Inside the Nation’s First Bilingual University

UT-Rio Grande Valley looks to become the first 'bilingual, bicultural, biliterate' campus in the country.

UTRV Students
The Edinburg campus of UTRGV, where 90 percent of the student body is Hispanic.  Brad Doherty

“The question of the day is: Are you smart?” professor José Saldívar announced at the start of class. “Don’t just give me a yes-or-no answer. Tell me why.” Seated in a sparkling new classroom at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley’s Edinburg campus, with rolling chairs in the school colors — blue, green and burnt orange — students inched closer together to debate the value of innate ability versus hard work. Their conversations might have occurred in any first-year seminar, but for one key difference: They took place in both English and Spanish, often at the same time.

The bilingual course I visited is a pilot for an initiative known around campus as B3 — “bilingual, bicultural, biliterate” — that aims to transform the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley (UTRGV) into the United States’ first comprehensively bilingual public university. The project’s goals, proponents say, are far-reaching: to not only produce the bilingual professionals in high demand along the Texas-Mexico border, but also to begin to redress a historical legacy of what queer Chicana theorist Gloria Anzaldúa, a Valley native, calls “linguistic terrorism” against border Spanish speakers denied the legitimacy of their native tongue. As the initiative moves from rhetoric to reality, though, UTRGV finds itself grappling with questions of identity: What does it mean to be a bilingual and bicultural university?

“It’s about being much more aware of the language that is being spoken, and making sure that the space is safe for my students,” Saldívar told me after class in his office, which is decorated with an oversized pennant from Stanford, his alma mater. Saldívar, who in the fall of 2016 taught the first of what is expected to be dozens of bilingual or Spanish courses, has plenty of common ground with his students. Now in his late 30s, he grew up in the rural South Texas community of Edcouch-Elsa; his parents were punished in school for speaking Spanish and encouraged him to speak only English at home. Language could play a role in helping students feel a sense of comfort and belonging at the university, Saldívar said, but he wanted to impress on me that what the students were talking about was as noteworthy as how they chose to say it. “I think the American ethos is you pull yourself up by your bootstraps in order to be successful,” he said. “And that’s great. But I want my students to recognize the challenges and the disparities. And when faced with those challenges, ask: ‘What do we do?’ Because I want them to be able to handle that.”

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For the class I visited at UTRGV’s Edinburg campus, students had read an article by Juan Carrillo called “I Always Knew I Was Gifted: Latino Males and the Mestiz@ Theory of Intelligences.” It led with an epigraph from Anzaldúa: “Theorists-of-color are in the process of trying to formulate ‘marginal’ theories that are partially outside and partially inside the Western frame of reference (if that’s possible), theories that overlap many ‘worlds.’”

The critical theory made for challenging reading for first-year students in what has often been taught as a remedial course. Before class, I’d heard several students grumbling bilingually about the article’s length. Still, as I listened in on their conversations, I observed that for several students in particular, the topic seemed to have struck a chord. “They would only pay attention to the smart ones, to the APs,” Julissa Lopez said of her high school teachers. “With the people who spoke Spanish, they were simple. They talk to you like you’re stupid. Like a baby.”

“¿En-ti-en-des lo que es-toy di-ci-en-do?” Sara Nuño interjected, mimicking a teacher’s condescending tone. Moving back and forth between Spanish and English, she explained that in high school, she and her mother would line up at 5 a.m. to walk across the international bridge from their home in Rio Bravo so she wouldn’t be late for class in Pharr. “Yo, todas las mañanas, I would cross the border, since sixth, seventh grade, till senior year. Todas las mañanas, 5 a.m. El sacrificio que haces por venir aquí.”

Professor UTRGV
Professor José Saldívar at the UTRGV campus in Edinburg.  Brad Doherty

After class, Saldívar said that Sara was a shy student at first, but that the bilingual aspect of the class helped her find her voice. “I remember the first time she spoke, she was really hesitant, and she tried speaking in English,” he said. “Then she said, ‘No, no, bueno, en español,’ and she just took off. Now, I can always count on Sara to talk in class.”

Another student, Ethan Treviño, said a scheduling glitch had randomly placed him in the bilingual pilot section, even though he doesn’t speak Spanish. While initially apprehensive, he’d come to see the placement as an opportunity. “Going through high school, there were a lot of people in my classes who mainly spoke Spanish,” he said. “I never got a chance to hang out with them because of the language barrier. This class is allowing me to learn what I couldn’t in high school. It wasn’t the type of Spanish that we talk here; they wanted us to learn ‘proper,’ like what they’re speaking in Spain. It didn’t allow me to lose that barrier here where I live.”

