News and views from the award-winning author of the novels The Skinny Years, America Libre, House Divided and Pancho Land

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Well-meaning teacher fosters stereotypes

A teacher at a central Ohio high school has raised a furor over a controversial lesson she assigned to her Spanish language class. According to the Associated Press, Erica Vieyra asked her students to “assume make-believe Latino identities, research life in their home countries and develop plans to get into the United States.” As part of the lesson, Ms. Vieyra thwarted the students’ legal residency applications, forcing them to seek illegal ways to enter the country. Criticized by conservatives and praised by progressives, Ms. Vieyra told reporters “she's responsible for not only teaching the Spanish language but also making sure students learn about the perspectives of Spanish-speaking cultures.”

While I believe Ms. Vieyra’s intentions are worthy, there is a corrosive lesson being taught here.

Yes, her students will gain a deeper understanding of the powerful forces driving undocumented immigrants to the United States—and the mountain of USCIS red tape they face. But there’s an underlying assumption in her lesson that’s hard to miss: Spanish is the language of illegal aliens.

By today’s best estimates, there are 12 million undocumented aliens in the United States. It’s seldom pointed out that not all of them are from Spanish-speaking countries. At the same time, the number of U.S. Hispanics has topped 40 million—most of whom are native-born. So it’s evident the great majority of Latinos are not illegal aliens. The lesson Ms. Vieyra’s students are learning in their Spanish language class belies this fact.

I realize this is not Ms. Vieyra’s intent. However, like so many other well-meaning people, Ms. Vieyra reveals an unconscious misconception. At the root of this bias is the inherent flaw of the Hispanic identity, a confusing quasi-racial classification that exists only within the borders of the United States.

Australia, Canada, Great Britain, New Zealand, and South Africa share English as a common language. No educator, reporter, or politician would dream of lumping U.S. immigrants from these diverse English-speaking countries into a “Britannic” ethnic group. Yet people with origins from Spanish-speaking nations are routinely treated as a homogenous bloc in the media, academia, and political circles. Why?

Part of the answer lies in well-intentioned people like Ms. Vieyra. This nation has yet to see past its distorted stereotypes of people with Spanish surnames. Sadly, the lesson Ms. Vieyra is teaching is only clouding the picture.

Raul Ramos y Sanchez