Credit Edward Ubiera

LOS ANGELES — In the deepest reaches of my brain, there is a boy who speaks Spanish.

He calls his mother and father “Mamá” and “Papá.” One of his favorite expressions is “qué lindo” (how nice, or how sweet). He’s proud of the Mexican slang he’s learned: for instance, “no hay pedo,” which means “no problem,” though its literal translation is “there is no fart.”

California nearly killed that boy.

My parents arrived in Los Angeles as immigrants from Guatemala. We had a shelf of books in Spanish in our Los Angeles home, including “El Señor Presidente” by the Guatemalan Nobel laureate Miguel Ángel Asturias, but growing up I could not read them.

Like millions of Latino kids educated in California public schools, I never took a class in Spanish grammar or Spanish literature, nor was I ever asked to write a single word with an accent or a squiggly tilde over it. In the ’70s, Spanish was the language of poverty and backwardness in the eyes of some school administrators, and many others.

Supposedly, we got smarter by forgetting Spanish. By the time I was a teenager, I spoke the language at the level of a second grader. My English was perfect, but in Spanish I was a nincompoop.

I knew I had lost something priceless to me. A lot of Latino kids who grow up without Spanish feel this. And last week, even as the Latino-immigrant basher Donald J. Trump was elected president, many engaged in a successful collective act of cultural resistance by joining other Californian voters who overwhelmingly approved a ballot measure to expand bilingual education in public schools.

Proposition 58 overhauls another ballot initiative that was approved by the voters in 1998. That measure was born in the early years of the anti-immigrant movement, before it spread from California across the United States.

Back then, Spanish had become the de facto second language of California. Latino immigrant children were filling the underfunded public schools and not doing very well, while chattering away to one another and to their teachers in Spanish in their overcrowded classrooms. Ron Unz, the Silicon Valley entrepreneur who helped lead the anti-bilingual education movement, argued that educating immigrant kids exclusively in English would improve our test scores.

No one disputes that every child in this country should learn English. But the no-Spanish dictate amounted to a form of cultural erasure. It was a cruel, shortsighted act, born of ignorance and intolerance.

Being literate in the language of your immigrant ancestors (whether that language is Spanish, Korean, Mandarin or Armenian) makes you wiser and more powerful. I know this from experience.

It took me two years of college study and a year enrolled abroad at Mexico’s national university to reboot and upgrade my bilingual brain. Shakespeare and Cervantes now live in my frontal lobe. Seinfeld and the Mexican comedian Cantinflas, too. Bob Dylan and the Chilean songwriter Violeta Parra. I have sought to master the Anglo-Saxon language spoken by Lincoln and Whitman, and also the Latinate language of Pablo Neruda and of the Angeleno street vendors.

With Spanish’s endearments and ample use of the subjunctive tense and the diminutive, I have learned that to know a language is to enter into another way of being.

My father, for example, is a charming man in English, a language he has spoken fluently for a half-century. In Spanish, however, his full talents as a sardonic raconteur are on display; he’s even prone to the occasional philosophical soliloquy. My mother is a fluent English speaker, but in Spanish she’s a storyteller with a deeply romantic bent and a flair for the ironic.

Today, I write books in English, but the roots of my career as a writer lie in Spanish literacy and Spanish fluency.

Most of my extended family lives in Guatemala and speaks no English. When I returned to that country as a fluent Spanish speaker, I had my first grown-up conversations with my grandparents, uncles and cousins. I learned of village dramas and quiet acts of resistance against Guatemala’s dictatorship, including my grandfather’s adventures as a bricklayer and die-hard union man.

It was only as a fluent Spanish speaker that I finally I came to know my true self. Who I was and where I came from.

Soon enough, I also came to know a Los Angeles I would not have known otherwise: a city with its own brand of Spanish, a city shaped by the ceaseless improvisations, reinventions and ambitions of its Spanish speakers. They became the subjects of my novels.

For Latino immigrant children, Spanish is the key that unlocks the untranslatable wisdom of their elders, and that reveals the subtle truths in their family histories. It’s a source of self-knowledge, a form of cultural capital. They are smarter, in fact, for each bit of Spanish they keep alive in their bilingual brains. And they are more likely to see the absurdity in the rants of xenophobes and racists.

In Europe, most people speak more than one language. Some speak three or four or more. Multilingualism is a sign of intellectual achievement and sophistication.