The bilingual initiative was born out of a messy divorce and a shotgun marriage. In 2011, Texas Southmost College, a community college, and the University of Texas at Brownsville (UTB) severed ties in a dispute over unpaid rent, precipitating a fiscal crisis. At the behest of the University of Texas System Board of Regents, then-UTB President Juliet Garcia convened a planning committee. The blueprint they created, known as UTB 2.0, included the bilingual program’s principles. “Universities are always trying to identify what they’re going to be uniquely good at,” Garcia told me. “We felt that we should embrace our geography, embrace our unique positioning with the issues of language and culture, and produce historians, teachers, physicians and engineers who could do this work in at least two languages.”

Then-UT System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa, a Laredo native, was enthusiastic but skeptical of the economics. “I don’t care how optimistic we are — at the end of the day, a vision isn’t going to become reality without a realistic business plan,” he said. Cigarroa proposed merging UTB with the University of Texas-Pan American (UTPA), 70 miles west in Edinburg. The creation of a new university allowed both campuses to draw on the Permanent University Fund, a $17.5-billion fund historically built on oil and gas. Acting quickly, the regents adopted a set of guiding principles that drew heavily on UTB 2.0. The bilingual program was principle number five.

“I saw that, and I just about fell out of my seat,” said Francisco Guajardo, the executive director of the newly formed B3 Institute at UTRGV. “I said, ‘What, are you serious?’ You know the makeup of regents — they’re all appointed by very conservative governors. They were probably thinking folklórico and mariachis.” His booming laugh filled the dining room of the historic Echo Hotel, a few miles south of UTRGV’s Edinburg campus, where we discussed the origins of B3 over breakfast tacos.

Guajardo’s roots in the Valley run deep, and his interest in bilingual and bicultural education is as personal as it is academic. He was born in Reynosa, where — according to family lore — his grandfather, a bulega (bootlegger), fled after killing a rival who snitched on him to the Texas Rangers. In December 1968, when Guajardo was 4 years old, his family moved to Edcouch-Elsa. A month earlier, 140 Edcouch-Elsa High School students had walked out to protest discrimination against Mexican Americans. Three years later, as a first-grader, Guajardo became part of a pilot bilingual education class, the first of its kind in the Valley. “I’m from around here,” he said. “I’ve experienced a lot of these kinds of things around language and culture, and around the valuing or the devaluing of both.”

I met Guajardo after he gave a community talk at the Museum of South Texas History called “From Taming a Wild Tongue to Building a Bilingual University.” The title borrowed from a chapter in Gloria Anzaldúa’s Borderlands/La Frontera in which she remembers that as a student at Pan American University — now UTRGV’s Edinburg campus — she was required to take speech classes to “correct” her accent in English. She argues that “ethnic identity is twin skin to linguistic identity — I am my language. Until I can take pride in my language, I cannot take pride in myself.”

After the talk, a UTRGV professor stood up to inquire if B3 was a top-down initiative. “It is,” Guajardo allowed. Before he could elaborate, a Mexican-American man in his 60s came to his defense. “It may be top down,” the man said, “but this is the percolating of sentiment in the community to say, ‘We need to right the wrongs. We need to be about having permission, unfettered, to raise our children differently.’”

In 2015, Guajardo traveled with four faculty members to the University of Ottawa, the largest bilingual university in North America. “It’s a 150-year-old institution that is sitting on a bilingual zone as a matter of public policy,” Guajardo said. “We see that. We think to ourselves: ‘This is so inspiring. Could we do it in a place that tamed a wild tongue?’” In the spring, the university will expand the bilingual pilot from one to five sections. A few programs, including an MFA in creative writing and an MBA, are already offered in Spanish or bilingually. Soon, Guajardo hopes, UTRGV will be able to offer the entire core curriculum bilingually, with more complete degree plans to follow.

But becoming the nation’s first bilingual university will mean more than just offering classes in both languages. It will also require a dramatic shift in the way that the university, and the Valley as a whole, thinks about matters of history and identity, in a place where a century of systemic language and ethnic discrimination has too often gone unacknowledged, and where even today bilingual education is viewed primarily through a remedial lens.

