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91 C h a p t e r T h r e e Schooling Bilinguals In and Against Multiculturalism The 1967 Congressional Hearings on the Bilingual Education Act included the testimony of Piri Thomas, author of Down These Mean Streets (1967), a memoir that chronicles his struggles with drugs, gangs, and crime while growing up as a dark-skinned Puerto Rican American man in the New York of the 1940s and ’50s. Invited to give his opinion on bilingual education from the perspective of someone who grew up bilingual, Thomas made a statement in support of bilingual education that employed what seems like a prototypical rhetoric of multiculturalism: “Like all ethnic groups aside from those who speak English, outside they [language minorities] speak English, but in their homes and families and communities they speak the tongue that is the joy of their heart, whether it is Jewish, Italian, Spanish, Russian , Chinese, Japanese, and all the others. That does not make them any less Americans. I think it makes them better Americans if they can have the liberty and freedom of choice in expressing the beauty of their culture and their heritage.”1 Thomas’s emphasis on respect and appreciation of cultural and linguistic difference resonates with what Charles Taylor calls “the politics of recognition,” which is based on the presumption that “a person or a group of people can suffer real damage, real distortion, if the people or society around them mirror back to them a confining or demeaning or contemptible picture of themselves.”2 Instead of a deficiency, a lack, bilingualism is the sign of sufficiency and abundance in Thomas’s vision of multiculturalism, a rectification of the misrecognition of before. Schooling Bilinguals In and Against Multiculturalism 92 His essay, “Sounds from a Street Kid,” appended to his statement before Congress, however, offers a slightly different take on the significance of bilingualism. Bilingualism, here, appears not so much based on an evenness between the languages of the private sphere, of “the homes, families, and communities” and that of the public sphere but on a recognition of the anarchic tendencies of marginal languages to threaten the processes of linguistic standardization that construct linguistic capital. A street kid’s address to the “Olders” about how they could work toward social harmony together, “Sounds from a Street Kid” employs street slang, a far cry from standard English, to make its case. The few instances where a Spanish word appears, its English equivalent is given in parentheses immediately after, and the Spanish words are incorporated into the street vernacular. Thomas uses this street vernacular, the language of the street kid, to communicate an epochal shift in the tides of power. “We’re born faster,” proclaims the street kid, “live faster, learn faster and really travel faster. We live in an age of bobby terms, ‘like for real,’ ‘monsters,’ ‘molecules,’ and ‘split atoms.’ And like in your long English, ‘an age of power.’ One beyond our normal kicks and imagination, with fears, uncertainties, of forced mananas [sic], as the ever present game time flares out and fades out via La Bomba.”3 The kid asserts that the destructive power of advancements in technology, like the atomic bomb, shapes the language of the everyday on the streets and creates an acute awareness of the relations of power in one’s environment. This is the matrix of bilingual subject formation from the street kid’s perspective. In retrospect, the two different kinds of bilingual experiences Thomas delivered at the Hearings can be read as forecasting future debates on multiculturalism, especially as to whether multiculturalism ’s emphasis on identity directs attention away from structural problems of inequality.4 Thomas’s support for the “liberty and freedom of choice in expressing the beauty of their culture and their heritage” imagines democratic society as a place where individuals and groups can live authentically according to their cultural heritage without being stigmatized or discriminated against. In this sense, his vision accords with Joshua Fishman’s ideal of cultural pluralism discussed in the previous chapter. However, in his literary representation of the bilingual child, Thomas complicates the democratic vision in his public congressional statement. Thomas’s street kid, a literary example of the very children under discussion at the Hearings, shows the elusiveness of multiculturalism for democracy when it is detached Schooling Bilinguals In and Against Multiculturalism 93 from the material concerns and power relations that create an equivalence between the terms of bilingual children and children of the streets. When...


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