Everything changed when I entered middle school because that’s when I realized that I was different. I was a dark skinned Mexican. I came from a hot sunny climate that turned my skin darker than that of my peers who were mostly Mexican-American. Among other reasons, they discriminated against me for not speaking English. While it is assumed that because you are Mexican you will identify with Mexican-Americans, it’s just not true. Mexicans and Mexican-Americans are brought up in very different cultures, so when you come from a little town like me, there is a clash of urban life against rural life. And a clash of many of those individuals growing up as an American, who are not Mexicans in the sense that they were not raised in Mexico like the way that I was. So my culture was different, my ideals were different; the way that I saw the world was completely different. It was completely different and the language barrier was a huge thing because even though the middle school its in a predominantly Latino neighborhood, it’s all English.
So what happens is that those of us who did not speak English, are placed in English as a Second Language (ESL) courses, and we became the “others”. And we were treated as the others. We became separated from our peers, rounded up for special courses. Even the labeling of the classes othered those of us who took these class, because when I was in the 7thgrade and I finally achieved the English sufficiency to move to regular classes, I remember my counselor saying to me, “you can finally move to normal classes!” What was I taking before if they weren’t normal classes?
The first thing that I learned was, “I don’t speak English,” then after that I started learning the very basics like “My name is,” and short conversational things from scratch, so that’s what ESL is. ESL courses and the way ESL students are treated differ from state to state. Some states don’t even have it. In California, and L.A. specifically, I was taking an ESL course which taught me how to speak English and my other courses were history, math, science, but those were with teachers who spoke both English and Spanish. My first science class in the U.S. was all in Spanish. This is why some ESL programs just fail. For example my biology class was in Spanish and my Math class was all-English. My History class was also in English. So it got really confusing with some classes where I had to work my way through with broken English. In math it was a lot simpler because it was all numbers, so Imemorized the equations and I knew the number. Thank God, there were no
presentations that I had to give orally, it was just learning equations and doing math, which is a universal language. Now History was another challenge. I had to do projects, write essays, and my teacher knew I was in ESL, so it was different grading but I still did very bad and got C’s, D’s, and failing grade
At this point I couldn’t take it anymore. The first semester of school that I had in the United States was the toughest time of my life to the point where I was about to drop-out. I had never felt so humiliated and ashamed of having such low grades in my entire life because education has always been a priority in my family. I went from being number two in my entire elementary in Mexico to being at the bottom United States. It was very devastating to me—to my self-esteem, and having my peers not help me, and not understand me would just make it worse. I couldn’t take it, and I told my mom that I was dropping out and I couldn’t go to school anymore. My mom felt guilty for not being with me for four years, and said, “It’s fine, we can find another way.” So I stopped going to school for a week, until the principle in the middle school called and said I had to show up or they were going to call the cops. You can’t drop-out at that age, you aren’t allowed to. Its against the law; its mandatory for you to attend school. So they said, “we are going to take you to court; we are going to take your mom to court. You guys have to show up and explain, and work this out with us.” My mom took me to my counselor to explain what was happening.
Everything was communicated in Spanish because my mom does not speak English, so the counselor told my mother “In this world you throw your child into the ocean and he either learns how to swim or he drowns. There is a no other choice.” That made a lot of sense to my mother who interpreted the statement based on her own cultural references, thinking about where we came from, who we were, our challenges in the U.S and our hopes for the future. My mom realized, that the world was not going to be easy for me, if I did not adopt to our new cultural environment, so she threw me back into the middle school where I had to figure it out. At that point I also snapped. I said, “I’m going to prove everyone wrong. I’m going to learn English as quickly as possible.” So I began watching TV shows, cartoons, and movies exclusively in English. Every single pop cultural phenomenon that I knew existed, I followed in English. I made a conscious effort to stop reading and watching television shows broadcast in Spanish. Perhaps a bit extreme but I even stopped speaking Spanish so I could master the language and culture of the United States. I learned a lot of American culture through Cartoons. So I would watch Cartoon Network and Ed, Edd and Eddy, Cow and Chicken. It was funny at that time, because my little five year-old sister was also learning English at the time and so I would practice with her. She was my language partner; we would have little conversations and I would play games with her in English. I would do things with her like watch Dora the Explorer, I would watch Sesame Street, and anything in English that was simple and could help me.That’s how we both learned English by helping each other. I was eleven at the time. That’s how I learned how to be “American” and I liked it! I immersed myself into this culture and by the end of 7th grade, I was out of the ESL course.
In 7th grade, I mastered my English skills and I was moved into honors classes. A lot of my teachers didn’t know I was in ESL; some of them were shocked to find out. I was really proud of myself because by the end of 8th grade I was nominated for Valedictorian in my middle school because I had the highest GPA. The only reason why I didn’t get Valedictorian was because of a rule that stated I had to attend elementary school in the United States. I asked, “How does that make any sense?” but I didn’t get Valedictorian status; I got second place. I did get a plaque that said I ranked number one on the state history exam, and I said, “Yes, number one is cool.”