In addition to directing the B3 Institute, Guajardo is at work on a book of oral histories documenting the history of bilingual education in the Valley. “Invariably, each of the elders will tell the story of how they were punished, spanked, chastised, for speaking Spanish in school,” he said. “It is no accident that this region is much more conservative in terms of bilingual education, because of a historical trauma that people experienced.

“This,” Guajardo said, “is a social change experiment.”

Professor UTRGV
Francisco Guajardo speaks with two UTRGV alumni at a meeting in Edinburg about the bilingual program.  Brad Dohorty

UTRGV’s newly drafted vision statement begins, “To be the nation’s premier Hispanic-serving institution and a highly engaged bilingual university.” The admissions page on the university’s website — soon to be fully bilingual — prominently features the program as a selling point. “It is a priority,” Provost Havidán Rodríguez told me when we met on the Brownsville campus, which, unlike Edinburg’s, is right on the border. (On my way to campus, I passed under a sign warning me not to take firearms into Mexico, before exiting onto University Boulevard.)

“This is not a marketing scheme. We’re putting in place the organizational structure, the staff, the funding and the faculty that we need to make this happen. I think that speaks louder than words, right?”

Overt opposition of the kind you might expect elsewhere — “English-only” rhetoric and the like — has been largely nonexistent in the Valley. All of the students I met, from freshmen to graduate students, from monolingual English speakers to recent immigrants from Mexico, expressed an interest in taking the bilingual classes. “Honestly, I’m not really concerned,” Rodríguez responded when I inquired about student interest. “Students know this is important.”

The most insistent criticism has come from students and faculty who think the university is not going far enough. As the university considers starting a football team and scrambles to deal with the fallout from a December decision by its accreditor to put the university on probation — UTRGV says the violations are related to the contentious separation from Texas Southmost College — skeptics worry that the university may lack sufficient commitment to follow through on its ambitious agenda.

Stephanie Alvarez, the founding director of the Center for Mexican American Studies at UTRGV, has been one of the most vocal critics. We spoke on a lime-green couch at the center, which Alvarez had a hand in designing, asking that the planned cubicles be eschewed in favor of an open lounge. Behind us, a group of students sat talking while they cut out materials for a Day of the Dead altar project the center was facilitating at area elementary schools.

For Alvarez, who in 2015 became the first faculty member in the history of the University of Texas System to receive a prestigious U.S. Professor of the Year Award from the Carnegie Foundation, the focus on bilingualism obscures a lack of commitment to programs such as Mexican-American studies that turn a critical eye on the history and culture of the borderlands. “It’s easy to sell bilingual in some ways,” Alvarez said. “Many, many people speak Spanish in the Valley. It’s not threatening. Whereas [with] Mexican-American studies, you have to have difficult conversations. You’re possibly producing new knowledge that disrupts the dominant narrative, which for some people makes them very uncomfortable.”

Growing up Cuban American in Miami during the Mariel boatlift, a time of heightened anti-Cuban sentiment, “I really had no appreciation for my culture,” Alvarez said. “I wanted to distance myself as much as possible.” In high school, she didn’t read books. “Ever. The worst thing you could ever tell me was that I would have to read.” She went to college to play basketball and ended up a Spanish major by default, since it required the fewest courses to graduate. Then, during her senior year, she was required to take a Latin-American literature course. The first entry in the anthology was a magical realist story by Puerto Rican writer Rosario Ferré. For Alvarez, it was a moment of academic awakening. “I realized that this was the first time I’d ever read anything that I connected to,” she said.

When Alvarez came to teach at UTPA in 2006, the only ethnic studies degree plan was called Mexican-American Heritage, and it had graduated just three students in 30 years. Eighteen credit hours were in Spanish grammar, “indicating much of what Anzaldúa says about ‘linguistic terrorism,’ but on the Spanish side, which was to ‘correct’ the students’ Spanish,” Alvarez said. She joined an informal group of Latina junior faculty members that began developing a revised curriculum that would become the basis for Mexican-American studies at UTRGV.

Alvarez is particularly outraged that no other degree plan at the university requires a Mexican-American studies course. “If you get a degree in English, you never have to take a class in Mexican-American literature,” Alvarez said. “It is an option. But it cannot be an option if we are going to be a bicultural university. If you are going to be an English teacher, 90-something percent of your students are going to be Mexican American. Those teachers have no access to the literature that represents their students.”

