March 4, 2023

Bilingual education advocates push for an increased focus, opportunities

By Margaret O’Hara, The Santa Fe New Mexican

Students from José Eduardo Cervantes’ third-grade class at Bernalillo Elementary School are in agreement: It’s good to be bilingual.

“You can speak two languages, and you can translate to other people that don’t know a language,” said Luis Martinez.

“You can be a bilingual teacher and help other kids learn other languages,” added Jared Marquez Gonzalez.

Not only is it helpful to speak more than one language, the third-graders said, New Mexico students should have access to bilingual education. 

“Before we had bilingual education, if you spoke Spanish, you’d get punished. We should have the right to be bilingual,” said Rubi Beltrán Ruiz.

Education officials, advocacy organizations, performers, teachers and students — including Cervantes’ class — flooded the Capitol  Rotunda Friday afternoon to celebrate New Mexico’s Bilingual Multicultural Education Act, which turns 50 this legislative session.

In languages ranging from English to Zuni, Navajo to Spanish, advocates presented solutions to fortify access to bilingual education in New Mexico for the next half-century, including a joint memorial currently before legislators. 

In 1973, the Legislature had an inspired idea, said Elisabeth Valenzuela, executive director of the New Mexico Association for Bilingual Education: For the first time, the state’s lawmakers allocated funding for multilingual, culturally responsive education programs in a law called the Bilingual Multicultural Education Act.

The historic legislation — the first of its kind in the United States — acknowledged the many cultural histories and traditions present in the state, Valenzuela said, while providing teachers with the resources necessary to teach in multiple languages. 

“That appropriation, to this day, is why we continue to receive funding for bilingual, multicultural education programs in New Mexico,” Valenzuela said.

Although Friday’s celebration at the Capitol was, in part, intended to honor the 50th anniversary of the Bilingual Multicultural Education Act, Valenzuela readily admits there’s still more to be done to ensure future generations have access to high-quality bilingual and multicultural programs. 

That’s why she and other advocates have pushed for the passage of House Memorial 3 this legislative session.

Among other resolutions, the memorial would require the state Public Education Department to develop and select curricula through a bilingual lens and with input from local communities and language experts; provide proper training and professional development for bilingual teachers and all school administrators; and assess whether all demands in the original Bilingual Multicultural Education Act are being met.

The memorial also would encourage colleges and universities to develop programs specifically for bilingual teachers and request Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham proclaim 2023 “The Year of Bilingual Multicultural Education.” 

After unanimously passing the House in February, the memorial secured a unanimous “do pass” recommendation from the Senate Education Committee Friday morning. Education organizations and tribal officials voiced their support for the memorial before the committee, citing its capacity to celebrate students for learning culturally-relevant languages. 

Rick Vigil, former governor of Tesuque Pueblo, called New Mexico’s commitment to bilingual, multicultural education “a symbol” honoring Native students for their proficiency in Indigenous languages. 

“It’s an honor for me to be in front of you this morning in support of this bill, a bill that would bring pride to many people and pride to our state. … With all due respect, we request that you vote in favor of this bill,” Steve Siañez, government relations director for the New Mexico branch of the National Education Association, said in English and Spanish to the committee. 

For many supporting the memorial, it’s a sort of roadmap for the future of bilingual education in New Mexico — one that resolves to figure out where the state has failed to adhere to the Bilingual Multicultural Education Act and how it can do better. 

“I think that’s the purpose of this memorial as you go through the details of it: where we’ve been, where we want to go and where we want to be 50 years from now,” said former state Rep. Rick Miera, who helped present the memorial before the Senate Education Committee. 

For Valenzuela, there are a few urgent ways the state can improve bilingual education. 

First, she said the state should commit to ensuring children have the opportunity for immersion in a second language from the earliest age possible. Right now, the Bilingual Multicultural Education Act only covers grades kindergarten through 12 — not preschool or pre-K-age children. As a result, Valenzuela said there is limited state funding available for bilingual early childhood education programs, aside from a few exemplary programs in Jemez and Santo Domingo pueblos. 

Second, bilingual and multicultural programs must allow communities to decide how best to implement bilingual curricula, Valenzuela said. This applies to Indigenous languages — many of which were endangered by colonization — but also to local vernaculars of Spanish, developed in and unique to New Mexico for nearly 500 years. 

Some programs already incorporate community perspectives into their bilingual multicultural programs, she said; they use textbooks, for instance, created by local elders with references to nearby geography and location-specific terminology. 

Reliance on community input in bilingual education is already present in the Bilingual Multicultural Education Act — it just hasn’t been fully implemented yet, Valenzuela said.

Cervantes, who brought his class of third-graders to the Roundhouse in support of Bilingual Day, agreed, asking legislators for “not just more support, but the right support” for bilingual education programs informed by community leadership. 

Although he wants bilingual programs to grow, Cervantes said they remain under-resourced. Rather than adding additional hours to the school year — a proposal also before the Legislature this session — he recommended more and better opportunities for students to learn about multiple languages and cultures, including partnerships with community organizations and evaluation systems that are more reflective of students cultural and linguistic circumstances. 

“I think [legislators] need to listen to parents, listen to teachers,” he said. “We need to put things in place that have a profound impact on our students’ bilingual experience.”