Lorena González doesn't want to use the "B" word. " 'Bilingual' has too much history attached to it," she says. "And besides, from what I've heard, you're very anti-second-language out on the West Coast. Especially Spanish. Not us! What we're saying here is that we want a dual-literate city."
González refers to her home of San Antonio, Texas. As vice-president of the San Antonio Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, González has initiated a bilingual campaign that has sent a ripple through cities from Miami to Mexicali. Her chamber is pushing for San Antonio to become an English/Spanish-speaking city -- officially. They are calling for all San Antonio schools to integrate Spanish into their system over the next five years. And that doesn't mean just teaching Spanish speakers to become proficient in English. The idea is to get everybody speaking both languages, to become fluent, literate, and familiar with both cultures, beginning at the prekindergarten level.
"Why are we doing it? Money," says González. "Not sentiment. Employers are now paying more here in San Antonio if you have a second language, preferably Spanish, because of our proximity to Mexico. If you look at it from an economic standpoint, the potential growth of a city like San Antonio to compete globally depends greatly on trading with Mexico and Central and South America."
González says speaking Spanish used to be an issue of family togetherness, cultural pride. "I was typical of my generation," she says. "I learned Spanish so I could communicate with my abuelita -- with my grandma -- and my aunt, and my padrino, my godfather. Today, it's no longer solely that issue. Just getting a good job here often means you have to be bilingual. We'd gotten so many calls at the chamber from employers looking for [Spanish/English]-speaking employees. One of our largest banks here -- Frost [National] Bank -- is prepared to pay up to $10,000 more on starting salaries if you can speak Spanish and English. People are listening to that."
And unlike what she might expect in California, González has not hit a brick wall of an Anglo establishment. "It's been 95 percent positive. We have 13 chambers in our city: African-American chambers, the Anglo chamber, women's chamber‚ all of them are behind it. So we have had tremendous support."
Over half of San Antonio's population already speaks Spanish, but González says all school districts, including "very prominent rich, white school districts, as well as African-American school districts," have signed resolutions in support of the chamber. "Many of them have now formed parent committees, which are going to be addressing the need. As a chamber we can't tell schools how to do their work. What we are telling them is that 'the workforce and the employer need to [have these skills]. So, as the educators, you need to prepare these children....' "
There has been some negative reaction. "There have been letters to the editor, writers thinking this is a Mexican issue, that we're 'trying to take over,' " says González. "They say, 'What about those people who only speak Spanish? Why aren't we forcing them to speak English?' We are. We're saying it's a dual-language program. Always we insist that the first language must be English. That's a given. We are not promoting one over the other. It absolutely must be English, plus a second language."
González says she would expect more resistance to such a concept in California. "There's been so much opposition to 'services to immigrants' on your side of the country. Many people interpret this as an immigrant issue, and it's not. But it could be construed as that, especially after those propositions you've had about foreign languages and health services."
González's big test came when she presented the idea to the annual meeting of the National Association of Bilingual Education, held in San Antonio in February. "It turned out I was speaking to the choir. All these people know the importance of multi-language. What was revolutionary was the fact that a chamber of commerce was addressing the issue. For the last 50 years the issue has been addressed by educational entities, and there has been no tie to the business community. So now here I am up before 2500 people, and I'm telling them, in effect, 'It's the economy, stupid,' and they roared their applause. What we're saying is, to fuel the empowerment of our city -- the growth of our city on a global level -- we need to have students literate in English and Spanish, and even a third language, perhaps Japanese."
At San Antonio Independent School District, the city's second largest and one of its poorest, González says parents -- women and men -- were moved to tears while telling about their struggles. "They have been battling with their school district to try and find the funds to invest in dual-literacy programs," she says, "and all the passion they feel for this education for their children came pouring out.
"We went before their school board to introduce our initiative and to ask them to support it by signing a resolution. I decided that it would be more powerful to have the children and the parents and the administrators assist us in this presentation. Well! We were nothing compared to the children. African-American, Anglo, and Hispanic children stood up and told the trustees in two languages how they would be worth more, be more valuable to the community [by] speaking two languages, and how they wanted to talk to everybody in the world. They were wonderful. We found that same kind of passion at some of the wealthy, Anglo school districts. The Anglo parents are equally as passionate about their children learning Spanish."
Would it work in San Diego? Some charter schools and public schools do run voluntarily attended dual-language programs, but most schools have gone along with 1998's Proposition 227 and nixed even Spanish-to-English bilingual education.
"We would not support that in any way. Our school board is very solid on this being an English-speaking society," says Dr. Jeff Mulford, Valley Center Union School District superintendent. Ironically, Mulford's district has its own voluntary dual-language program that involves about 300 of its 2800 students. "There's no way our school board would agree to have a dual-language district. It's a conservative school board, in that sense."