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'This is our culture'

Hannah Covington Published: June 7, 2013

They told her not to speak Spanish in school.

“You must learn English,” teachers said. “No hablas español. Aprende ingles,” her parents echoed.

So Nina Gonzales did as she was told, setting aside the language of her home, she learned, word by word, the language rippling throughout the world.

She mastered English almost 40 years ago. Though she retained a fluent grasp of Spanish, Gonzales still wishes the learning process could have been different.

That’s why she started the bilingual child program at the Tony Reyes Child Development Center. Situated in a red brick building on the 400 block of SW 10, the Head-Start classes for children 6 weeks to 4 years old is one of 24 programs offered by the neighborhood’s Latino Agency.

Theirs is the only bilingual Head-Start program in the state, and one of the best in the country, Gonzales said. It opened in 1997 and was accredited in 2000.

Some Latino students come speaking English, their parents hoping they will learn their native tongue. Others grow up in purely Spanish-speaking homes. Offered to low-income Latino families in the area, the year-round classes fill-up quickly.

The high demand attests to Oklahoma City’s growing Latino population, where 17 percent of the population in 2010 reported being of Hispanic or Latino origin, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

The program serves 48 low-income children and families. An additional 155 are on the waiting list.

“We serve the neediest of the neediest families in Oklahoma,” Gonzales said.

The air pulses with activity and scents of waxy Crayola crayon. But lessons feature an element unique to the classes in the former Riverside Elementary.

In the same breath, teachers call out “niños” and “children” to get the class’ attention. Ven acá mixes with “come here.”

Language. La idioma.

“We don’t want them to lose either one,” Gonzales said. “We don’t want them to forget their Spanish.”

 

Three students in the 3- and 4-year-old class at the bilingual Head-Start program play with bubbles as a sensory exercise. Photo by Chris Brannick, The Oklahoman
Three students in the 3- and 4-year-old class at the bilingual Head-Start program play with bubbles as a sensory exercise. Photo by Chris Brannick, The Oklahoman

Gonzales bustles between the five classrooms, scooping up crying children as she goes.

In a classroom of 3- and 4-year-olds, she positions a quiet girl in a pink shirt on her lap, rocking back and forth on a wooden chair.

“What do you like to do?” she asks the girl, a four-year-old student named Milagros, Milly for short.

Gonzales holds her and waits.

No answer. She repeats the question in Spanish. The prompt in Spanish triggers a surprising response.

“I like to play with baby dolls, to dress them,” Milly answers in unaffected English.

Gonzalez explains that the children are thinking in both Spanish and English through “code-switching,” a fluid exchange of language that blends two disparate cultures.

“Their brain is making the connections and defining what language is what,” she said.

These students are the envy of their parents, some of whom try to learn English alongside them. By the time they enter preschool, each student will be able to count, sing and learn in two sets of words and phrases.

Unlike when Gonzales was in school in the 1970s, proficiency in Spanish is now treasured by parents and teachers alike, she said.

It is a linguistic shift Gonzales welcomes.

“This is our culture. This is our roots,” Gonzales said. “It is a privilege now to have this language carry on for these children while they learn English.”

BY HANNAH COVINGTON

STAFF REPORTER

Tony Reyes Bilingual Child Development Center

420 S W 10

Oklahoma City

(405) 236-4667

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