Hispanic kids go 'home' for summer

Children of Latino immigrants spend summers abroad to strengthen their cultural ties

Aroni Torres, a New York City high school student and Dominican immigrant, enjoys learning English. Part of him wants to connect more to his own language and culture though, especially in school.

But even though Latinos are now the second-largest segment of the school-age population, Latino culture in school consists mostly of ethnic food festivals or dance assemblies. Some teens are even chastised for speaking their native Spanish in class, education experts say.

So to stay connected to his language and culture, every summer and Christmas break Aroni moves in with his grandmother, who lives in Santo Domingo. There, he passes afternoons speaking Spanish with his abuela and exploring the country with childhood friends.

"Over there I feel good speaking my language," he says. "Here, you're more embarrassed to speak in Spanish."

For many families like the Torreses, sending children abroad for school breaks is a way to counter what some call a lack of cultural and linguistic sensitivity in public schools. Students hold on to their heritage and perfect their Spanish by living and often working with family abroad.

While the exact number of students sent abroad is hard to know, anecdotal evidence suggests the practice is widespread, especially for Latino families. For years, upper- to middle-class Hispanics have sent children to relatives in Mexico and the Caribbean to maintain ethnic ties. Now, cheap airfares - and the fact that e-mail provides a way to stay in touch - allow more parents to ship children abroad.

Latinos in their 20s and 30s say going back helped them form a strong sense of self.

"When I got to college I met so many Latinos trying to 'find their roots,' " says Cesar Chavez, a New York litigation analyst who grew up in East Los Angeles and spent every school vacation with family in Mexico until he was 15. "I never understood the need for that. My confidence and assuredness about my ethnicity is a direct result of having stayed there so much. I never needed to 'learn' what it is to be Mexican; it was just a natural part of me."

Recent immigrants and second- and third-generation youths who engage in this kind of visit also nurture relationships that might be lost otherwise, says researcher and education specialist Angela Valenzuela of the University of Texas at Austin. "This is one strategy parents pursue in the absence of a multicultural or multilingual experience in school," she says. "[Children] solidify those relationships that are so crucial and break down when language becomes a barrier in one's own family."

Latino students are the immigrant group most likely to preserve their parents' linguistic legacy, but less than half of them are bilingual in today's schools. They are also the majority of ESL students. In 2001, almost 3 million US students were enrolled in programs for English language learners; almost 75 percent hailed from Spanish-speaking nations.

"Public education systems are not doing a very effective job in dealing with and accommodating this very significant demographic change," says Charles Kamasaki, senior vice president of Raza, a leading Hispanic advocacy group. Schools with big Latino populations could better serve them by adding books popular in the Spanish-speaking world, such as "Don Quixote," to reading lists, Mr. Kamasaki says.

But such accommodations are few, so families have taken matters into their own hands. More than a quarter of the families served by ASPIRA, a national nonprofit that serves Latino youths, send children abroad during school breaks, says Hilda Crespo, ASPIRA's vice president for public policy, and more would if they could afford to. "They do it not just for the cultural aspect," she says, "but for the language as well."

In a study of immigrant children in Florida and southern California, researchers Alejandro Portes and Ruben Rumbaut found that children who were fluent bilinguals early in high school had much higher educational aspirations and self-esteem three years later. Bilingualism may also improve communication between immigrant youths and their parents and so reduce intergenerational conflict.

Bilingual education has largely been eliminated in California. Proposition 227, a 1998 ballot initiative, replaced bilingual programs with English-only instruction. Under 227, parents can sign waivers to keep children in bilingual classes; in some schools, 100 percent of parents signed.

Proponents tout the proposition's benefits: "The results have been very positive," says Ron Unz, author of Prop. 227 and head of One Nation/One California, an organization that supports English-only instruction. "Latino students have doubled their academic performance."

Mr. Unz, who has spearheaded campaigns to dismantle bilingual programs in Arizona, Colorado, and Massachusetts, calls bilingual education a break with the past; until recently, he says, immigrants were taught only in English. "That seemed to work out pretty well," he says.

Unz wouldn't be surprised if, after two or three generations, most Latino youths speak English only, he says. Recent young immigrants struggle to read and write in Spanish as they mature, even though they still speak the language.

"A lot of Italians in this country don't speak much Italian," he points out, "and maybe they say, 'Oh, I wish I knew more,' but they don't seem to be that upset about it. Most immigrant Latino families come from homes where everyone watches Spanish TV and listens to Spanish radio."

Many Latino students nationwide report feeling disconnected from their language and culture, though. Carlos Mantinez, a Dominican classmate of Torres's says he looks forward to school breaks in the Dominican Republic - it's a treat to spend time in a place he feels comfortable conversing in Spanish, he says. "Here in school, I speak mainly English," he says. "When I'm in my country, I'm speaking Spanish and I'm happy."

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