Editor's Letter: Bilingual Bridges

By June Carolyn Erlick

It was snowing heavily in New York. It didn’t matter much to me. I was in sunny Santo Domingo with my New York Dominican neighbors on the Christmas break from school. I learned Spanish from them and also at the local bodega, where the shop owner insisted I ask for “leche” and not for “milk.” My neighbors had been exiles from the Trujillo dictatorship, and they now had begun to return to their homeland for the holidays. In Santo Domingo, their families were solidly middle-class; in New York, they worked in factories and as janitors. That’s how I found myself staying in a tree-lined residential neighborhood in the Dominican capital when I was barely out of my teenage years.

I loved wandering around the neighborhood and smelling the exotic flowers, feeling the sun beating against my skin. I loved the smiles of the people and the impromptu conversations. But I wasn’t ready for a question a local resident asked, “When did your parents leave for the United States? Who are you related to?” That implied she thought I was Dominican. “But how can you think I’m Dominican when I have such a bad accent in Spanish?” I protested. “A lot of our sons and daughters, nuestros hijos, talk like you,” came the answer. That was before bilingual education became common in New York. It was true: parents often thought if their kids spoke Spanish at home, they wouldn’t learn English properly. I took the woman’s observation as a compliment. 

Fast forward some thirty years. I’m working for a magazine in New York and doing volunteer work some evenings in the emergency room of Saint Luke’s Hospital. The hospital has a wonderful training program for its volunteers, and I really like working with the doctors and patients. Many parents come to the emergency room with children because they have no health insurance. There are Dominicans, Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, and a scattering of people from other Spanish-speaking countries. I interpret and I comfort. I become familiar with the process of triage—who is important to see first. 

An Argentine opera singer comes in; she’s on tour, doesn’t know anyone in the city. She’s hurting all over, has an intense headache and feels almost blinded by light. The intake person asks her if she ever does drugs. She answers truthfully and admits to occasionally indulging, but not recently. She’s referred to psych, an intake evaluation that I know from experience takes several hours to process. “Does your neck hurt?” I ask her. “Oh, I forgot to say that,” she said. I had just interpreted for a doctor and mother in pediatrics; the young teen was diagnosed with meningitis. I hesitated; I was an interpreter—a bilingual bridge, not an intake worker or doctor. I saw a doctor I knew and told her my suspicions. She took them seriously and whisked away the opera singer. Later, she came to thank me. My intuition had been correct, and time was of the essence.

One evening, a Mexican man was wheeled in on a stretcher. He had been shot but was conscious. A doctor asked me to interpret. I couldn’t understand the patient. I had the terrible feeling all my Spanish had flown out of my head. Maybe because he was in pain and mumbling, maybe I just wasn’t used to a rural Mexican variance. And then it dawned on me: he wasn’t speaking Spanish at all, but an indigenous language. I figured out he was from the Puebla region, but that’s about it. Bilingual bridges don’t work when you don’t speak the language.

All over Americas, bilingual bridges are being built, bilingual crossings of all types. That’s why we’re very happy to announce that our Fall spotlight on Bilingualism in the Americas has officially become the Fall-Winter issue of ReVista, the Harvard Review of Latin America, volume IXX, No. 1. A special thanks goes to Catherine Snow, Patricia Albjerg Graham Professor of Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and María Luisa Parra, Spanish Senior Preceptor at Harvard’s Department of Romance Languages and Literatures, who both generously shared their vision and contacts with me.

In the issue, we take a look at bilingual Spanish (and Portuguese)-English learning, whether it’s in the context of elite schools or language learning by English-dominant Mexican-heritage youth who find themselves in Mexico without full command of Spanish. María Luisa Parra tells us about her experiences teaching Spanish to Latinx youth in the States. Kara Seigal writes of teaching English to Peruvian youth through theatre.

Another subject we delve into is the preservation of indigenous languages and bilingual teaching of those languages. Ampam Karakras and Ted Macdonald tell us about the emphasis on trilingual education in Ecuador and how plurinational visions of what it means to be Ecuadoran tie in with the recent fuel protests there. Rebeca Barriga Villanueva looks at a nearly invisible bilingualism: indigenous children in Mexico’s urban schools. Nancy Hornberger tells us what she’s learned about indigenous education and language revitalization in the Andes.

You’ll find a lot of other articles as well, ranging from Chinese pictographs in Mexico to a fascinating article by Doris Sommer, Ira and Jewell Williams Professor of Romance Languages and Literatures at Harvard, on PreTextos—using art to teach language

And, as with every single issue of ReVista we’ve done since it began in 1997, there are a lot of topics we haven’t gotten around to. Some of them we’ll be adding occasionally, an advantage of an online publication. And others have been covered in other ReVistas. No conversation about bilingualism in the Americas could be complete without looking at a truly bilingual country: Paraguay. So check out Benjamin Fernández’s (Nieman ‘00) article in the Territory Guarani issue on Paraguay and the Guarani language. In the same issue, Damián Cabrera writes about films that have been made in Guarani.

Our dearly departed Clémence Jouët-Pastré wrote in the Brazil issue about Harvard’s Portuguese Language Program as a springboard for Brazilian Studies at Harvard. To those of you who knew Clémence or just are interested in Brazilian studies, a fellowship has been set up in her name. You can contribute by going to HERE.

And for more on bilingualism in the Latinx community, check out Mónica M. Ramírez’ article on bilingual aesthetics in our Latin@s issue (at the time we used the arroba, rather than an x). In the same issue, Elena C. Chávez, then a Harvard undergraduate, writes about the very different linguistic experiences of her younger sister and herself in “Elena and Ela: Two Generations of (Bilingual) Sisters.”

Over the years, bilingualism is a topic we’ve explored and will continue to explore. As much as possible, particularly with the new online format, we’re trying to provide you with versions of articles in English and Spanish, as well as occasionally in Portuguese. Bilingualism is a process. So is ReVista. Enjoy!