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

Dr. Ofelia García is professor of urban education at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. She has been professor of bilingual education at Columbia University's Teachers College and at The City College of New York, and has been dean of the School of Education on the Brooklyn campus of Long Island University.

In this interview, mother, author, activist, and teacher Ofelia García shares her personal journey starting when she was an emergent bilingual student herself in New York City. Through her personal story and engaging academic career, Dr. García sheds light on the past, present, and future of bilingual education and on how to build community through education. She talks about the theory and practice of translanguaging, and provides poignant advice for new generations of teachers, students, and school administrators.

Through Dr. García’s lived experiences, it is clear that she has maintained a true scholarship of engagement: engagement with the needs, rights, and backgrounds of communities and the context they inhabit. From her journey, we learn that school is not a neutral institution, but one that supports mainstream assumptions of identity and language while suppressing alternative ones. True resistance to and contestation of default repertoires benefiting mainstream ideas presupposes a profound understanding of context. A scholarship of “contextation” unusually and yet faithfully describes Dr. García’s equally out-of-the-ordinary scholarship of engagement.

Please tell us a bit about your personal story and how it intersects with bilingualism and bilingual education. What do you still carry with you from those days in your present role as advocate for/scholar in bilingual education?

I was born in Cuba and came straight to New York when I was 11 years. I started school without knowing English, so that was a struggle. I was a good student, and I was offered a scholarship in a catholic school for girls, and I studied there for 4 years.

There I learned some lessons. I was only one of a handful of Latino students. Perhaps we were four or five in the whole high school, and similar numbers for African Americans. Today, that school is very different, but at that time it was a working-class neighborhood mostly with Irish and Italian populations. Even though it was a working-class neighborhood, I thought that those girls in my school were rich because they were a lot wealthier than I was.

After I finished high school, I went to Hunter College, which was one of the public colleges of the City University of New York (CUNY) system. At that time, I think the tuition was about $30 a semester, and my parents could not afford that. I was one of four children, I was the oldest, and my parents had a very hard time. They always used to say that they sort of made a mistake by going to New York instead of Miami, even though I always say that I am the person I am because I grew up in New York.

I keypunched through college (keypunching was a way of opening up holes in the cards that were then fed into the mainframe computers of that time), and I became a teacher and majored in Spanish and education. I was then hired in an alternative school in New York. It was a wonderful school started by a great group of educators, all advocates for civil rights and all products of the Civil Rights Movement. I became a Spanish teacher, but at the same time I became the ESL teacher. There was no ESL certification or bilingual certification back then. Schools looked for people in foreign language education to be the ESL teachers as well.

After graduating from college in 1970, I started my first ESL class, and of course, 100% of the kids were Puerto Rican and did not speak any English. After a week with them, I stopped and said: “This does not make any sense. I speak Spanish, they speak Spanish, and teaching them through English does not make any sense because they don’t understand it.” After this, I went to the head teacher and explained the situation. She told me to do whatever I though was right.

This is why I always say that I was experimenting with bilingual education even before there was bilingual education, before they were paying attention to ESL issues. The Bilingual Education Act had just passed in 1968, and there weren’t any bilingual programs in the city. ESL programs were just starting in the city, but it was a very remedial orientation, it was not content based, which is what I was doing. I love teaching, and I was successful at it, and I became known within the circle of city educators as someone who was doing something different. I stayed in that school for 8 years.

In 1978, I had my son and stayed with him for 2 years.

After this, my intellectual curiosity led me to go on, and I got my master’s degree to be able to have permanent certification. I remember that it was a professor in Spanish, whose name was Jose Olivio Jiménez, I would never forget him, who told me that I should do a doctorate. I had no idea what a doctorate was or what it was all about. He actually walked me to the Graduate Center, which was amazing because I am sure that if he had not encouraged me and brought me there, I would have never done that.

I started taking courses at night. Back then, there were no doctorates in TESOL or bilingual education, and I ended up doing a doctorate in Spanish even though I was not interested in literature. Well, I was very interested in poetry, but I was always more interested in the language of the text. This is why I ended up taking a lot of courses in semiotics and discourse during my doctorate.