A fourth grader from Guadalajara, Mexico, learning English for the first time in a Los Angeles classroom needs to know that what she already possesses is valuable. Teach her English, yes, but also the rules of Spanish spelling — and give her some Juan Rulfo to read when she gets older.

She’ll most likely see some of herself in the stories of that Mexican genius. And it might soon dawn on her that she’s a genius, too.

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If you had had access to a Spanish-speaking curriculum growing up in the U.S., would you have been interested? Why or why not?

Ana Garcia

Alexandria, VA


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Ana Garcia

Alexandria, VA 1 day ago

My parents moved to Florida from the DR when I was six, and while I've always been able to speak and understand Spanish like a native speaker, I don't know anything about the Spanish-language literary tradition. I loved reading Shakespeare in high school, but there's so much I missed because other national literature wasn't taught. I would definitely have been interested!

Ingrid Paredes

New Brunswick, NJ 1 day ago

Absolutely! Like Mr. Tobar's, my extended family is Guatemalan, and I have always wished I could speak to them with a really native level of fluency. If I had been able to do some coursework in Spanish, I think I would feel much more connected to that part of my family.

Andre Skanda

San Francisco, CA 1 day ago

I do international business development for my company, and I interact with people from Latin America all the time over the phone, but I avoid email because my written Spanish is nowhere as good as my English. People forget that speaking and writing are totally different skills, even for people who grew up speaking a second language at home. If my school had offered a program like this, you can bet I would have signed up.

NYT Pick

Anthony Garvas

San Francisco 21 hours ago

This has proven so true for me. My parents are from Greece, but I grew up in Chicago, and I reached college with just a rudimentary grasp of written Greek. When I finally had a chance to study Greek in college (modern and Classical), I felt more connected to my parents and my past than ever before. No one should be denied a chance to know their language intimately: to write it correctly, to read it, and to speak it freely

NYT Pick

Bohdan A Oryshkevich

New York City 1 day ago

As one with nearly thirty five years experience with scores of students from every Ivy plus MIT and Stanford, Harvard stands out.

Harvard and its students are obsessed with the selectivity of their school. Upon entry, many Harvard students feel that Harvard made a mistake in selecting them.

So, Harvard has developed multiple rituals after matriculation to reassure students that they are not there because of a mistake by the admissions office.

So, every on-campus organization portrays itself as selective.

Individual students reassure themselves by applying to selective programs for Harvard students. Pity the Harvard student who has not reaffirmed his sense of belonging by entering one of these organizations or programs.

Some of these organizations even have selective locations run by individual organizations.

This results in a school wide neurosis re personal worth that devalues the importance of education.

Students at places like Cal Berkeley, U of Michigan, UNC, not to mention some of the other Ivies just get on with their education and are better and luckier for it.

NYT Pick


west jersey 1 day ago

If you want to know why Trump won the election, look no further than the elite 5% taking to the liberal media to protest being so callously tormented by the opposite sex.

Spend a day waiting tables, working a production line, or delivering packages, then explain to the country the humiliation of being listed a 6 on the soccer teams spreadsheet.

Sexual assault and/or harassment is wrong and should be punished, but the the notion that 20 year old boys should keep their opinions to themselves (or be punished) wreaks of political correctness that has never existed in this country or any other.

"Make America Great Again" is wrapped in reprehensible undertones, but is also a response to a sense of PC run amuck.

NYT Pick


Washington D.C. 1 day ago

I was traveling abroad with fellow Harvard graduate school classmates on an unofficial trip over the winter break, when I looked back and a female friend had a stone-cold look on her face. "They're talking about you guys. They're rating the women on the trip who they would kill, f--- or marry." I apparently was the unanimous middle choice. These male classmates-- who listened respectfully in class and treated me as an intellectual equal, who relished in sharing our hopes and dreams for our country and the world over coffee and dinner parties, who encouraged me to take leadership positions on campus and take risky moves professionally-- were ranking and categorizing me based on my attractiveness. It particularly stung because, after years of traumatizing dating in New York, it reinforced a notion that I wasn't worth being committed to. So I cried. And they noticed. And they listened. And they apologized. But I lost trust. I was so naïve to believe that men value women inherently and not just by their attractiveness.

