”

He hired me, anyway. I don’t know why. Within a couple of months, I was completely on board [with the school philosophies] and, in fact, some years later when I did my dissertation, it was on the role of parents on bilingual education. So, I was completely won over by the philosophy of bilingual education, I saw that it worked, I saw that what I had learned before, that is, that culture has no place in the classroom [and] the role of school is just to assimilate students needed to be challenged. I saw first hand, with my own eyes, that students who were able to learn in their native language while they are learning English can do well in school. Our school was the kind of place where everybody spoke English and Spanish. From the principal to the custodian to all the teachers, kids felt very comfortable there. They could speak in either [or] both languages, and the goal was that everybody would become bilingual.

That’s how I started as a young teacher, and I learned very early on that it was a very promising approach. Not that it can solve all problems, of course it can’t because there [are] a lot of problems with inequality and inferior education that cannot be solved by bilingual education, but that bilingual education can be a great strategy for teaching kids who speak languages other than English. If the resources that they receive are the same as kids in well-resourced schools, in middle-class schools, then it will be really excellent. Unfortunately, this is not the case right now. Most bilingual schools have a lot of problems of resources. “y con todo y con eso” [even with that], I think they can be really successful.

Do you use these personal experiences regarding your initial doubts about the need of bilingual education in your talks and in your writings regarding people, especially from Latino backgrounds or other linguistic minority backgrounds? This seems to be a common argument.

Yes. And you have to understand that there are exceptions to every rule. My sister and I were very fortunate. We were exceptions to the rule of Latino education achievement because most Latinos have not done well in school. I know from personal experience that it is not because they are not smart or capable, but because they have not had the opportunities or the resources that we were able to have, especially after we moved to a middle-class neighborhood. So, I use some of those experiences sometimes, but I also think that we cannot count on experiences; we also have to look at research, and we have to look at other kinds of arguments to convince people. Now that you mention it, I want to let you know that I am finishing my memoir right now, and it should be out in the fall published by Harvard Education Press, and a lot of this should be in the memoir.

Tell us more about the bilingual education experience in this school you just told us about.

This was in 1968. [P.S. 25] was the first bilingual school in the Northeast and the second one in the country. The first one was in Miami Dade County in Florida. [P.S. 25] was established for the student population. Puerto Ricans and African Americans had been here for many years before, but they had not had bilingual education before, until 1968. That was the year that the laws passed and there was more support. There has never been overwhelming support, but there was more support then than had been the case many other times. We were learning to do it just by doing it. None of us had studied bilingual education, and we were having to make it up, basically.

We also helped put on one of the first conferences in bilingual education, led by my principal Hernan LaFontain (who later, by the way, became the first director of the Office of Bilingual Education in New York). Then he was a significant player in NABE (National Association for Bilingual Education). Many of the teachers who started with me also went into careers in Bilingual education as professors, principals, and many other roles. That experience was very significant for me, and it was from there that I was recruited to teach at Brooklyn College in the Department of Puerto Rican Studies. Puerto Rican studies was just beginning with a program on bilingual education to prepare bilingual teachers, since all of a sudden [there] was a need for bilingual teachers. In 1972, I was hired in that program, because we had the program between the school of education and Puerto Rican studies. That’s how I really learned. I mean, I have known the praxis of bilingual education, I had been appointed a specialist for that bilingual school, but it was not after four years when I was hired at P.S. 25 that I started teaching courses in bilingual education. In fact, Brooklyn College was one of the first to have a bilingual education program.

All of a sudden, since we were the only ones doing this, it was a very exciting time to us with a lot of learning, but I think we need to understand the sociopolitical context of the times more. This was the late 60s, early 70s, this was the hype of the civil rights movement: Black power, Brown power, women’s rights, all of these movements were happening at the same time. These grew out of the civil rights movement that was headed by African Americans, so here were all these people who were all of the sudden demanding their rights. A lot of these things were happening before, but they really took hold in the late 60s and early 70s. There was also opposition to the Vietnam War and, all in all, there was a lot of political activism and activity going on at the same time. Students were in high schools and colleges demanding ethnic studies for example, that’s how the Puerto Rican Studies Department and the Africana Studies Department came to be at Brooklyn College. That’s how ethnic studies started in the late 60s and early 70s.

