Conociendo el rio: Navigating the borderlands of language
Dagoberto Eli Ramirez
             “¡No se vayan a ir p’al rio!” are some of the first words I think about when I reflect on my childhood experiences en Roma, Conda’o Estrella, Texas, where I was born, raised, and grew up as a pre-teen, set free to roam wildly at will on the 1960’s caliche “streets” while darting in-and-out of old abandoned buildings as we played in what all perceived to be a safe environment in the town of less than 2,000 population.  As a 7-year-old in 1963, I attended Florence J. Scott Elementary school in Roma, where I soon learned that speaking the language that my grandmother Ma’Gelina, my mother, my dad, my brother Vittorio, and all my relatives and neighborhood kids and adults in my young life spoke – namely Spanish – would get me spanked, three times. Once at school, by Ms. Mabel Sanchez, my first grade teacher who was the typical Anglo school “marm” who was an angry woman whom I feared tremendously; the second time at home by my mom who was determined that we would learn English at school, come hell or high water; and, the third was at my dad’s barber shop. I not only learned to learn English, but I learned it quickly and quite well, and I began to realize that English earned privilege. I soon gravitated towards the English speaking side of my family, the Salinases, my cousins on my mom’s side. That’s where the privilege lay.

Jose Luis Saldivar
            Both of my parents were born and raised in the Valley.  They attended school during the fifties, sixties and seventies and both were discouraged from speaking Spanish in school.  My mother tells me that students who spoke Spanish could not participate in recess and my father says the Spanish speakers were tracked into a different set of courses, taught by different teachers.  The kids who spoke English attended classes taught by Anglo teachers while the Spanish speakers attended classes with Mexican-American speakers.  He said the classes might have been the same but the sense among the students was, the Anglo teachers were the better teachers.
            My parents saw their classmates get punished for speaking Spanish and they wanted me to have a different set of experiences.  My father remembers not wanting to get spanked at school because then he had a second spanking waiting for him at home.  English, he says, was the public language while Spanish was the private language of the home.
            I too grew up in the Valley, and even though I went to school in the eighties and nineties, my parents were fearful of me being punished for speaking Spanish, so they spoke to me entirely in English.  They believed that if I spoke English and English only, then perhaps I would have a successful educational experience they would never have to worry about me not having the same opportunities as other students to excel.  English became much more than the public language; it was now the language of privilege and opportunity.
            The Salinases were city people while los Ramirezes were gente del rancho, from Fronton, a small ranching community a few miles southwest of Roma. Los Ramirezes were Spanish strong while the Salinases were English dominant. Both families were bilingual, and could switch as needed, but the preference was obvious and natural. Between first and seventh grade, I continued to see the benefits of being Salinas, learning to play every board game imaginable with my Salinas cousins, and always speaking in English when we hung around and played.
            Several important life-altering events occurred around the age 13 – my hormones kicked in and all of a sudden I was very interested in girls and sexual matters; our junior high school had sports, clubs, and other organizations; and, we moved to Falcon Village fifteen miles west of Roma because my father had been offered a full-time position as a “junior mechanic” at the Falcon Power Plant on the eastern edge of the Falcon Lake Reservoir. All three things – hormones, sports, and Falcon – changed my life completely, but it was the move to Falcon Village in 1969 that ensured that between age 13 and 25, my formative years, English would move from my language of play with the Salinases to my language of power and influence in all I did.