NYT Pick


Canada 1 day ago

Yes we rate each other. We rank and criticise each other. When we're young we use our sexuality. But, somewhere in the deepest parts of our minds, we know that it's wrong - exciting and dangerous but wrong. The election of Trump seems to make it 'less' wrong and that's the problem. The normalisation or sexual assault by a president is deeply wrong as are his personal attacks on anyone. This should not be under discussion. There is a moral compass that's being eroded.


boston 1 day ago

As a male of a certain age I am not terribly surprised by the rapacious attitudes of these male students. And as a Harvard alum I'm not surprised their competitive instincts are well-honed, though this may be true among the 'locker room' crowd everywhere. What does puzzle me are the lines of underdressed young women waiting patiently to be scored, 'banged,' possibly assaulted, and degraded. Something is missing from this picture, something about the motivations of the young women, which even the author--one of them, and a perceptive observer--doesn't seem to grasp.

NYT Pick


Canada 1 day ago

I really don't know what all the fuss was about; male athletes making lists and ratings of female athletes... It doesn't matter that it was - as the author put it - "a project that required time, effort and a certain kind of skill." To my knowledge, these lists were not meant for distribution beyond the teams involved, and only came to light because someone got their hands on one. If a group of people want to get together and do something that others may find silly, wasteful or even in bad taste, that's their business. Did the lists promote sexual assault or rape? Does not appear that they did. The lists themselves are not 'sexual assault' or part of a so-called 'rape culture'. But the school and media were essentially treating the matter as though sexual assault or harassment had occurred.

How about this? Let boys be boys and girls be girls. And so long as no one is getting hurt, things will be just fine in the end. When you start trying to control people's behaviour to the levels we're seeing today, bad things will come of it. Just wait.


California 21 hours ago

Please, please, please - clueless young women and men! Enough with the endless lectures about political lectures. Suck it up and get on with what's important in life. Criticizing each other and constantly casting blame doesn't get the big problems solved - global warming, fair pay for the middle class, good education which won't beggar you.
Men and women are worried about their appeal to the opposite sex. Life is unfair. Women have to work harder and look better to succeed. Get over it.
I am sick of these endless, petty articles in the New York Times by whiny privileged women (in particular). Who is more privileged than students at Harvard?

So please stop these articles by whiny women. I want to hear from good writers about things that are important. Our culture is sexist and racist. Our President Elect is sexist and racist. Whining about it just turns more people off.
The NY Times hires awful women who whine, both literally and figuratively, from Maureen Dowd down to their student writers (to appeal to younger whiners?) like the Moslem woman at NYU who wrote about her former horrible room mate who voted for Trump, to whom she would not even speak. Life is unfair. Take advantage of being at Harvard or NYU or wherever you are, and concentrate on learning something useful or smart, and how to get along with others in a racist, sexist world. Be thankful that you at least live in a democracy with some rights. Use your education to help the planet.

NYT Pick

Ann Marie

Brown 1 day ago

I don't know why women would even want to go to Harvard. It has been exhibiting open signs of sexism since the Larry Summers debacle. If a woman wants a great education without the hassle of these hormone driven men she should go to Holyoke or Smith. There is real support for women and success in those schools. My daughter went to Mt. Holyoke and it was fabulous for her. She's incredibly beautiful and I was pleased that she was at least isolated from the boys, and they are still boys, when she wanted to be and could enjoy fellows on the weekend at her choice. She's a doctor now having graduated from Northwestern Medical School in Chicago.


new hartford, ny 1 day ago

And these students are our best and brightest? Yet another sign our nation is in decline. Harvard students should feel right at home in Trump's world. Sad and tragic for the students and for our nation.

NYT Pick


NY, NY 1 day ago

I was a student at Radcliffe in the early 1960s, and my experiences with the Freshman Register were innocent. No monstrous, rape-inclined men. Just a bunch of awkward dates.

I believe abuse and assault are all too real, but everyone should not be tarnished with the same brush.

NYT Pick


Kansas City 1 day ago

If your daughter told you the truth, I bet you'd learn that she was not merely "treated rudely." Even when I went to college, back in the olden days, rape was common and gang rape was not unusual. I had hoped that something good might come of the backlash against now President-Elect Trump's attitude towards women: that young women might understand that they don't have to put up with rape, assault, harassment and denigration as the daily gauntlet. But instead, it may be normalized, thanks in large part to people who view it as "this game" that has "rewards."

