More than four million California residents were born in Mexico, so the state has a lot of experience with students learning English as a second language. In Watsonville, though, public schools have struggled to educate a growing number of Mexican students from indigenous backgrounds: it’s a little bit trickier when English is your third language.
In a first-grade classroom at Ohlone elementary school in Watsonville, a small group of students sits at a back table with language liaison Natalia Gracida Cruz. Together, they match written numbers to the sounds that go with them, in English, in Spanish, and, in Mixteco.
Mixteco is an indigenous language spoken in southern Mexico. When Mixteco-speaking students start school in the US, Gracida Cruz says that many have to learn Spanish and English at the same time as they learn to read. In first grade, they’re also at an age when even their knowledge of Mixteco is just beginning to solidify. “Since they’re learning three languages at once,” Gracida Cruz says, “I try to keep them from getting lost in the middle of that, to make things clear.”
As the demographics of Mexican immigration shift, the number of Mixteco speakers in California schools has gone from 600 to more than 2000 in the last ten years. Around Watsonville, that number has jumped from 15 students to more than 300. The school district is looking to hire more help, but for now, Gracida Cruz is the school district’s only Mixteco-speaking employee. As a result, she says, “I have very little time to support each one of my students.”
In addition to these weekly visits to George Feldman’s first grade classroom, Gracida Cruz also helps out at parent-teacher meetings. Feldman says having Mixteco translation can be vital. “For a conversation that might have to go to, explanation of treating lice in the house...For a conversation that might have to go, your child needs to be checked to see if they need to be in a special ed room—those conversations, we need to be right,” Feldman says.
But getting those conversations right can be hard when teachers aren’t sure they have identified every Mixteco speaker in the classroom. “There is a hidden identity, where, if kids are from Mexico in your class you automatically assume they speak Spanish,” Feldman says.
Leonor is a Mixtec mother two children in Watsonville public schools who asked to be identified by her first name. She says her daughter has experienced that “hidden identity” firsthand. “The school nurses gave her hearing exams, and they said she was deaf,” Leonor says.
Growing up in Tijuana, Leonor remembers being teased for her indigenous roots. Now, she sees echoes of the same attitudes when she picks her daughter up from school. “I think the kids bully her,” she says. “She doesn’t like to speak Mixteco with her parents. And when we go to meetings at school, she hides, she won’t look us in the eye.”
When kids feel pressure to conceal part of their identity, it makes teaching harder too. “Unfortunately,” Feldman says, “I’ve had kids who have gotten in trouble in class for not saying I’m sorry or not making eye contact, and for other things that I was looking at as a discipline issue until I knew better, and I could treat it as a cultural issue.”
So Feldman tries to encourage his Mixtec students by incorporating their language into his lessons. They greet visitors with a chorus of “Tani cu tan...”, and Feldman has his students sing in Mixteco, too. He also co-authored a trilingual children’s book with language liaison Gracida Cruz.
At the state level, the California Department of Education commissioned a curriculum module for Mixteco language and culture, but it’s yet to be put in to use.