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American schools mirror upheavals in world politics

By Marshall IngwersonStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 13, 1988



Miami

War in Nicaragua means new faces in Miami classrooms. As teachers look at their new foreign students, they are seeing a disproportionate number of Nicaraguan boys whose mothers feared they would be conscripted into the Sandinista military.

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Young Nicaraguans now dominate a growing tide of immigrant students into the embrace of Miami schools. More than 3,000 Nicaraguan children officially recognized as refugees arrived last year. The pace appears to have quickened, if anything, over the summer.

As they begin the new year, American schools are reflecting politics and economics the world over. In Los Angeles, for instance, school officials see ethnic unrest in the Soviet Union, coupled with relaxed Soviet emigration policies, mirrored in thousands of new Armenian families. War in the Persian Gulf has meant new Iranians in L.A., as well.

Ironically, the one political factor that has little impact seems to be United States immigration policy.

In Santa Ana, Calif., the schools were surprised to see the tide of new Mexican students unabated after the amnesty deadline for illegal aliens passed last spring. Other Southwestern school districts are seeing, after a brief decline, a full resurgence of new Mexicans arrivals.

Miami schools know how to welcome the young Nicaraguan students. Their teachers are mostly former refugees themselves - from Cuba.

Edgar Amador, the shy fifth-grade son of a former Nicaraguan contra, answers quietly, with worried eyes, when asked about his old school.

Did he believe the political doctrine he was taught at school in Managua, Nicaragua, his teacher asks him outside of class.

``No,'' he says. Then, ``Yes.''

What did they teach him?

``That they would kill me,'' he says in a barely audible Spanish, tears rolling down his cheeks.

Tears roll down his teacher's cheeks as well, as she pulls him over for a reassuring hug. The principal here at Sweetwater Elementary, Maria Rodriguez, shakes her head. ``It's the same old story,'' she says. ``It's just like Cuba.''

Of 27 students in Edgar's class this year, 20 are boys. Similar proportions hold among Nicaraguan children at other Miami-area schools. Many of the boys as young as 11 say they came to Miami - some illegally via Guatemala, Mexico, and Texas - because their mothers feared they would be mustered into military service.

Tanya Rubio, an eighth-grader at Citrus Grove Middle School, arrived two years ago from Nicaragua with her family. She and her brother were tapped to enter a Sandinista youth program that would allow them home only on weekends. The family opted for Miami instead.

Schools like Sweetwater and Citrus Grove are the workhorses in the steady pull toward Americanization. Even in Miami's Little Havana, where Spanish is universal and English heard only sporadically, that pull is powerful.

Between 85 and 90 percent of the students who enter Dade County public schools unable to speak English will be entirely in mainstream English-language classes within three years, officials in the county's bilingual education office say. The youngest new students, those entering kindergarten and first grade, are likely to be comfortable in mainstream classes within a year and a half, these educators add.

By contrast, older students, such as those entering Citrus Grove, can seldom swim in the English mainstream in less than two years. Most never really catch up to their American peers in English verbal skill, teachers say.

Adult immigrants can live out their lives comfortably in neighborhoods like Little Havana without speaking English at all.

But the students at Citrus Grove have little patience for that. ``The kids want to be someone. They have aspirations,'' says Cary Sanchez, head of Citrus Grove's bilingual education program. ``They want to learn English. Not only that, they need to learn English to be accepted by their peer group.

``You don't walk into a classroom with a Walkman playing `La Sonora Mantacara,''' Mrs. Sanchez says. ``No one brings Hispanic tapes to class. They bring Debbie Gibson, the Fat Boys, the Miami Sound Machine.''

Mrs. Sanchez arrived at Citrus Grove Middle School as a 10-year-old refugee herself, fresh from Cuba in 1967.

She understands, she says, when students can sing rock songs and watch Jeopardy on TV but don't know what celery is, or miss school to take a non-English-speaking grandmother to an appointment.

Maria Perez says that her class full of Nicaraguan fifth graders at Sweetwater Elementary is an eager group that gets along well with other children. But, she says, ``They need more affection. ... They need that extra bit of approval that it's OK to be a Nicaraguan here with Americans.''