            I never really spoke Spanish and yet Spanish had always been a part of my life.  It was spoken by my grandmother who looked after me every day after school, but because of my limited Spanish and her limited English, the most common thing my grandmother asked me was, “¿tienes hambre?” So instead of rich conversations about school or life, my linguistic relationship with my grandmother was framed around food and that was fine for the tummy of a growing boy but for the longest time I never knew who my grandmother was or where she came from.  It was as if she held this secret life and the key to unlocking it was the Spanish language.
            Spanish was also spoken among my friends when they shared jokes and told stories, but for the most part I often felt left out as I missed the punchline or couldn’t understand what was being said, and instead would take my cue from everyone else’s laughter. Spanish was everywhere but because of my parent’s experiences I could never fully engage with it. 
            The schools I attended as a child looked very different from those of my parents’.  Schools were now led by Mexican American administrators and school board members and the Mexican-American teachers easily outnumbered the Anglo teachers.  I never saw any physical abuse due to language but I observed everyday reminders of the differences and opportunities afforded to those who spoke English and those who were Spanish dominant.  These reminders included the portable buildings located on the periphery of the elementary and middle school campuses.  These portable buildings housed recent immigrants and the majority of the Spanish speakers.  There was a difference in the expectations held of these students and resources afforded them.  And even the few Anglo teachers were often more respected and viewed as the better teachers.  So, while I never experienced or witnessed physical abuse, I saw the difference in the way the school treated English speakers versus Spanish speakers and in how students viewed which teachers were better.  There was a divide, and the school reinforced it in formal and informal policy.  
            I graduated from Roma High School in May 1975 and headed into Oklahoma on a four-year ROTC scholarship to become a University of Oklahoma Sooner. Opportunities for Spanish speaking for me were between limited and non-existent. From 1975 to 1979, all my on-campus dorm mates and off-campus roommates were monolingual English-speakers, who were aware I spoke fluent Spanish when I went home each summer, or when I made an expensive landline long-distance phone call to talk briefly with Mom and Dad. My Spanish-speaking capability became an exotic quality about me in the eyes of my Oklahoma friends, and they treated me as, of course, the other. But I played it, as best I could, to my advantage. Because I could do the English thing so well without any apparent strong accent, they saw me as a person with two strong first languages. I had become both Spanish and English dominant. Some of my Oklahoma friends saw that trait in me as somewhat of an enigma. “How can this Mexican read and write so well in English, as well as probably Spanish, and he’s got no discernible accent or weakness in the English language?”
            My parent’s hopes were realized when upon graduating from Edcouch-Elsa High School in 1997, I earned admission to Stanford University.  If they had any doubts about how they encouraged or discouraged my language, my admission and subsequent enrollment erased those doubts.  Yet, along the way I lost something: my heritage, my culture and my language.  How, you might ask, does one lose something they never had? 
            In college, I enrolled in two years of Spanish because I had never taken a Spanish course while in high school.  In high school I was advised to take German.  I was told German would give me honors credit whereas Spanish would not.  At Stanford, in addition to the two years of Spanish, I also took courses in Mexican-American history and culture and simultaneously became a student and expert of Valley life and at the same time tried to find something that had been taken from me just as “they” tried taking it away from Anzaldua.  The only difference was, no one physically tried to “tame my tongue,” instead the theft of my language came at the hands of years of institutionalized racism and discrimination against the Spanish language and the people who spoke it.  My parents, unknowingly became complicit in the loss of my language, thinking they were doing what was best for me.

            Dissatisfied with my college years by 1979, I abruptly left school and headed to Mexico City, El Distrito Federal, for a year of teaching English with a group of friends at private companies to mid-management level Mexican nationals who were dying to learn English, for they saw it as a ticket out of their struggling country. Trabajadores at Banca Cremi, Telefonos de Mexico, Ford, Texaco, and other smaller private companies would either come to work an hour early or stay an hour after work to attend classes where they learned or improved their English speaking and writing abilities. It was during that time while speaking much Spanish in Mexico City all day long, except when I was teaching English, that I reconnected to a Spanish-as-the-first-or-primary-language experience – the first time in twenty years.
            I came back to Roma with a Distrito Federal Spanish accent. My Roma friends laughed and told me, “¡Oyes, pareces que acabas de llegar de las montañas!” And, actually I had come off the mountains in Mexico City! I was back in familiar territory, in a Spanish and English environment. I was in my mid-twenties by then, with over 100 hours of college, open to a job I might take. A position at Ringgold Junior High School in neighboring Rio Grande City teaching mathematics opened up in the summer of 1982, and the State of Texas allowed me to take it, granting me an emergency certificate for three years. I was now going to work at the same school district that my grandmother, Evangelina Garza Salinas, attended at age 12 where she was ridiculed into quitting school for not being able to speak English and for being placed with, younger 9 year olds. And what was my primary mission at that school district? Not to teach math. It was to promote English at all costs, shunning those who spoke Spanish, castigating them for it. And here I had just come from Mexico City, where I had lived a Spanish experience for a year, and I still did not understand that the language of the place is defined by a rich, culturally relevant history of that place. And as I was enforcing the no Spanish edict at Ringgold Jr. High, I was now writing and singing songs with my Salinas cousins, and some of them were in Spanish!

            I graduated from Stanford University with two degrees: my Bachelor’s in Chicana/o Studies and my Masters in the Social Sciences of Education. My critics may shout that I was successful because of my parent’s efforts to keep me from speaking Spanish.  They might say that my command of the English language is what carried me thru and ensured my academic success.  I would argue that what ensured my success was constant support from family, friends and mentors; reassurance that I would be a successful student and resources.  I would also argue that it was my dogged desire and persistence to find what was lost that guided me every day while I was at Stanford.  I wanted to, no, needed to understand why I didn’t speak MY language.  Why didn’t my parents allow me to speak and why did the school reinforce their behavior.  I also made a promise to myself that I would not be complicit in preventing others from using their native tongue.  This would prove to be more difficult than expected.