UTRGV professor
Stephanie Alvarez outside her office on the Edinburg campus.  Brad Dohorty

Hiring is another issue. Alvarez pointed out that the Mexican-American studies department has only two faculty members; previous efforts at joint hires with other departments have gone nowhere. “People always think there’s an urgency for, I don’t know, ‘I desperately need a medievalist.’ But at this moment, at this university, we desperately need someone who can do bilingual and bicultural. This is what will make UTRGV stand out from any other university.”

Guajardo is acutely sensitive to the critiques voiced by Alvarez and others. “Without the infusion of culturally appropriate, culturally relevant approaches, I think that we don’t touch the spirit of the region,” he said. At one point, he was interrupted by a phone call; someone from the MBA program was looking for a course taught in Spanish to fulfill a breadth requirement. He pitched a Mexican- American studies class. “Stephanie would be great for the MBA students,” he told the person on the other line. “She would turn [the business students] upside down with all kinds of Chicano studies stuff that they would do well to know.”

As for hiring and resources, Guajardo told me, “If I have an issue, and this is a personal critique, it’s that I hoped the investment would have been so much greater. It’s not because people don’t want it. In fairness to my immediate supervisors, they’re trying, they’re working it. But you know, it’s never enough. A lot of this is the faith that we have in certain people.”

On November 2, the Day of the Dead, I joined a group of 15 UTRGV students, faculty and community members at Gloria Anzaldúa’s gravesite in the Valle de la Paz Cemetery in Hargill, the one-conveniencestore- town north of Edinburg where she grew up in a family of migrant farmworkers. Organized by the Center for Mexican American Studies, the annual pilgrimage symbolically “returns” Anzaldúa to the Valley and her alma mater, where her work, in spite of widespread acclaim elsewhere, was largely unrecognized at the time of her death in 2004. Now in its 10th year, the event and others like it have catalyzed local interest, and Anzaldúa’s writing, which moves fluidly between English and Spanish and poetry and prose, is foundational to the bilingual program.

“If we don’t want to reproduce the ‘linguistic terrorism’ that Anzaldúa experienced at Pan American University, then we need to embrace initiatives like B3,” Lupe Flores, a graduate student in anthropology and Mexican-American studies, told me. Flores first encountered Anzaldúa in one of Stephanie Alvarez’s classes and organized the pilgrimage this year. “Outside the university, we have this national climate that is very ‘English-only,’ anti-Spanish, anti-immigrant — they kind of go hand in hand,” he said. “I think this initiative has a lot of potential to undo the racism and oppression that earlier generations had to experience, and that a lot of us are still experiencing.”

On the tombstone, emblazoned on either side by bilingual passages from Anzaldúa’s work, participants placed ofrendas of sugary pan de muerto and magenta bougainvillea leaves. One student had brought a bundle of cenizo (sage), which she lit and passed around with a conch shell underneath to catch the ashes. For 15 minutes or so, everyone stood in silence, except for the sounds of birdsong, dogs barking and a rooster crowing in the distance.

Then, one by one, those gathered began to offer testimonios describing how Anzaldúa’s work embracing the linguistic and cultural richness of the borderlands had shaped their own lives. Flores spoke about his grandmother, a Pentecostal Christian whose family has lived on the same riverfront rancho for almost two centuries. Estranged first by a language barrier and later because of his homosexuality, Flores said that reading Anzaldúa had helped him reconnect with his grandmother and the culture of the border more broadly. “Seeing my grandmother think through her positions, I could see that even though she’s this very religious, God-fearing woman, she has her own borderlands, her own ways of articulating and accepting things,” he said.

Toward the end of the ceremony, members of a student poetry collective offered a choral reading of an excerpt from Anzaldúa’s work. At the text’s instruction, they invited those gathered to turn their gaze to the east, south, west and north, then to the underworld, and lastly to the sky, as they read:

We are ready for change.
Let us link hands and hearts
together find a path through the dark woods
step through the doorways between worlds
leaving huellas for others to follow,
build bridges, cross them with grace,
and claim these puentes our

“home”
si se puede, que asi sea, so be it,
estamos listas, vámonos.

Now let us shift.

contigo,
gloria

This article appears in the February 2017 issue of the Texas Observer. Read more from the issue or subscribe now.

Daniel Blue Tyx lives in McAllen. His work has appeared in Best American Travel Writing, the Gettysburg Review, CutBank and elsewhere.

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