Sally Guzmán

I have started writing this piece in my head many times. I have debated the title, the tone, and whether or not I would attach my name to it. I, however, have never debated why I am writing this or what the content should be. As an Indigenous, Latinx, first-generation educator in the Pacific Northwest, this is written for those who share my experience. I share this not to merely impact my situation but the education system as a whole. As an educator fight for equity and an anti-racist, I feel my view will help us in the journey. 

This is about the realities of being a bilingual or multilingual person in the education system and the boiling point, which I am sure many others have reached during this unprecedented time. In order for you to understand where I am coming from, I must share what we call in the L4L program my "pre-text." My "pre-text" is everything that has brought me to this point and time as a human, including those of my ancestors. Sharing this pre-text is essential to open a perspective for you as the reader and my colleagues as an educator.  

I am from a small village in Peru called Hualalay. A majority of my ancestors are from this region and have been since time immemorial. To my knowledge, the term "time immemorial" is not used by Indigenous communities in Peru. Still, as I sit here writing this article on the land of the Coast Salish people, having had the benefit of learning from them and other Indigenous leaders, I think it describes my lineage well. All Indigenous people share a familiar context. Much like the tribes here, someone came to my village, my tribe the Pashas people who did not speak Quechua were murdered, raped, beaten--until our language, our culture was taken from us. The trauma of this is in my existence, and I cannot bear to forget what was taken so that I can remember that my strength comes from the resiliency of my people. The term we use today to describe my history is colonization, but that word hides behind it the genocide that occurred and continues to happen to indigenous people today. This harm is something no one likes to talk about because it's not pretty; it's not even remotely bearable. Yet, this has created me and where I am today and my perspective on the world as an Indigenous Latina educator on Coast Salish lands.

Now you may wonder why I've called this "my voice, my choice." Well, you see, my colonizers, much like yours, left a few things: their gene pool, as a reminder of the rape and genocide of my people, and their language---Spanish. If I had stayed in Peru, Spanish would be like English is to you, water that you cannot see, but molds and shapes you in every which way. But my family moved to the land of the Coast Salish people in 1991 for a better future and the American dream. For those not familiar with the tribal areas in the United States, the Tulalip Tribal Nation is the one closest to me in the suburbs north of Seattle, Washington. The Tulalip Tribal Nations are part of the Coast Salish people and they granted the use of these lands to the United States at the signing of the Point Elliot Treaty in 1855. I share this as a way to acknowledge their sovereignty and write this information in true allyship. Knowing they too have had their language and culture stolen from them.

Once here, I was quickly placed in preschool and then went to Kindergarten, not knowing a single word in English. I was teased, bullied, and humiliated a few times for not understanding a language others had since birth to dominate. I was called stupid; even my cousins who were born here would sometimes take advantage of my lack of cultural awareness and genuine naivety. It was rough. I eventually learned English and then watched a dynamic that most families that haven't moved to a foreign country with a different language and young children will never understand. 

Those experiences shaped me to understand that not only did I now have a new reality, but how language developed those realities. Language is power. The ability to communicate allows us to connect not just to other humans but resources. You add to that the unspoken cultural code every community has, and you have "language privilege." Add that on top of systemic racial oppression and all the other -isms that haunt our daily lives. You get the complex reality of immigrant families living in the United States who are not yet fluent in English. 

As the youngest of three and the only girl, I got to witness my siblings and myself become fluent in English in the span of a few years. My parents, naturally being older and having more formed brains fixed in the area of language, struggled to some degree. They worked hard, 18 hour days, who knows how many days a week, and still both took the 1990s, ESL classes. This dynamic meant that we, their children, had all the power---not only did we dominate the language, we also spent six hours a day in a building studying the cultural norms of the new people we were interacting with. I learned that in this building, much like my nun-run school in Peru, they liked children to sit in chairs quietly and not speak unless called on. And during playtime, certain people played with certain people, and I would be teased incessantly if I pushed on cultural norms. My parents were too busy providing a roof over my head and food on the table to analyze what was happening. So I learned how to read people, how to observe, mimic, and do anything I could so I could survive. 

Photo of my dad at an ESL class party
Photo of my dad at an ESL class party

My mother was a primary school teacher in Peru. Yes, she was college-educated and still came to the U.S. for a better life. I also know doctors, physicists, engineers, and many other "well-educated" immigrants that moved here. But I digress---my wise mother noticed us shunning our culture, our language, our traditions, and our values and she put her foot down. Her rule, "the moment you walk through the doors of my house (her house not "my" house, remember I didn't pay rent) you are in Peru, and you will speak to me in Spanish; you will not act like other children, you will reflect the values of which I have raised you." Now, this was all obviously said to me in Spanish in the appropriate tone and pitch that Peruvian mothers wield to let their children know now is not the time to argue. My mother stood by those words until I was 16. I once told her all about my day in English to lead up to a question of something I wanted. The woman let me talk for 30 minutes! I looked at her and said after those 30 minutes, "¿Mami, me escuchas?" to have her look up at me and say, "Oh, why hello [in Spanish]." Yes, she acted like I hadn’t been there talking and I had to repeat the whole thing in Spanish. She taught us and my cousins Spanish every summer. I learned that I was a descendant of the Incas and that my people built one of the seven wonders of the world Machu Picchu. The time my mother put it to help her children keep their identity despite the system wanting us to forget is everything to me now as an adult and a mother myself. Once I was in 8th grade, I took Spanish as my elective, I was excited, and this is when it all started. Before this, my ability to speak two languages intrigued my friends, and sometimes I would be asked a silly question. I loved that my Spanish connected me to all Spanish speaking people in a way that bicyclists connect when they meet. 