            Three years later I went on to become a middle school teacher in La Joya after getting certified for life in English and History, where I again forced students to leave their Spanish outside the classroom door. I became a trainer with the district, and eventually I ended up at the regional service center as an educational specialist in Social Studies. I spent my last 12 of my total 30 years in public schools as a Social Studies Coordinator at La Joya ISD, providing support to social studies teachers district-wide, and always, always in English and certainly not in Spanish. I basically spent 30 years as a professional language shunner and oppressor, forcing students to ignore their home language and culture in order to supposedly focus on learning state-tested English material. By the end of those 30 years in 2012, I was beginning to realize that all the research showed that a person’s first language ought to be used as a springboard to learning both a second language and new and difficult content. But I learned that too late to change what I did in that professional life.

            Upon my return to the Valley, I took a position as a lecturer at the University of Texas-Pan American (UTPA) where I taught a course in the College of Education.  For two years I taught pre-service teachers about multicultural education, always reminding them of their power to control and dictate what they taught and how they taught.  “Once the door is closed, you can do whatever you want to do,” is what I would remind them.  I encouraged them to support their second language learners and helped many of them deal with some of the trauma they encountered as students moving through the educational pipeline.  When the opportunity to work with first year students arose, I jumped.  I was excited to be a part of a new course and a new initiative.  The Learning Framework course was developed to address first year student retention.  When the course was developed almost half of all first year students would not return for their second year and I wanted to be at the forefront of addressing retention. 

            After retiring from the public school system in Texas in 2012, I finished my doctoral degree in Educational Leadership at the University of Texas-Pan American focusing my research on the implementation of a state policy focused on implementing a culturally relevant curriculum. By then I was in full self-questioning mode of what my focus had been in my work in public schools, with not validating and celebrating the Spanish language in schools. When I was hired at The University of Texas-Pan American in the Fall 2014 semester to teach UNIV 1301 Learning Framework, I came full circle, again. Because in my position as the UNIV 1301 lecturer I was also the students’ academic advisor of record, I soon realized that building relationships with my students was necessary. And that is when I understood that indeed it was going to be language and culture that was going to open the doors for those relationships. Most of my students – between and 85% and 95% any given semester – are fully bilingual and a good portion of them are soundly biliterate as well. With the English-only-yoke taken off of me when I left the public school system, I began to feel quite comfortable using and even promoting the use of Spanish when appropriate in class and certainly in my office during advisement sessions. When the University of Texas-Pan American merged with the University of Texas Brownsville in 2015 to become the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, one of the new school’s founding principles was the vision that it sought to become a bilingual, bicultural, and biliterate institution. That founding principle fueled the establishment of the B3 – Bilingual, Bicultural, Biliterate – Institute whose mission it is to implement a plan towards becoming that bilingual, bicultural, and biliterate institution. Through that initiative, we found a perfect opportunity to reshape our UNIV 1301 course to offer it in a pilot bilingual format.

            For the first few years of teaching the course, I struggled to engage the students and found it difficult to connect with many of them.  I became so focused on teaching the students the text: a standard first year experience text that covered topics like learning theories, motivation, and goal setting.  The information was valuable but felt removed from my students’ realities.  In 2006, while still teaching a full course load, I returned to school to work on my Ph.D.  It was while writing my dissertation that I revisited my educational experiences and the importance of rediscovering my language and culture.  It was through intense self-reflection and critical analysis that I realized that as I was teaching my students how to be successful university students, I was denying their language and cultural.  It was no wonder they were not connecting to the material beyond a superficial level. I immediately changed my teaching and the materials I was using in class and made my students’ realities; their language and their culture, the center of my course. The change proved worthwhile and the level of engagement and participation grew.  It was as if I was teaching a different course; one that respected and valued that which they held most sacred.
            The phrase “¡No se vayan a ir p’al rio!” to this day still resonates with me, as it contains the words in a language that I love and respect and prefer, and I take that admonition to be one that both alerted us to be safe and pointed at that which has become such a target of issues – el rio, the Rio Grande River. I grew up next to the river, and yes we did play along the river, and we certainly knew we became who we became because of the river. In many ways, those of us who promote and celebrate the translanguaging of Spanish and English in our jobs and in our lives because we live around this river, we know that this translanguaging of Spanish and English is its own river.
Jose Luis Saldivar is a lecturer in the Learning Framework Program at UTRGV, where he has helped develop bilingual classes. Saldivar is originally from Elsa, Texas, and believes in the power of story.
Dagoberto Eli Ramirez teaches Learning Framework, Mexican American Studies, and Development of Bilingualism classes at UTRGV. Ramirez creates a gracious space in his classroom to foster relationship-building.

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