After I finished my doctorate, there was an opening at City College, again one of the colleges in the City University of New York (CUNY) system. The mentor that I had at the alternative school where I had worked previously called me up and told me that I should apply. I was hesitant at first, because it was true that I had a master’s in education, but my doctorate was not in education. She told me that they were looking for a person in bilingual education and that nobody really knew what to do. “I know you do it. I know you know how you do it,” she said. So, I ended up applying for that position, which initially was nontenure track, but then became tenure track. The time I was at City College was a very happy time. It was a time where I stayed connected to the community, which was an African American community in Harlem but also a growing Dominican population in Washington Heights, and I loved working with that community.

Two years after I began, I knew that I could teach the methods courses at the college, but there was a whole lot of literature that I was missing as I didn’t have the training. That is when I started a postdoctorate at Yeshiva University with Joshua Fishman. With Fishman, I started taking classes in sociolinguistics, sociology of language, language planning, bilingualism, and education. This is why I always say that everything I learned about bilingualism I learned in Fishman 101, and then I have gone beyond it, but Joshua Fishman was certainly very influential for me because I was able to understand the realities I was seeing in the classroom, but he also taught me to see beyond what I could see and to think what could be possible and what was possible in other places of the world.

I was very happy at City College because, as we say in Spanish, “Estabamos haciendo pueblo [we were contributing to our community].” It was wonderful to see a taxi driver seeking a degree in bilingual education. We used to take the community in, and I always say that they were not prepared when they came in, but they were certainly prepared when they came out.

This situation changed, unfortunately, when teacher certification exams came into being. The state required 80% of the students to pass the exit certification exam, and we had a lower pass rate.

Faculty then decided to require the exam up front before being admitted into the teacher education program. I had a lot of objections to that, because we are educating. That’s what we are doing. If you want to educate those who already come educated, then how do you build a community? How do you build teachers for that community? This effectively closed the door. We used to have hundreds of students a year. They were students who went back and taught in those communities and were very good teachers. I became disenchanted after this resolution passed, and we ended up with very few students.

After 17 years at City College, I grew to be very disillusioned, and I began to speak out about what was happening. To make a long story short, the president of a small private university, the Brooklyn campus of Long Island University, with a very large minority enrollment (almost 100%), heard me and told me that they were in a very similar position and that they were looking for a dean, as their school of education was about to close. Although I was not interested in a dean’s position, he convinced me to speak with the faculty and the search committee. After I told them what I would do, what they should be doing, someone asked me what I knew about budgets. I was surprised at this question and told them that I had no idea about budgets and that I had even trouble balancing a checkbook. After I told them once again that I was not interested in the position, that’s when they decided that they really wanted me.

My friend convinced me to do it, and I started to work as a dean. I am convinced that we did very good work there. This is work I have never written about, because it is work that you have to be completely focused on if you are to do it well. We attracted large funding and created a Center for Urban Educators. The idea was: How do you continue to admit these minority students, maybe raise the standards at admissions a little but without closing the door completely, and educate them in a way that they end up being excellent teachers for those communities but also excellent users of English for academic purposes? Over time, we registered all our teacher education programs again as we transformed the curriculum, and because the teacher education program had been on the verge of closing down, all the faculty joined forces trying to save the place. We all worked very hard, we turned the school around, and after the scores were good and we were no longer on the list (of underperforming programs), I started to feel restless. After I had done it, after I had created what I thought to be a very good education program, I didn’t want to become a manager.

Looking back at all this, I think the 80s were really good years; even though Reagan came in, they were really transformational years for the community and for education. That’s when all the issues that people were working on during the 70s really took root. I think we still held to the commitment to civil rights, but now we had enough educated people with strong scholarship, people had developed, people were ready. Even though the politics weren’t good, they were exciting years. By the mid-90s, the neoliberal movement really started to change things.

After 7 years at the Brooklyn campus of Long Island University, Teachers College [at Columbia University] had a position, and I applied as a faculty member because I missed my students and I missed my scholarship. When you are an administrator paying attention to rebuilding a program, you really cannot pay attention to scholarship. I was at Teachers College for 6 years in the Department of International and Transcultural Studies, where the bilingual education program was housed. At Teachers College, I was not only looking inward, that is looking at teacher education and teaching and learning within the context of the U.S., but also internationally. I was troubled by the fact that I was doing a lot of international work and I was not doing what I liked to do most, which is local work, and you cannot do both things well. I also didn’t see myself in a private institution. Teachers College is a private institution, and I was not happy there. While Columbia is in Harlem, they saw themselves as in Morningside Heights and did not always acknowledge the community around them.

