Stolen Education. Directed by Rudy Luna. San Francisco: Video Project, 2013. 67 minutes.
Teach Us All. Directed by Sonia Lowman. San Francisco: Video Project, 2017. 80 minutes.
In my essay “Language as a Social Problem: The Repression of Spanish in South Texas” I explain that Mexican Americans’ Spanish use is legally a “mutable characteristic.”1 Unlike race, ethnicity, gender, or religion, language can be modified or even obliterated. Specifically, if the majority of a population speaks a particular language (which historically has been the case in South Texas), policies based on Spanish use could legally be used to implement discriminatory policies. Language regulation could take place under the guise of transitioning children’s language from Spanish to English without being accountable for the prejudicial outcomes. The documentary Stolen Education provides evidence of how these policies were developed, implemented, and ultimately legally challenged in the court case of Hernandez et al., v. Driscoll Consolidated Independent School District (1957). The documentary features several of the eight children who in 1956 testified in English. They represented children all over Texas who were submitted to the widespread policy of segregating Mexican American children for the first three years of schooling in Spanish-only classrooms without language testing and regardless of English proficiency. Ironically, children were not permitted to speak Spanish in the designated “Spanish-only classrooms.” In effect, these children were in first grade for three years, obstructing their educational trajectory through the K-12 system. The delay decreased these children’s chances of attending higher education, many dropping out or graduating from high school at the age of 21.
The documentary is structured around the stories told by the adults who testified as children and who, at the time of the filming, were in their 60s. These are painful narratives of the Spanish language repression policies’ effectiveness in deterring students’ educational achievement. The participants recall the physical punishments teachers and school administrators imposed on them for speaking Spanish—from spanking to verbal policing whenever they dared to use the language of their homes and communities. Some of these children internalized this linguistic terrorism and refused to teach their own children Spanish for fear that they too would undergo the psychological and physical violence they suffered. This documentary is an excellent teaching tool to demonstrate the damage school policies based on discriminatory motivations cause, such as losing generations of students who would otherwise thrive in our educational system.
The documentary Teach Us All further illustrates how educational exclusion works historically and effectively prevents students of Color from advancing in society. Teach Us All begins with powerful 1957 footage of the Little Rock Nine—the Black high school students on whose bodies and souls integration took place in Little Rock, Arkansas. Two of the nine students are interviewed sixty years later. Highlighted in these interviews are the emotional and psychological costs these survivors still feel as a result of the harassment and hostility directed at them by white students and school staff. As Elizabeth Eckford, one of the Little Rock Nine, recalls, “the things that people said were shocking; the things that they did; the threats that they made, were all terrifying … the virulent hatred that occurred outside and inside the school.” She continued by saying, she was happy she was wearing sunglasses so the white mob gathered on the first day of classes at the entrance of Central High School could not see her cry. The film uses another two case studies of public schools, one in New York City and a second one in Los Angeles, to highlight the historical patterns in the use of segregation as a way to maintain white supremacy.
The two films can be used in conjunction to unravel the historical consistency in the origins and consequences of school segregation. Teach Us All offers an excellent curriculum plan that can be purchased for a donation of $11 to the Lowell Milken Center. Both also provide examples of student activism, enlightened teachers, and school staff, as well as researchers and scholars who are fighting these exclusionary forces. Ultimately, however, these two films highlight the costs of social change paid by public school students as they are placed in hostile school environments—in 1957 when English-speaking Mexican American children in South Texas testify in court and that same year as Black adolescents integrate Little Rock’s high school. It is important to remind audiences of the courageousness of these young people as they opened the doors of educational opportunity for later generations.
1 Aída Hurtado and Raúl Rodríguez, “Language as a Social Problem: The Repression of Spanish in South Texas,” Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development 10, no. 5 (1989): 401-19. For additional reading on Spanish language use in the United States see: Mary Bucholtz, Dolores Inés Casillas, and Jin Sook Lee, eds., Feeling It: Language, Race, and Affect in Latinx Youth Learning (New York: Routledge, 2018); Aída Hurtado, “The Social Psychology of Spanish/English Bilingualism in the United States," in Handbook of Advances in Culture and Psychology, Volume 6, eds. Michele J. Gelfand, Chi-yue Chiu, and Ying-yi Hong, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), 157-208.