For Latino parents looking to connect their kids with their culture, the fall comes with a bounty: Schools start up their bilingual immersion programs, Spanish-language playgroups start meeting again, and, especially in urban areas, private businesses offer everything from Mami y Yo language classes to Mexican folkloric dance and Latino cooking for kids. Especially for a second- or third-generation parent who’s spent a rough summer trying to prop up a reluctant kids’ Spanish skills, it can feel like a big relief.
But hold up. These days, any Latino parent that believes enrolling the kids in a program is as easy as filling out an application is in for a rude awakening. In the new global market, more and more upwardly mobile non-Hispanics are seeing the value in teaching their children Spanish at an early age. And that means the classrooms, not to mention after-school and enrichment programs, are getting pretty crowded.
Melissa Brock, a professor at the University of Texas-El Paso, started planning her own five-year-old daughter’s enrollment in a Spanish immersion school while she was still pregnant, even though she doesn’t speak the language herself.
“I read that by 2040, Hispanics would be the largest population in the United States,” she says. “I wanted to make sure my daughter was bilingual.”
With scientists recently placing peak language development at even before 12 months, many knowledgeable parents feel major pressure to get children into programs as early as possible.
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“Brain research tells us that the elementary years are a prime time to learn
languages,” says Christopher Pepper, a non-Latino San Francisco high-school teacher who was disappointed when his son didn’t win a slot in a competitive kindergarten immersion lottery. “He'll have to learn through
language classes or travel later in his life.”
Bilingual playgroups have also become a hot commodity. Verónica Braun, the founder of Hola!, an acclaimed Spanish-language playgroup based New York City, has seen her business grow dramatically, in diversity and demand, since she founded it in 2001.
“When we started the group, it was mostly local Latino children,” says Braun, formerly a dancer in Mexico City. “But I would say it’s about 70 percent American now.”
But is this outsider attention crowding—and sometimes pricing—Latino parents out? Some of them think so—and (privately, at least) they’re peeved.
Norma Rae Nekooi, 64, started out teaching ESL 26 years ago in a low-income area of Houston, TX, populated largely by Latino immigrants. She remembers skirmishes over language education which succeeded in phasing out ESL in favor of more transitional programs in several states. And she admits feeling a little miffed about 10 years ago when, in contrast, a new dual-immersion program that came to the upper-middle class-district of Clear Creek where she lives was accompanied by ample funding and happy hoopla.
“People always questioned bilingual programs when they were helping immigrants,” Nekooi says. “But all of the sudden there’s all of this excitement now that wealthier parents have found it beneficial. Where was the support when the Mexican kids needed help?”
A Mexican-American mom who lives nearby and has two children in the program at Clear Creek—but whose kids didn’t immediately get into the bilingual program—has even sharper words. “It was a little annoying to watch neighbors who have nothing but nasty words for their Spanish-speaking maids and gardeners [get a slot and] put their kids in the program. I never see them at the parent groups or meetings.”
Meanwhile, across the country, in New Haven, CT, a Mexican-born mom married to an American got some advice about getting their daughter into the city’s highly-rated bilingual immersion elementary school: Don’t tell the school the little girl is Latina. “The parents in the neighborhood basically said, ‘The school already has lots of Latinos, you’ll have a better shot this way,’” says the mom. “I get it, but it feels kind of weird considering how much time I spend insisting she remember her roots.”
Despite any underlying tensions, in the end, Nekooi and others agree that the increased mainstream interest in dual immersion, playgroups, and other Latino-oriented programs can only be a good thing. Why? Money, of course.
“Even though my children had to wait in a lottery, I’m so glad that there’s a huge interest in these programs,” says Ana Flores, a Salvadoran-American journalist and founder of Spanglishbaby.com, a blog, forum, and resource for bilingual parents. “In the past two years, I’ve seen schools in my community go from the brink of closure to highly competitive funding recipients. The more people are interested, the more programs will be out there.”
And whatever their background may be, parents who have been marooned on a waiting list or can’t find an affordable organized playgroup nearby always have other options, says Flores.
“You can immerse your children in the language at home,” says Flores. “Make sure they are exposed to Spanish at least 60 percent of the time, whether it be through speaking to them, watching TV, DVDs, or listening to the radio in Spanish, travelling to a Spanish-speaking country, or seeking day care in Spanish. Also, if there isn’t already a Spanish-speaking playgroup established in your area, you can always start one yourself with like-minded moms.”
Chances are, plenty of them got crowded out of those classes, too.
Michelle Herrera Mulligan is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn. She co-edited "Border-Line Personalities: A New Generation of Latinas Dish on Sex, Sass and Cultural Shifting" and blogs at michelleherreramulligan.com.