Every two or three weeks, the children in the fifth-grade team of South Alamo school were assigned to new groups for language arts, social studies, or science assignments. This was done because the teachers wanted the children to know how to work cooperatively. Indeed, there was a great deal of cooperation among some of the children. As they worked they could be heard to argue, explain, question, gossip, sing, and complain. A notable aspect of this group talk was that a great deal of it was in Spanish. In particular, there was a group of eight children who, although they all spoke English fluently, maintained Spanish as the primary language of their social group.
In this article I discuss the functions of Spanish in the school lives of these children. I document this discussion through the experiences of five children, members of a friendship group that I followed.
As I came to know the children better, I realized that while Spanish served to unify them, it also served to keep others out. Looking more closely at their dynamics, other divisions between them and their peers became evident. How had these divisions come about? What role had the children themselves played in creating these divisions? Were these configurations the result of deliberate attempts by the adults in the school to segregate the children? Or were they more a result of an unconscious enactment of societal behaviors and beliefs that are held about language minority children? These questions are critical in examining the lived experiences of language minority children in public schools. Their perceptions and the choices they make for themselves must be understood in light of the complex and reflexive interactions between public school policy, the curriculum, their teachers, and the values and beliefs of their families. In this article, I will explore these questions to some extent, by examining the developmental needs of the children in light of the socio-historical and political context in which their schooling took place.
Language Minority Children and the Search for an Ethnic Identity
Adolescence, particularly at its earliest stages, is a critical time for children to begin the search for an identity (Santrock, 1993). For those who are minorities, this is an especially critical search because in essence, their task is to develop, at the very least, a bicultural identity - one for their interactions with white society and one for interactions with their own group (Sue and Sue, 1981; Gibbs, 1989; McAdoo and McAdoo, 1985).
Much of the work that has been done on minority children's identity development comes from the field of cognitive developmental psychology. Consequently, there has been a great deal of emphasis on the developmental stages children go through in their identity formation (Phinney and Rotheram, 1987b). In particular, African American children's experiences have often been used as the basis for studying and theorizing about other minority children (Phinney and Rotheram, 1987b; Hatcher and Troyna, 1993; Sue and Sue, 1981). Generally, most of these models start with children showing little or no self awareness of ethnicity or race, at ages two or three, then moving to awareness and the beginnings of racial attitudes, at about four or five, to own group preference at about eight, and then to attitude crystallization at about age 10 (Ramsey, 1987; Vaughn, 1987; Katz, 1987; Aboud, 1987).
Later, in adolescence (and adulthood) many minority students may follow Cross' model of Black racial identity development (Tatum, 1992; Sue and Sue, 1981; McAdoo and McAdoo, 1985). These stages include: pre-encounter, where the person attempts to assimilate because of the unconscious internalization of stereotypes from mainstream society; encounter, often brought on by an experience that forces the individual to reassess her ability to assimilate in a racist society; immersion/emersion, where the person immerses herself in her own culture, while turning away from whites; and internalization, where the individual has achieved a healthy sense of racial or ethnic identity and can now transcend racial and ethnic boundaries (in Tatum, 1992; Sue and Sue, 1981). …