The Graduate Center, which is the doctoral program at City University, had an open position in urban education. Initially, I was not going to apply, but I was unhappy and restless. The great radical educator (who passed away in 2013) Jean Anyon, a wonderful person, began to call me and ask me to apply. I accepted the position, and, as I always say, I came back home. I’m extremely happy at The Graduate Center. I think it is a great place. I think you have to really understand how to start your career and how to end it as well. I think it is a good ending, because I’m working with very talented doctoral students who are going to be my colleagues and who are going to stay in the United States.

All these years you have clearly maintained a connection of how you are/were as an emergent bilingual, then as a teacher, then as a scholar and administrator. You continued trying to go against the trends of monoglossic education and highlighting the dissonance between theory and practice. What other themes remain today?

Wherever I have gone, the emphasis has shifted a little bit because the context determines the work that you do in a lot of ways. But I think there are some things that have remained constant. Attention to the children and attention to the communities’ needs. That has been central in my work, and where I have not been happy I haven’t been happy because the work that the institution wants you to do does not respond to that focus on community. That has remained with me forever. Sometimes there are early experiences that stay with you. The fact that I had experiences in communities that struggle as a teenager, communities where immigrants come every day, communities where schools are not stable because of different conditions. Those experiences have stayed with me.

I was very fortunate that my teaching was in a school, an alternative school, where there were groups of educators, all activists that did not believe in traditional education for the poor, and that’s why they started this school. I must say I was just a follower, I was not in the forefront of that. I always say that, to me, that was a transformative experience being in the presence of those people who really wanted to change the system, who really wanted to do it differently. They were a group of liberal White teachers, and they hired me because they didn’t have any diversity, and they were starting up, so they needed me. I think these are things that stayed with me throughout.

How do you perceive bilingual education? What is its scope and purpose? How has your perspective on bilingual education changed (or not) over the years?

Well, it’s interesting. My positions have changed over the years as the world has changed. But I also think it is important to keep some principles in place that are nonnegotiable. To me, education is for the child and for the community. That to me is nonnegotiable, that’s the beginning. How you do it depends on where you are, what community you are working with, what context there is, what political context there is. What sociological context there is. So, that changes, and I think from the beginning I saw bilingualism as an enrichment activity, I knew that, for example, when I started teaching I knew Spanish was a scaffold to teach English, but I knew also that Spanish just couldn’t be a scaffold to teach English, but that it also needed to be what drove the children. So one of my goals was to develop their English, that goes without saying, but also to make sure that they learned content, that they were good academics and thinkers, to make sure that they were challenged intellectually and creatively, and also we learned about who they were. I’m not Puerto Rican, but I grew up with Puerto Ricans and that’s a community that I feel very close to. My husband’s family lives there, so I’ve learned a lot about Puerto Rico, and I was very involved in the Puerto Rican community then. I think that was essential. I did the same when I was at City College and the community there was not mostly Puerto Rican but mostly Dominican. And I did the same with the Dominicans. I, again, was not one of them, but they really embraced me and took me in, because I respected who they were and I tried to learn from them. I think that is key, being a colearner when you are an educator, because our communities change and we have to be open to the changes in the community. So, the idea that bilingual education is for enrichment and not for remediation, that has always been present for me.

I had wished that when there were a lot of bilingual programs in the city, I wished then that they had paid more attention to the development of Spanish as an enrichment activity rather than just as a transitional program. I think the situation now has changed because so many bilingual education programs closed in the city and most of the children are being educated in ESL-only programs. So, I started working with this concept of translanguaging really in response to the fact that I saw so many bilingual children in ESL classrooms where their bilingualism was not being used as a resource. So, the use of bilingualism as a resource has stayed, but the way in which we use it has changed, because the kids are in different kinds of educational programs. So the lens you have to use to study that, to see that, is different.

What do you think has been the biggest hurdle that the translanguaging approach has faced or will face?

