Original URL:  http://www.denverpost.com/Stories/0,1413,36%257E25570%257E972050,00.html

Bilingual debate divides precinct
Denver Post Columnist
November 06, 2002

 By Tina Griego

The last time Precinct 227 set up shop in the Castro Elementary School gym, precisely 36 people voted. It was not, in the history of elections, a particularly proud day. Shameful would be a better word. Boring, another.

Sleepy poll workers sat on metal folding chairs beneath fluorescent lights, "I voted" stickers languishing before them, voting booths gaping. Waiting.

"It was just awful," poll worker Virginia Gonzales said on Tuesday. This time, boy, it's different from the August primary, she said. By 9:50 a.m., with nine hours to go, 28 people had voted in the southwest Denver school. The poll workers, a trio of cheerful women, couldn't say what was bringing people out and, of course, they demurred; it really wouldn't be professional to speculate.

It wasn't hard to figure out. Not in this school, where one-third of the 640 students speak more Spanish than English. Not in this neighborhood of Mexican-born newcomers, of taquerias and quincinieras, where 82-year-old Frank Edwards, "World War II veteran" embroidered on his baseball cap, has long been a minority.

"When people were settling this country, they lived in their own districts and spoke their own language, but in school we taught English and those people learned it," he said. "It would be nice if they learned our language. I don't see why I should learn theirs."

Ours-theirs. Us-them. Pretty standard language at a precinct in a school in the cross hairs of Amendment 31.

To sharply restrict bilingual education or not. That was the ballot question. For many, it was not the issue. Never was.

In a world where language is never simply about nouns and verbs, in a time when saying, "Mi nombre es Juan," instead of, "My name is John," is seen as a refusal to join in, Amendment 31 skimmed some very deep water.

Oh, they can speak Spanish, several voters said, just not in our schools, not in our stores, not in our streets. This is the United States. "United," they were saying, "get it?" Common tongue. Common society. Common good.

"They are here now," said voter Sadie Sanchez Mestas. "It's only right they should learn our ways of communication. They can have their culture at home, but they should learn what they got to learn at school. English."

Which, of course, they will do, are doing now, said the people who voted against the amendment. Naturally, students need to speak English, but, they said, parents need choice and students a curriculum designed around them, and what in the world is wrong with speaking multiple languages?

"My kids are bilingual; that's our culture, that's our heritage and I don't want them to lose that," said Lupe Pastrana, 32 and voting for the first time because of Amendment 31. "They can understand two different ways of thinking, and I think that's valuable."

While the ballot-box battle played out down the hall, 22 Spanish-speaking first-graders read aloud in Jennifer Buck's class. The words float through the room: Como, abuelita, pajaro.

"People say, 'This is America, speak English,"' said Buck, 24, a second-year teacher who studied Spanish for 10 years. "It's not just a question of speaking English. They have to read, write, do math."

Students who master the basics in their native languages will learn better down the road, she believes. "My own father thinks completely opposite than I do. But I know I'm right."

At the school's front entrance, a crepe-paper American flag has been constructed on the bulletin board.

"It's the grand old flag," the board reads. "We are united."

Tina Griego writes Monday and Wednesday. Phone: 303-820-1698. E-mail: tgriego@denverpost.com .



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