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New Mexican Spanish: A Case for Bilingual Public Education
New Mexican Bilinguals
Spanish has been a part of New Mexican culture for more than four centuries. New Mexican Spanish, referred to linguists as "Traditional New Mexican Spanish" or "TNMS", is a unique dialect of the Spanish language that developed independently from the rest of the language, which makes it hard to access outside of New Mexico and Southern Colorado (Bills; Vigil, 2008). In The Spanish Language of New Mexico and Southern Colorado, Bills and Vigil's studies of the language and its current state show that it is losing prominence as mostly the older generations are speaking the dialect.
New Mexicans today are more likely to learn Mexican dialects. I will get into many of the reasons bilingualism was lost through the generations, and why losing it was a missed opportunity for New Mexico. Bilingualism is an asset that, if taken seriously, can lift NM's education system out of the gutter, improve international trade, bring more families to the state, and foster the benefits of an already rich culture.
A Brief History of New Mexican Spanish
When the Spanish language arrived in New Mexico, it did not mingle much with the native languages of the land. The Spanish and the native tribes were not cordial with each other, to say the least. Their languages did not borrow much from each other apart from the names of places and artifacts.
The Spanish language of the first travelers from the south remained relatively unchanged over time compared to the dialects of Mexico. The New Mexican dialect was born out of relative isolation from the rest of the Spanish language, and regular intermingling with Native Americans and English speakers (Bills, Vigil; 2008).
UNM linguists and Spanish language experts, Garland Bills and Neddy Vigil, are the academic authority on Traditional New Mexican Spanish. They tell us that the current state of New Mexican Spanish is a reflection of poor education and a limited practicality of use outside of the home. Spanish was not permitted in the schools of early New Mexican statehood. Young Nuevomexicanos were punished and put down because of their lack of English and, later, their accents. This created a generation of bilinguals that had only realized the negative effects of bilingualism.
My grandparents are great examples of this. Growing up in Central NM and Southern CO, respectively, they grew up speaking New Mexican Spanish at home and learning English at school. Like many other Nuevomexicanos, they did not teach their children Spanish because of the negative connotations the society put on expressing their culture.
Today, they admit they didn't see the benefit of knowing Spanish until later in life. I have found that those benefits are apparent across the board as I looked into the worlds of bilingual psychoanalysis, education, business opportunities, and more. Many believe that, in the long run, a state-wide bilingual education would benefit New Mexico in unimaginable ways all while keeping true to a tradition of the people who have lived here for centuries.
The Benefits of Bilingualism
In 1972, ASPIRA, a Hispanic youth education non-profit, won a law suit over the city of New York which granted students the right to English-learning services within their public schools. Through the guidance of ASPIRA, schools were given the infrastructure to provide bilingual learning services to kids who would have otherwise been left behind. The result: non-English speakers were given adequate education and many bilingual teachers were hired who had not been able to find jobs prior.
New Mexico has some immigration from the spanish-speaking countries that are ready to be employed. Many times, schools are not equipped to meet the needs of English learners and those students are too often deferred to special needs programs.
New Mexico's high school graduation rate ranks 46th among all states (worldpopulationreview.com, 2021), with Hispanics and Native Americans suffering the most (www.nmvoices.org, 2008; and A historic background of bilingual education, Destination Casa Blanca, 2009).
A completely immersive bilingual public school system could not only improve the dropout rate in New Mexico but improve the learning abilities and brain power of NM students. Bilingual brains look and act differently from their monolingual counterparts.
According to Mia Nacamulli, bilinguals have "a higher density of grey matter that contains most of the brains neurons and synapsis and more activity in certain regions when engaging a second language,"(The benefits of a bilingual brain, 2015). Nacamulli also states that the great benefits of bilingualism were not know by experts just 60 years ago.
Teachers saw bilingualism as a handicap that slowed development down when, in reality, they just weren’t teaching in affective ways. Speaking two languages has shown to increase the strength of the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex of the brain. This is the executive function part of the brain that is in charge of, "problem solving, switching between tasks, and focusing while filtering out irrelevant information," (Nacamulli, 2015). Essentially, being bilingual may not make you smarter, per say, but it is an exercise to keep your brain healthy, improve openness to new information, increase neuroplasticity between new regions of your brain, and even decrease the chances of dementia (Nacamulli, 2015).
Spanish is the most spoken language in the Americas. 418 million people speak Spanish within the US, Central, and South America. Why not open ourselves up to business for all of them?
New Mexico is a Spanish-language hub of the United States, and should be using that to it's advantage in our globalized economy. New Mexico's southern neighbor, Mexico, is the largest Spanish-speaking country in the world. With 125 million residents and over a trillion dollars in GDP, Mexico is an international hub of trade and culture, and should be a stronger business ally to New Mexico than it already is.
The trade efficiency that bilinguals bring to business should be apparent, but what is less apparent is the growing demand of bilingual education around the United States. Bilingual educators are mostly private schools peppered around the US where parents can pay for Spanish immersion schooling. In NM over 40% of the residents speak Spanish - it is hard to find that many potential native-speakers elsewhere.
While attracting families around the US to New Mexico to raise their kids as bilinguals (provided free, K-12), NM would also employ more teachers into a neglected public school system. This, of course, takes money. I would, someday like to publish an article on bilingual education public funding requirements and the political climate that would be needed to pull it off.
New Mexican culture is unique by being one of the oldest cultures still alive in America today. As European explorers devastated Native American traditions and cultures, some Native Americans groups, dating back as far as 2500 years ago, were changed forever.
Today, 19 Native American Pueblos, Tribes, and Nations are surviving in varying degrees of financial stability (New Mexico True, 2022). Their languages, however, are almost completely lost to history. The many languages that called New Mexico home for thousands of years, took a back seat to Spanish.
Today, Spanish takes a back seat to English. A bilingual school system in New Mexico would need to have a large focus on the Native languages lost due to colonialism. Forgetting the beautiful languages of our past will only hurt the minority culture and New Mexico would lose the history in which we admire.
New Mexican Spanish would, no doubt, be hard to readmit as a dominant dialect in NM. Much of the population that speaks it are retired and there are few academics who understand it well. Furthermore, the dialect, itself, has been the victim of centuries of neglect. TNMS has become simplified over time with many of its speakers having small Spanish vocabularies due to impracticality of use compared to English. The Spanish of New Mexico's future is, likely, going to sound more Mexican.
How Practical is This?
There would be great benefits from implementing a state-wide bilingual education program. I also know that a program like this would cost tax payers money, but not as much as you might think. A study by The University of Texas at El Paso shows that, on average, implementing bilingual education results in a 10% increase in expenses (Knight, Izquierdo, DeMatthews; 2017). That size of increase could be diminished by eliminating wasteful spending on standardized testing. Regardless, New Mexico is in need of more education funding.
As New Mexicans know, the education system is struggling. The economy is struggling. Children are falling behind their American counterparts (and even further behind international counterparts). New Mexico needs to try something new without forgetting about the cultures that make it beautiful. Bilingual education is an investment in better education, a more diverse and faster-growing economy, and a way for us to save our culture from linguistic gentrification.