There was all this political turmoil and activity that supported these movements at the time. Things have changed a lot now, and while I think bilingual education is seen in a more traditional way now, its important to remember that its roots came from an activist more community oriented space.  

What remains in bilingual education despite all the different sociopolitical contexts of the last four decades or so?

The debate around bilingual education is mostly a political issue. It has to do with power. I don’t think the opposition to bilingual education has ever been about language. It has always been about power. Who has power? How is it used? What would the language of this country be. I think there is tremendous fear that we will become a Spanish-speaking nation. And in some way, we already are, we are a multilingual, a polyglot nation, and that is something that is hard for people to accept.

That is the fear of bilingual education; it is certainly not that bilingual education is a bad thing. In fact, it is not that [people] are afraid that it would not work, but it is the fear that it may work and that all of the sudden we would have a mixture of bilingual people. I think that would be a beautiful thing, although some people do not believe that. In this country, it has become that people who are monolingual have more power than people [who] are bilingual, and that is not understandable in a global context.

Where do you think bilingual education should go toward?

I’m in support of understanding language as a resource rather than as a deficit. That was my growth, that’s what I got to realize. I was 25 years old when I was hired at [P.S. 25]. My whole education had stressed Americanization, assimilation, learning English, being ashamed of speaking our native language, and so on. Suddenly, I saw in this school where I was, P.S. 25, that all those ideas had to be challenged, because I saw the reality in all my students and how they all benefit from bilingual education.

This is why I say that it all depends on the sociopolitical context. The context in which I grew up, the feeling was that immigrants need to assimilate, and they need to forget their native language. I’m really grateful to my parents, because they spoke Spanish to us. But there was a time when my sister and I spoke English back to them instead of Spanish. We found it easier, and we also found that it was not cool to speak Spanish. I’m glad we went back to speaking Spanish to them years later.

I feel that globalization may help us, but at the same time it may not, because one aspect of globalization is that everybody wants to learn English. I understand that having a Lingua Franca is important, but while we work toward that, I think it is very important to maintain and retain native languages and to let children and their families know that speaking and maintaining their native language is as important as speaking English. That to me is a nonnegotiable.

What is your vision on where we should be 20–30 years from now?

One way in which I have evolved is that I now support this notion of dual language education. I have to say that this issue was difficult for me as a proponent of bilingual education, because I saw that again people who were privileged were the ones who were asking for this for their children. They wanted their children to understand another language so they can become bilingual. I thought that this would take away resources away from students who really needed it, Latino kids and other kids who needed to learn English while maintaining their native language. I was really concerned that our kids would be left behind.

Now, I think that dual language—especially if we are talking Spanish/English or other world languages Chinese/English, French/English—that this is a very good strategy for getting support for bilingual education. I’m glad to see that there are schools that are using the dual language approach because it is good for everybody.

We need to remind ourselves, however, that for many years, Latino and other students from cultural and linguistic diverse backgrounds have…received an inferior education in general. So the priority should be on immigrant kids in bilingual programs while other kids can also continue learning in the target language. I think it can work for both, but people in charge of these programs have to be very careful about what the priorities are.

Any message you have for the BEIS group?

Bridging the gap between the bilingual and the TESOL worlds is not only valuable but also necessary. From the time I was a bilingual teacher, I thought that the connections with ESL were very important. I think that they shouldn’t be seen as different fields, I thought that they should be seen as complementary, as enriching one another. When people learn English as an additional language, they should also be thinking about learning other languages. I don’t think they are contradictory at all. So, I’m very glad to be able to speak at the TESOL conference with that message.

Andrés Ramírez is assistant professor of TESOL and bilingual education at Florida Atlantic University, Boca Ratón, USA. His research focuses on the academic achievement of emergent to advanced bilinguals in K–16 contexts.

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