CHICAGO — Judging by news coverage of the nation’s fastest growing ethnic minority, you’d think that “the Hispanic condition” was a pathology. With the exception of growing power in the voting booth, the news makes it seem as though we’re all poor, sick and generally unable to cope with life as well as others.
There are simply too many examples of the negativity that seems to drive reporting on — and perceptions of — the health and economic well-being of Hispanics to list here. But let me illustrate my point with some recent coverage surrounding Latino learners.
“Mexican-American children lag in pre-literacy skills, but not social strengths, study reveals” was a popular headline based on research from the University of California.
This eye-popping statement in the university’s press release exemplifies how these children have historically been cast as underachievers: “The researchers caution teachers, pediatricians and other health care providers to ‘not assume social-emotional delays, even when language or cognitive skills lag somewhat behind.'”
The research found that Mexican-American toddlers ages 2 and 3 displayed language and cognitive skills about eight months behind those of their white peers, whether assessed in English or Spanish. The gap persisted through ages 4 and 5.
The interesting part was that this study finally made the environmental connection: While most Mexican-American parents nurture socially agile children, factors such as lower incomes, more children in the home and few family reading traditions usually mean these students will arrive at kindergarten behind their non-Hispanic classmates.
Stop and think about it — research is just now proving that Mexican-American youngsters aren’t less cognitively able than their peers. They are just a little behind because the “read to your children” culture hasn’t yet taken hold in their homes. I hope every educator in America gets that memo because Latino students are too often treated like “special cases.”
Take, for instance, the double standard on second-language acquisition. For some reason, Hispanics have been singled out as the only children in our school systems who can’t deal with English-language immersion lest it ruin their psyches, dishonor their ethnic roots, and needlessly challenge them.
In Illinois, children who would learn English as a second language are first taught to read and write — or taught exclusively — in their native tongue. This continues until they can be transitioned, over many years in most cases, into English-speaking classrooms.
And when I say their native language, I mean Spanish, because other immigrant students who show up to school speaking, say Russian, Polish or Chinese are mainstreamed with only minimal English-as-a-second-language supports. There simply aren’t enough of them per grade level to offer special native-language classrooms.
Those who believe it is cruel to immerse a non-English-speaking Latino student in mainstream classes rarely shed any tears for the non-Hispanic ones who are regularly made to sink or swim. And it’s not often acknowledged that such students, because of that immersion, are usually extremely successful in quickly learning to speak English.
When I taught “bilingual ed” at a high school, I saw non-Spanish-speaking immigrant students go from zero to near-fluency in English in mere months. Yet I also taught 16-year-old students who had been born in the U.S. but trapped in “bilingual” classrooms their whole lives and still couldn’t speak English.
Ironically, immersion is having a bit of a heyday for non-Hispanic students. Recent headlines trumpeted how in Utah, young native English speakers have been immersed into French, Spanish and Chinese classes to great effect. Same goes for Delaware, where selected schools offer immersion in Mandarin Chinese and Spanish.
Rare is the instance when Latino students are given such opportunities.
Perhaps our education system thinks they’re not up to it. Too frequently, educators get caught up in the “pobrecito” syndrome, as in “poor baby, of course he’s going to underachieve, he’s disadvantaged!”
The steady diet of bad news about segments of the Hispanic population drive a myth that all Latinos are downtrodden, at risk or simply not as able as others. The next time you see a headline about Latinos’ sorry state, flip the script by remembering: There’s always, always more to the story.
Esther Cepeda is a syndicated columnist and an NBC Latino contributor.