Bilingual Education and Identity Debates in New Mexico: Constructing and Contesting Nationalism and Ethnicity

Article excerpt

On August 27, 1998, in a lecture hall located at the University of New Mexico, Linda Chavez, president of the Center for Equal Opportunity (CEO), a politically conservative organization supportive of the English-only movement, and self-identified nuevomexicana, declared to an auditorium filled with educators and parents that she was very glad finally to come home. Her homecoming, however, rather than being a joyous occasion was accompanied by very tense demonstrations of disapproval. As a local Hispana, (1) Linda Chavez came home to defend the CEO's role in a lawsuit against the Albuquerque Public Schools' (APS) bilingual education program. She came home to explain what in the eyes of many of her opponents is the most atrocious ethnic sin--"selling out." Demonstrators who also attended the lecture directly and publicly denounced Linda Chavez and her supporters as the ultimate transgressors of Hispano identity. How can a self-identified Hispana dedicate her life to defending a position that seems to attack this identity at its core? How can a self-proclaimed ethnic also be a cultural sellout?

My initial reaction to Chavez was to condemn her for her accommodationist proposals. However, careful consideration of her position, particularly in the context of ethnic relations in New Mexico, reveals that behind this assimilationist stance lies a strategy that also serves to challenge and resist the lower status accorded to Latinos in the United States. This analysis of Linda Chavez's proposal will allow us to begin to understand the commonalties that lie behind the issues that on the surface divide Hispano proponents and opponents of bilingual education in New Mexico. In this paper, I will highlight the local workings of national ideologies in the construction of oppositional identifies by indicating their connection with the national debate on bilingual education. Both sides of this debate share a similar goal of survival that attempts to overcome the gaze of Anglo domination. I suggest that in this case, the cleavages between these two groups stem from the terms and strategies used to achieve this objective. I propose that a careful exploration of this local bilingual education dilemma can help us understand how ethno-national boundaries are negotiated through public ethnic performances. I thus suggest that in this case the players involved, despite their differences, all contest the terms of national inclusion and exclusion used in the ethnic representations of what Southwestern scholars have termed as the tri-ethnic myth. The marking by proponents of bilingual education, and unmarking by opponents of bilingual education, of Hispano identity constitute in both cases a resistant as well as an accommodationist strategy in reaction to the exclusive terms of American nationalism and local Anglo domination.


Before moving on to an analysis of the events that took place in August 1998, let me take a brief yet important detour to summarize the struggles and policies that helped shape the arguments leading to the lawsuit. A recent report sponsored by New Mexico Senator Jeff Bingaman revealed that Hispanic students are three times more likely than Anglos to drop out of school. The same study concluded that currently Hispanics have the highest dropout rate of all ethnic minorities and pointed out that this pattern is locally replicated in APS (Franck n.d.). During the 1996-97 school year, 11.9 percent of Hispanic students in APS dropped out in comparison to 8.21 percent of Anglo students. Nationally and locally the educational future of Latino students continues to look very dismal to say the least. The reversal of such a bleak future constitutes an important battle for parents, educators, grassroots organizers, and educational theorists and researchers who support bilingual education programs.

The implementation of bilingual education can be linked to wider movements that tried to achieve educational desegregation and equal opportunity during the civil rights era. …