The biggest hurdle is between those people who see education and bilingual education as just a language program and those who see education and bilingual education as educating the community. I think that with dual language bilingual education programs, as I call them to make sure people understand that these are one kind of bilingual education program, I think more flexibility is needed in the model. I think that when people started introducing it, they defined them in very rigid terms, and in many places I have seen how this rigidity is working against a good program in bilingual education. In other words, the idea that you have to start with 50% of kids that speak one language and 50% of kids who speak another is absurd, I think. The idea is that you have to build programs in communities as the communities are. If you have 80% of kids of one kind, so what? Big deal. You start with what the community has and you build the program around it. You don’t start with a model and then try to fit the community to the model. I have real objection to that because then you are building a model that is just for some but not for all.

It’s interesting, because in the work that we do in the program where I have been co-principal investigator, CUNY-NYSIEB, we work with both ESL and bilingual programs. With the ESL teachers, I think because the standards have been raised and because everybody now has to teach to the Common Core standards, they are open to experimenting and open to using the children’s languages to make them do all kinds of difficult things that children now have to do. This is because it is almost impossible to get the kids to find text-based evidence if they are doing it in a language they don’t know. So we changed it and tell the teachers to try to find a text in Spanish and then let them find the text-based evidence in the Spanish text and then let them apply it to the English text. Or to group the students according to the language they have so they can discuss what you are teaching or the text that they are reading in English, they can discuss it in Chinese or any other language they have. So, it’s easy to do that. With most intelligent ESL teachers, that happens. I think the biggest objections often come from the dual language bilingual education teachers who have been trained to think that they have to hold on to these spaces in a very rigid kind of way. I would say, I would really venture to say that this idea may work well for language majority children where Spanish-speaking places are only devoted to Spanish. If we are really developing bilingual children, teaching bilingual children, you don’t necessarily have to have two spaces. I think you have to have two spaces for the teacher; I don’t have objections to having a space for one language and one for the other as long as you build those spaces with flexibility and that you allow the children’s language practices, even when those language practices are bilingual. That’s what happens in communities; communities may be Spanish speaking, but they are not Spanish speaking in Ecuador, they are Spanish speaking in New York, therefore, there is a lot of bilingualism that comes in. That is natural, and it’s good, and I also think there is a need to bring the kids’ two languages together at some point, because then there is a tool to do the metalinguistic work that one can do if you can put two languages alongside each other. In fact, I always say that the translanguaging space is a good space to build children’s creativity and criticality also as they become critical of how language functions and why it functions that way, but they also become very creative, so that they can use the two languages at the same time.

In my opinion, dual language bilingual teachers have a hard time with the concept because they have been taught to protect Spanish above everything else. But in protecting Spanish in that way, there is a danger of alienating children who are really bilingual or who are going to become bilingual children. They are not going to become Spanish speakers and English speakers on the side, they are going to become bilingual speakers. So, I think the only thing I am saying is that the languages have to be used with some flexibility, so that you don’t start by saying, we are only speaking English now or we are speaking only Spanish now. Kids know that it is an English space or it is a Spanish space, but their language practices are accepted and not put down. And how do you build the space? It does not have to be every day if you can’t do it every day; it can be every week, when you actually let the children work through all the language practices that they have rather than the ones you impose.

I think it is important for us as bilinguals to be able to use oral language repertoires rather than just one or just the other. When you are doing that, you are really suppressing some features, and there is a space for not having to suppress them. It is liberating not to have to suppress them. But it takes training, it takes teachers who are not afraid, and that has to be built.

Anything else you would like to share?

The divisions between TESOL and bilingual education are unfortunate. I think all TESOL educators need to know about bilingualism and education, and all bilingual educators in the United States need to have ESL at the center of what they are doing. What are sad to me are the divisions that have occurred. TESOL and bilingual teachers should not be trained separately, they should be trained together. They can inform each other, and they have to work together as the children they are working with are the same kids. The ESL teacher should appreciate bilingualism, and the bilingual teachers must understand what the ESL teachers are doing. This is a wish I have. I don’t understand how it happened and how the professionalization of the fields divided those two camps.

It is important for younger people to understand that there is a history of political activism and that the bilingual education movement was not just born from nothingness. That this grew out of a relentless drive of communities to educate their children and that as direct result of the departmentalization of professional fields, this understanding has been lost. It is important that the new generations are very conscious of where it all started.

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.