What my 8th-grade self noticed is that in this Spanish class, I now had something others wanted. They were angry that I, a fluent Spanish speaker, was able to take the class and, worse yet, get an A. Their words, "I didn't have to work as hard." Let's fast forward; I took Spanish 5, an Advanced Placement class, my freshman year of high school. The school had me take it, so the few seniors who needed the course didn't have to have a split class with level 4 students. I didn't mind; I failed the class miserably, but I passed the AP test with four out of five and never had to sit through another Spanish class. A later blog can digress into this dynamic as native speakers taking language classes in our school systems. At 16, I had doors opened to me because of my bilingualism and complete fluency, along with my strong work ethic. I could read, write, speak, and sing in Spanish. I can't do a thesis in Spanish, but I do okay. One of my favorite ways to use my Spanish was volunteering. I loved interpreting meetings and doing volunteer work for a local Latino nonprofit. I love my bilingualism like you love your voice and ability to use it as you need it because it is my physical voice, one my family and I have fought hard to keep. 

My career took many turns. I became a mother; I completed a bachelor's degree, and midway through my master's program, a job opportunity at the very school district I had attended as a child opened up. I was so excited, nervous, and very apprehensive about going into education. I love learning. I am less than fond of the education system memories I have from my Kindergarten to twelfth-grade experiences. It didn't play nice with me to put it kindly and summarize. However, my excitement came from knowing I would be working with youth, and Latinx youth would be there too! I could make an impact, I could see what the system had been up to. I have been here ever since. 

My role now is at the district level, working with an incredible team of mostly women, mostly women of color, who are by majority bilingual and multilingual. We navigate the education system; we help families navigate the system; we give everything we can knowing what is at stake. The system can make or break a person's future. It was not meant for people like us, and it will chew us up and spit us out. Yet, we give, and we give. We share our bilingualism. But a funny thing happened in education while we all worked towards equity and pushing for all students to be served.

We got our signals crossed, and you took my wanting to help as ownership of my voice. You decided that you could not pick up a phone and dial the phone interpreting service or schedule the interpreter because it was easier for you to use my voice; your own personal Spanish Alexa. You leveraged my wanting to help my community, the job that I need to support my family, my innate need to be "a team" player, and I let you. Just one call. One meeting. One document. 

While I did that, while I paid my dues and played ball, I also entered into rooms and pushed for policies and training and I found out that you do not have barriers to access language services. I offered training, offered to coach, and politely offered the district translation and interpretation procedures. I learned you were unwilling. As COVID-19 happened, I realized you felt you had ownership over my voice, that you did not see the wounds I bear. My mother fought for me to keep my language. I often worry about the limited time I and the eight other team members have to serve 3,000 Spanish speaking families in our district. After all, we are not hired to interpret. Although we have Spanish language skills we have been hired to deliver educational services based on our professional experience. Or even more traumatizing: how will we serve the families who speak the other 115 languages spoken? 

We can't. Having only those that speak that language work with those families is not a valid option. That is why interpreting services via phone are available, why our equity-focused district eliminated all systemic barriers to provide this service for staff. I know not all districts are able to do this, I know that not all bilingual and multilingual people are in a position to call out the system and those people in the system, nor do I feel every bilingual and multilingual person will agree with me. There are days I am in conflict with my own self because my values are to serve my community and not expect anything in return. Yet, I write this to my fellow educators to open a long-forgotten skylight shining a light on the education systems path to equity, now you know and can do better. 

I have a name and it is not Alexa. My voice is mine and if I share that with you, honor that and do not take it for granted. I am your colleague in arms; I will push for equity, and I will have your back, but please give me the respect of offering you my bilingualism as you would give anyone the right to their voice. See me for the role that I hold and have fought for. You are an expert in what you do when you ask me to speak for you, meaning make a call or meet without you about something you know more about, you are taking your expertise from the person I am calling or meeting with. What families and students need is you, and if that family spoke English, you would be the one calling. I am not an interpreter; that is not the role I was hired to do. Interpreters are amazing people; they work all day, lending their voice in service of others. Do not take them for granted, either. I don't. I respect them and the work that they do to serve our families.

During this specific time, these habits we have gotten into have been made clear. I am writing to you to say that relying on one, or even 12 bilingual or multilingual colleagues in your system, to do all of the communication to families is not equity. That is a system failure. While it might alleviate the pressure in the moment, it is not a systemic approach to equity. Do better, look at creating policy, procedure, support, and a culture that values all families as having the same right to your expertise as any other family. Push out of your comfort to navigate having a conversation with someone with an interpreter. I do it all the time. Remember, I am bilingual, and there are 115 other languages in our district I don't speak. Ask me to help you learn how to use language services on the phone or where the steps are to access services, but please do not treat me like Alexa.  

To my multilingual colleagues, I write this with you in mind but do not attempt to say I speak for you. I hope this message resonates with you. I hope others read this and help push for systemic solutions. “Tu eres mi otro yo, Si te hago daño a ti, Me hago daño a mi mismo” - IN LAK’ECH Luís Valdez and Domingo Martinez Paredes