History surrounds us…
Again, I will forego writing about political issues. Instead, I will try to do justice to a history maker, someone whose advocacy had national implications, someone I was privileged to have as a mentor – Adalberto “Beto” Guerrero.
We are surrounded by history makers. Every community has them. Adalberto “Beto” Guerrero is a history maker from my hometown of Tucson, Arizona. The University of Arizona paid its respect to Beto Guerrero by conferring on him the honorary degree of Doctor of Humane Letters at this year’s Commencement.
In Tucson, Beto Guerrero is an educational icon, but his footprint is national. For, he is truly the father – the dean, as it were – of modern-day bilingual education in the U.S. Beto Guerrero’s story is very relevant in these days, given the right-wingers’ hell-bent crusade to legislate what can and cannot be taught in schools.
Bilingual education is not a novel idea…
To be sure, Beto Guerrero did not invent bilingual education. As far back as the 1800s, there were bilingual education programs at the state and local levels in the U.S. For example, in 1839 Ohio law authorized German-English instruction, and in 1847 Louisiana law authorized French-English instruction. By the late 1800s, about a dozen states had similar laws. In the absence of state laws, many localities provided bilingual instruction in languages such as Norwegian, Italian, Polish, and Czech.
This acceptance of bilingualism gave way to language chauvinism in the early 20th century. The Naturalization Act of 1906 required that to become a US citizen, immigrants would have to be able to speak English. World War I engendered strong anti-German sentiment and brought an end to German-English bilingual education in the United States. For all intents and purposes, since about 1920, the concept of bilingual education lay dormant until the 1960s.
Pueblo High School resuscitated bilingual education …
Native Arizonan Adalberto “Beto” Guerrero earned a bachelor’s degree in Spanish from The University of Arizona in 1957 and in 1958 began teaching Spanish at the virtually all-Mexican American Pueblo High School (PHS) in Tucson. Teaching Spanish to native Spanish speakers was pivotal for Beto. The great majority of his students had an excellent command of Spanish, and Beto realized that the students learned well in Spanish. He intuited that if other school subjects were taught in Spanish the students’ grades would improve. He recruited other Pueblo teachers to use Spanish as a teaching tool and found his intuition was correct. Thus was born Pueblo High School’s bilingual-education program.
In 1965 the National Education Association (NEA) conferred its prestigious Pacemaker Award on Pueblo High School for its bilingual-education program. Parade Magazine featured the Pueblo program and the NEA award, giving the school’s bilingual-education program national exposure.
The “invisible minority” became visible…
In 1966, on behalf of the NEA, Beto and a cadre of Tucson educators researched southwestern school districts regarding the educational needs of Spanish-speaking students. Their report, “The Invisible Minority,” which drew national attention, documented the failures of the school system to meet the needs of students who spoke limited or no English.
In 1967, as a consequence of “The Invisible Minority,” Beto was invited to testify before a U.S. Senate subcommittee. Speaking in Spanish and referencing the bewildered looks on the senators’ faces, Beto told the senators that Mexican American students who were not proficient in English were just as bewildered when receiving instruction in English. Beto’s testimony precipitated Congressional hearings in Tucson, at which students, parents, and teachers detailed the language-related issues Mexican American children faced. This led to the passage of The Bilingual Education Act (aka Title VII of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1968).
This historic bill, the first piece of federal legislation that recognized the educational value of bilingualism, was signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson on January 2, 1968, the first federal legislation signed into law in 1968. Title VII of the 1968 ESEA was national in scope and affected millions of students, helping them succeed educationally and brought millions of dollars in teaching and training grants to many communities throughout the country.
Beto Guerrero did not do all of this by himself, of course. He had support and help from teachers, school administrators, parents, and community activists. But Beto spearheaded the effort, providing leadership and inspiring people to think beyond the norm.
Beto would later take his bilingual-education model, as well as his Spanish for Native Speakers curriculum, to Pima Community College, which he helped found, and to the University of Arizona, where he taught for 31 years.
