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Pioneering Puerto Rican Teachers Reflect on Early Days of Bilingual Education in NYC

by Néstor David Pastor

Edited by Elizabeth Taveras Rivera


On January 17th, Centro oral historian Andrew Viñales and Centro researcher Elizabeth Taveras Rivera conducted an oral history panel interview with Drs. Diana Caballero, Sonia Nieto, Luis Reyes, and Carmen Mercado. The interview was conducted at the Roosevelt House, the day after Dr. Nieto gave the keynote address title, “Advocacy in Action” at the invitation of the Hunter College School of Education. Over the course of their long careers, the four Puerto Rican educators have made significant, lasting, and in some cases, pioneering contributions to the fields of pedagogy, multicultural and bilingual education, and education reform.

“There was a political and social context to the classroom,” Diana Caballero explains, in reference to the education system in New York City during the 1960s and 70s. As a teacher, she and her colleagues were on the frontlines of the struggle for bilingual and multicultural education.

Dr. Nieto, for example, began her long career at P.S. 25, which inaugurated the first bilingual program in New York City and second in the United States (the first was in Miami-Dade county). This year marks the 50th anniversary of the school. There, Dr. Nieto, who at the age of six decided that she would become a teacher, quickly began to see social justice as an inevitable component of her work. “Teachers were smart, in charge, powerful,” said Nieto. “I loved learning and I wanted to be in that world.” Her first language, however, had not been English, which she did not know upon entering school; nor was she given much support to improve her fluency. These were the days of 'sink or swim' for non-English speaking students. Dr. Nieto also recalls being discouraged from speaking Spanish in the classroom as a young student.

Caballero, too, was prohibited from speaking Spanish. As a child, she had been made to feel like less than her peers. In turn, she became ashamed of her family, identifying as Spanish, a broader term, rather than as Puerto Rican. Denigration from their teachers and peers was a common theme among the four panelists. Caballero would later decide to speak Spanish to the students in her classroom, many of which were from countries like El Salvador and the Dominican Republic, in addition to Puerto Rico. “I wasn’t going to let their cultural identity be stripped from them,” she says.

For Reyes, his Puerto Rican identity was reflected much in his education. Even while at Middlebury College studying for a Masters degree in Spanish Literature, only Puerto Rican poet Luis Pales Matos was included as part of the curriculum—a token writer chosen for his Afro-Antillano poetry. Reyes was, however, influenced greatly by his experiences in Catholic schools run by the De La Salle Brothers, later becoming a member of their order and teaching Spanish at Paramus Catholic High School for four years. Still, Reyes views education “as a form of liberation,” drawing upon his experience with Liberation Theology.

Carmen Mercado, on the other hand, explained that her path to bilingual education could, in part, be traced back to yearly trips to Puerto Rico as a child. Like Reyes, she was born on the island and migrated with her family at a young age. Both educators also benefited from the passing of the Bilingual Education Act, also known as Title VII of the Elementary and Secondary Education Amendments of 1967, receiving funding to further their studies. Mercado went on to teach at C.S. 211, another one of the first bilingual schools in New York City. She then left to work as a curriculum specialist for the bilingual program at Hunter College.

When asked about the future of bilingual education, the panelists saw parallels to their own struggle, as well as an ever-present ebb and flow to the movement. Like the 60s and 70s, we are currently in the midst of another era of social upheaval, which may bring about the kind of change for which educators like Reyes, Nieto, Caballero, and Mercado, were took part in and helped to foster.

Reyes, for example, noted that transitional bilingual education and ESL, for instance, do not resemble the original vision of the movement. Yet, in recent years, there has been a renewed emphasis on bilingual and multicultural education. He then cautioned that language not be categorized as a deficit (“limited English proficient”) but as an asset (“bilingual or multilingual learner”), as an opportunity to develop the language of the home—much like the children of Puerto Ricans who came to New York during the Great Migration of the mid-20th century.

In the end, Dr. Nieto concluded that is there is now a vast body of work on bilingual and multicultural education—some of which she has authored, including the recently released 7th Edition of Affirming Diversity: The Sociopolitical Context of Multicultural Education, co-authored with Patty Bode. The lack of theory and writings was one of the many early challenges faced by bilingual and multicultural educators.

Dr. Nieto also finds hope in the many young educators she meets, many of them from backgrounds she did not encounter in the past. They are the future, a future, in part, made possible by a generation of Puerto Rican educators still deeply involved in the struggle.

© Center for Puerto Rican Studies. Published in Centro Voices 21 January 2018.