Dr. Rudy Rodriguez and bilingual teachers broke the “No Spanish” barrier in 1969 with the inception of the Fort Worth ISD bilingual program in seven elementary schools.
Since 1918, Texas laws banned Spanish in public schools — a rule enforced with humiliating punishment. Legislators reasoned Spanish impeded students learning English and “American culture.” Despite Texas Education Agency 1967 statistics that reflected 89 percent of Spanish-surnamed students dropped out, the forbidden tongue policy ruled.
Rodriguez, director of the Bilingual Program, said, “You know this (bilingual program) was a reaction to the Civil Rights Movement, the pressure from the Chicano and Puerto Rican communities on the federal government. Listen guys, you aren’t doing anything for children with limited English-speaking abilities.”
Two former Texas teachers, President Lyndon B. Johnson and Sen. Ralph W. Yarborough, escorted the Bilingual Education Act through Congress in 1968, recognizing Spanish instruction as a pedagogical path to comprehension. State Rep. Carlos Truan and Sen. Joe Bernal circumvented the Texas no habla Español ruling through passage of the Texas Bilingual Act in 1969.
That year, Rodriguez and crew were the first Latinos to grace central administration on Lancaster Avenue, across from Casa Mañana. The accompanying photo shows Superintendent Julius Truelson welcoming Ysela Duarte, bilingual teacher. Rachel Ramirez Johnson, director of the Career Opportunities Program, who had worked with Truelson said, “I liked him because he was a good educator ... although he wasn’t fully engaged in bilingual education, or understood what we were fighting for, he would listen.”
Jo Linda Jara Martinez, a community agent, recalled, “We helped the children continue building their own first language. We didn’t want them to forget that. That’s the premise of the dual language now ... I saw students who had a strong education in Spanish. Some of them graduated as valedictorians.”
She noted former City Councilman Sal Espino as a shining example. Bilingual experts premised that once a child mastered their native language, they would transfer their literacy skills to English. At the same time, lessons and activities about Mexican American culture would strengthen self-esteem.
Rachel Ramirez Johnson said some Spanish-speaking parents questioned the wisdom of teaching their children in Spanish. She said, “They wanted their kids to speak English only, so they wouldn’t face discrimination.” Gradually, they convinced them.
Johnson recalled challenges hurled at bilingual staff by Chicano militants. “Why are you bringing all these people from South Texas. Why don’t you have Fort Worth people teaching?” Although raised speaking Spanish in Diamond Hill, she explained that for the program to succeed they recruited talent throughout the state.
Minerva Adela Serrano, a bilingual teacher, observed that, “Without them, we wouldn’t have made it ... they instilled in us a lot of pride of whom we were. They brought another perspective that was all Spanish, whereas we had a lot of English up here in the north.”
Rodriguez observed that the bilingual program created a larger pool of Chicano teachers with administrator certificates. When the district sought qualified individuals to diversify its upper ranks, bilingual teachers stood ready. Members of the original bilingual team were in their 20s, filled with courage, intelligence and corazón (heart).
Serrano commented 50 years later that she wanted to thank the teachers and administrators still carrying the bilingual light. Fort Worth bilingual educators shined a new path for the Spanish and non-Spanish dominant students. A Spanish saying quips: El que habla dos idiomas, vale por dos. The person who speaks two languages is worth two — true for students and especially bilingual teachers.
Author Richard J. Gonzales writes and speaks about Fort Worth, national and international Latino history.