National Writing Project

Subtraction Sometimes Means Taking Back—Not Taking Away

By: Dolores S. Perez
Date: November 21, 2008

Summary: In her speech at the 2008 NWP Annual Meeting General Session, Sabal Palms Writing Project teacher-consultant Dolores Perez describes the obstacles to learning and expressing herself in Spanish growing up—and how reclaiming the language led her to the work she now focuses on with the NWP.


Dolores Perez speaks at 2008 NWP Annual Meeting.

I am here to share with you how much the writing project has had an impact on my professional and personal life.

Before I get to that, I’m going to tell you a little story.

I was born and educated in Brownsville, Texas. Brownsville is located at the southernmost tip of Texas, right on the border with Mexico.

In Brownsville, I grew up in a large family of eight, where our commitments to family, church and education all carried equal weight. I could always avoid house chores if I showed my parents that I was focused on school.

On the weekends, I indulged in a game or two of the Mexican version of Bingo called “Loteria” with my Grandma Chala. I also enjoyed playing a dreidel-like game with my brothers called “Todos Ponen” where I placed bets with matchsticks, toothpicks or sometimes, a handful of pennies.

During the rare cold snaps, my mom had warm toast and sweet rice pudding with cinnamon ready for us before we headed out to school.

Now and then (and I still do) I danced occasional Mexican polkas with my father at weddings and quinceaňeras, a dance celebrating the rights of passage for fifteen-year-olds.

English Only

Now, you might assume that my first language was Spanish, but it was not.

Although I spoke a combination of both English and Spanish prior to entering school, my primary language from age six on, was not only English—but English only!

That’s what society and the school system in those days thought was best for children like me, throughout the nation and the Southwest.

I did not realize that I was becoming a stranger in my own brown skin, and that the essence of all that was me was at risk of melting away.

I didn’t have to suffer the punishments for speaking Spanish in school like generations before me did, because I knew that the use of Spanish in the classroom and on the playground was considered taboo.

So I spoke only English, all the time. The only memory I have of practicing Spanish was in third grade where I memorized a poem from “Cri-Cri,” and that was it. You see, it was the 1960s. Bilingual education was still in a gestation period, and it would remain like that for many years.

Each time I picked up one of my basal readers, there were no stories for me to read about girls like myself. I read about Star and her new pony, Star sledding down a snowy hill, and Star in her new wading pool.

I’ll tell you now that there are no snowy hills in Brownsville, and the closest thing I had to a swimming pool was being dowsed by my brothers with a “manguera,” or garden hose in our backyard, going crabbing at Puente de Los Lobos, or the rare visit to Boca Chica Beach.

Although my experiences on the border were unique in themselves, they were not reflected back to me in the books I read.

All this time, I did not realize that I was becoming a stranger in my own brown skin, and that the essence of all that was me was at risk of melting away.

I was becoming a product of that famous melting pot, but I was too young to know it at the time.

By high school and college, it became very, very clear to me: I struggled (and I mean struggled) in my Spanish “foreign language” classes. Elders in my family and community made fun of me. My Spanish teacher in college once told me that if I couldn’t explain myself properly, I should just sit there quietly and listen. Needless to say, he held one-way conversations and lectures from then on, and I never took another Spanish class again.

I belonged neither here nor there.

Linguistically Paralyzed

Once I started teaching, I felt emotionally and linguistically paralyzed whenever I had to translate academic vocabulary in class, talk to people in my community, or hold the dreaded parent conference.

I clearly remember the day early on in my career when I met with a parent to discuss the problems her son was having in my math class. With my paraprofessional translator gone for the day, it took only a minute or two for the façade to crumble.

Buenos dias,” I said. “Tome un asiento, por favor.” When I tried to explain that her son was having trouble subtracting, I basically told her in a muddled Spanish that her son was taking things from my room. Worst than that, I drove the point home by using a raking motion to describe his misconceptions with subtraction.

Well, that didn’t help at all. Upon seeing her reaction of horror and dismay, I had no choice but to reach for the heavy Velasquez Spanish-English dictionary on the shelf, and reach for some snap cubes to demonstrate the process of subtraction to her.

That day, I drove home feeling cheated, defeated, and depleted. As humiliating an experience as that was, I was thankful for the lesson. I admitted to myself that the only way I was going to “survive” in my own community, was to take back the heritage language that (just like subtraction), was once taken away from me.

Taking Back My Heritage

So how did I do it? I read books simultaneously in English and Spanish. Bless Me, Ultima and Bendiceme Ultima still sit side by side on my bookshelf at home. I listened to Spanish news and telenovelas, and I learned the lyrics to popular songs. At the risk of being ridiculed, I asked—and still ask—for translations whenever possible.

Gradually, the rolling r’s emerged from dormancy and I reached a level of bilingualism that to this day, although far from perfect,still works for me.

So fast-forward to 2002. I am sitting in the middle of the summer institute. We had a visiting linguistics professor come in and lead a discussion on language identity and second-language acquisition. It didn’t take long for the room to become quickly divided—some for dual language, others not.

When one teacher-consultant asked him if he thought we should return to all-English instruction in schools, and thus get rid of regional accents altogether, I finally heard the answer I had been waiting to hear from another professional in education: “I think we should learn as many accents as possible!”

That was the catalyst that led me to the work I now focus on with the NWP.

Working with the NWP

My work with the special-focus groups has allowed me the unique opportunity to heighten my knowledge of language identity, read up on the latest research, and share professional readings produced by NWP teacher-consultants like myself.

Each time I attend annual meetings like this one, I meet teachers who each day try to find ways to reach out to non-native speakers of English. The practitioners and researchers out in the field make the best experts of all.

I have not only learned about access, relevance, and diversity, I have lived it through the National Writing Project.

So as a teacher, how do I transfer this knowledge to my classroom?

Well, when there were once zero multicultural books in our local libraries, there are now tens and tens (no, I did not mean to say tons and tons). There are tens and tens of multicultural books in circulation today. We are still not where we need to be, but we’re getting there.

So I tell my students my own stories about growing up in a large Mexican American family, and I require them to tell their own. With that, I am able to offer my students a mirror into their own lives, rather than just a window into others’.

Now, I may or may not ever reach the level of fluency I wish I had in either language. I guess this means that I will always be an English language learner and a Spanish language learner as well.

Whether our students are first, second, or third generation English language learners, they come to the United States from every corner of the world looking for the same opportunities that we want for our own children.

You know what? I can navigate my way through both worlds now, separated only by a physical border and the Rio Grande River.

I am now here and there!

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