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A reader writes: Nurturing cultural identity not school duty

November 22, 2001

One of the few pleasures I derive from the Imperial Valley Press is the occasional column by Thomas Elias. He more than offsets the unctuous blather of Cal Thomas, our own version of the Taliban. So it was quite by surprise was I taken in discovering Mr. Javier Lopez's attack on Mr. Elias in the Nov. 13 issue.

Mr. Lopez labels the columnist a racist on the flimsiest of evidence, namely, because Mr. Elias had the temerity to use the phrase "dragged down" to describe the effect limited-English proficient students had on overall test scores in California. While one may quibble about the choice of idiom involved, it is appropriate. No one could have predicted the massive and unexpected influx of LEP students who, through no fault of their own, did drag down scores, much like a boat or aircraft may experience in rough seas or turbulent skies.

Are these negative forces? Not necessarily — It depends on the circumstances or, more exactly, whose interpretation. But to apply the ugly stamp of "racist" on someone for making such an innocuous implication reveals the paranoia of the Calexico lawyer.


It is with this same broad brush Mr. Lopez and his ilk wish to paint anyone who doesn't agree with their peculiar standard as to what is or is not racist, even public institutions. Mr. Lopez claims that LEP (read: Latino) kids were routinely put in special ed or, as he crudely put it, "mentally retarded" classes.

This is a fallacy; if it did at all occur, this practice went the way of "curing" left-handed students of their sinister malady. Ultimately, however, millions of dollars have been poured into bilingual programs, with very mixed results. I urge Mr. Lopez, with his legal skills, to find who is to blame for that.

The most serious contention Mr. Lopez makes is his notion that it is the responsibility of the public schools to nourish the cultural identity of every student, whether they've been here 10 years or 10 minutes. Poppycock. I inculcate what I believe to be American values into my lessons. These values are based upon constitutional precepts such as justice, fair play and equality under the law. Inherent in these ideals are deeper concepts like social obligation, duty to country and self-accountability.

Some cultures do not share these values. Indeed, it comes as a shock to some when they realize at some point certain values of their native culture must be subordinated, even eliminated, the moment he or she chooses to become an American.

It is the classic dilemma of the immigrant. At any rate, as any public educator will tell you, we do more than pay mere lip service to the god of cultural diversity — it's in the California State Framework for Social Studies. So if a student needs to know who he or she really is, perhaps a chat with a parent, relative or other respected member of the community will suffice. Meanwhile, I have a job to do.

Finally, I find it most intriguing that on the same page with Mr. Lopez's letter is the latest installment of Mr. Elias' column, an exposition whose incisive examination reveals and clarified objectively the current state of Latino politics in California. His conclusion is essentially that Latinos, despite their numbers, must reach out to communities beyond their own if they're to achieve effective and lasting political power. That means making some hard choices that involve embracing other cultures at the expense of one's own. In short, the myopic and insecure views of those afraid to lose their "cultural identity" will, in turn, continue to prevent these same individuals from joining the mainstream of American society.

Instead of keeping his analysis a secret, Elias reveals to his readers, Latinos included, what the Hispanic community must do to attain power. It could even be said that he is actually promoting that aim but that, of course, depends on who's reading his words. All told, it is a lesson Mr. Lopez and his associates would do well to heed.

>> SCOTT FULLERTON is a teacher and coach at Southwest High School in El Centro.

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