Beyond the educational benefits – courage!
At the time Beto started teaching, the American educational system was waging war on Mexican Americans. People of Mexican descent — including those of us born in the U.S. – were considered “foreigners.” The intent was to “de-Mexicanize” us. We were beaten at school for speaking Spanish. Teachers arbitrarily changed our names. We were held back in school if we had an accent. In high school, we were tracked into vocational and out of college-prep courses.
For Beto to have done what he did with respect to legitimizing Spanish and Mexican American culture, which he used as a vehicle for his lessons, in the midst of an anti-Mexican campaign by his employer took much courage and a healthy helping of principle. Ditto for the Pueblo High School administration and the teachers who supported and worked with Beto.
Beto Guerrero is multi-dimensional…
Deservedly, Beto is best known for his work in bilingual education, as well as his pioneering work in Spanish for Native Speakers and Literatura Infantil (Children’s Literature). That work by itself merits our respect and the honorary degree recently conferred on him.
But there are many other things about Beto that give us a glimpse into his character and that command our respect. Here is a sampling from my experiences with Beto. I’m sure others have similar stories.
* Hundreds of students who otherwise would not have done so attended The University of Arizona due to Beto’s efforts. He encouraged his Pueblo High students to attend the U of A, and he invited me and other U of A Mexican American students to his classes to encourage the Pueblo High students to attend the U of A.
* In 1969 the Chicano Movement was establishing itself in Tucson. Our “headquarters” was my house in Barrio Hollywood – we called it “Chicano House.” Beto and his teacher partner Enrique “Hank” Oyama would come weekly to Chicano House to give us classes in diction and Spanish. Like Beto’s Pueblo High students, we were proficient in Spanish but not schooled in the grammatical nuances of the language. Beto and Hank wanted us to make a good impression in radio-TV interviews and when we spoke to community groups in Spanish.
* In the mid-/late-1960s, Beto and other Mexican American educators and educational activists were key players in the founding of Pima Community College (PCC). They held a series of all-day working meetings at which ideas regarding the mission, curriculum, etc. of the proposed college were discussed. A good portion of the ideas generated at these meetings – including an adaptation of Pueblo High’s bilingual education program – were incorporated into the initial PCC curriculum and structure.
* In the early 1970s, Beto and Hank Oyama set up a literacy program for Mexican American inmates at Florence state prison. They visited the inmates monthly and taught those who were illiterate how to read and conducted classes in Spanish and English so as to give the inmates confidence and basic skills they would need upon release. They also established a library for the inmates – they donated their own books, solicited books from friends and colleagues, and they bought used books for the inmate library.
* In the mid-1980s, a fierce fight erupted within the U of A’s Spanish Department when the department head fired Associate Professor Armando Miguélez, who was setting up a Chicano Literature curriculum within the department. The majority of the department faculty – who were not of Mexican descent – supported the department head. In contrast, Beto openly supported Miguélez and his Chicano Literature curriculum, which put him at odds with his department head and virtually the entire department faculty.
Today, at 91 years of age, Beto is still going strong. He walks three or so miles daily, drives, meets with friends, attends community functions, etc. Beto Guerrero truly deserves our respect and the honor of being the recipient of an Honorary Doctorate from his alma mater.
Special Thanks to Alison Hughes, who spearheaded the honorary degree campaign, as well as to U of A Professor Emeritus Macario Saldate and Dr. Anna Ochoa O’Leary, Head of the U of A Mexican American Studies Department, who formally nominated Beto on behalf of her department and faculty. I was privileged to be part of this effort.
¡Enhorabuena, Beto! (Congratulations, Beto!) c/s
Copyright 2022 by Salomon Baldenegro. Photo of Beto Guerrero courtesy of La Bloga blogsite. Photo of Beto at 91 courtesy of Alison Hughes. Pueblo logo and Invisible Minority book cover used under the “fair use” proviso of the copyright law. All other photos in the public domain. To contact Sal write: firstname.lastname@example.org