  • In Reply to Lure D. Lou
NYT Pick


Wisconsin 1 day ago

Personally, with the price of an education at Harvard, I would have my nose in books and other study materials. This kind of chatter is totally beneath the dignity of the school.


21 hours ago

News flash: girls have similar lists about boys. There are lots and lots of hormones running amuck in colleges these days. Perhaps those old school masters and mistresses knew what they were doing when they kept the randy apart in single sex universities in rural areas. They weren't naive prudes; they knew young people!

Surely the NYTimes has better things to report than the silliness of college-age students, no matter how bright or "elite". So long as they're not raping one another, it's just all part of being young and in college.

Girls certainly play into this when they try to dress as provocatively as possible. They want to be seen as "hot", and then complain when they are seen that way!

Rachel B.

Cambridge, MA 1 day ago

Not sure why it should be surprising that the most elite university in the American, perhaps the world, selects for people whose competitive instincts far outstrip their more pro-social and altruistic ones. Achievement orientation as a life strategy has it's benefits, and limitations, of course, depending on who you ask. Just ask President Trump.

John Brown

Idaho 22 hours ago

Are people actually surprised that late adolescents
act like adolescents ?

Here is a cure to many of the Nation's Problems:

a) Bring back the Draft - everyone must serve either in the Military -
Public Service. No deferments, no pulling strings.
Then mix the young people so they are in groups with all backgrounds.

b) After two years they can leave or stay on.
For every year of service one year of college/trade school is paid for.


Omaha, NE 1 day ago

While this unjustice is terrible, it is not the only injustice.

Women also rank men, sorting them into "winners" and "losers," evaluating them as potential champions and breadwinners in ways which can be just as cruel and demeaning as men's varieties of objectification.

We will make little further progress with gender equality if we continue to view gender stereotyping and gender oppression as only an issue of problem men and victim women.

This article simply reinforces typical gender oppression tropes.

Men who speak out on their gender oppression are instantly labeled as "losers." Men and boys are very oppressed by gender roles, but they are laughed away and belittled when they talk about it, which is not only sad and unjust, but also perpetuates the gender oppression of women.

Joe G

Houston 21 hours ago

Is the nytimes auditioning college girls for their editorial board?

I like to read a story about a women who was left by her husband because he lost his job and gave up on life. She lost her job too and has three kids to support. Or how about a story a women that loosing her toes one by one because of diabetes and soon her leg. Real misery not the priviledged misery of some wealthy princess.

I'm stating to get in the spirit of the holiday's:

Bah humbug where's the gulag, where's the re education camps.

NYT Pick

Jim Isenberg

Brownsville, Oregon 1 day ago

Just like every other collection of people, the ranks of Harvard students include clowns who waste much of their time rating other people in stupid ways. However, this article seems to suggest that these clowns dominate the population of Harvard students, especially those participating in varsity sports. Back in my undergraduate days at Princeton, where I was a member of the Cross Country, Wrestling and Track teams, there was some of that useless discussion. However, at practices most of us were focused on running faster or wrestling tougher (or making weight). And away from practice, we mostly studied like hell. I don't believe that things have changed that much.


Tolland, CT 1 day ago

I agree we are all evaluating each other all the time. But what I am not sure about is why in the end this becomes about sexism. Why is it less ok to judge based on physical attractiveness than on, say, intelligence or wit or toughness or physical strength? Each of these things is to a large extent out of our control, the product of genes and upbringing.


is a trusted commenter Des Moines 19 hours ago

How can this be ??? These are the brilliant elites who voted slavishly for Hillary while the ignorant louts in rural America voted Trump. I guess what this proves is that you can't categorize people by where they go to school or where they live. I might add the writer is a bit to sensitive to the realities of the world. As one who did a stint in 'Nam I find your complaining a bit ridiculous.

J. Sutton

San Francisco 1 day ago

The election of Trump heralds the validity of this kind of thinking. As others have said this is another sign of our decline as a nation. i've always been in favor of teaching ethics in high schools and also in colleges but our society is veering away from such points of view.

NYT Pick


NY 1 day ago

Male conquests and women's desirability as targets for such conquests know no class or national boundaries. Every man as Trump supporters contend indulges in the talk which appears crass to some (some women who supported did not).. It is a problem with no solution

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