NPR: West Liberty, Iowa

{Photo by: cliff1066™}

As I mentioned last week, NPR is dedicating the next few days to a series entitled Two Languages, Many Voices: Latinos in the U.S. about bicultural Latinos and their impact on education, technology, religion and entertainment.

The first part in the series about the town of West Liberty in Iowa and how the majority of its population is Latino aired earlier today in Morning Edition. The story, along with an interactive map of how Latinos are reshaping communities are both available on NPR’s website. (Be forewarned, as usual, not all the comments are pleasant or even informed.)

By the way, I must say I was astounded on Friday when NPR teased the series on their Facebook fan page saying it would be exploring bilingual life in the U.S. and asked how English and Spanish affected the lives of its fans. The prompt got over 1,000 comments. My surprise was not with the racist and ignorant comments – sadly, I’ve become used to those already – but with the many, many people who supported bilingualism and shared their own stories of growing up or raising kids with two languages. Bravo!

The fact that NPR is dedicating a whole week to this series speaks volumes of what it means to be the largest minority in this country, 50.5 million and counting. It should also serve as a reminder that Latinos have been here since before this country officially became the United States and that regardless of the broken immigration system, we’re here to stay.

My first reaction after listening to today’s story was that West Liberty sounds like an oasis at a time when anti-immigrant laws – the toughest of which were just passed in Alabama – have become the “in” thing to do.

I know there are Latinos pretty much anywhere in the United States, but prior to listening to this story, I had no idea they were in Iowa, and much less that many of them have been there for generations. In fact, the first Latino immigrants arrived in the 1930s to work in the town’s turkey plant (I guess little has changed since then) and apparently many never left.

My favorite character in the story was the mayor, Chad Thomas, who moved to West Liberty 11 years ago because of its diversity AND… dual language school which is in its 14th year.

“A big factor for us since we were thinking about kids was the dual language school program, so the thought of our children being able to go through the school system and come out speaking Spanish relatively fluently,” Thomas gave as an explanation. If only more people could be open enough to the benefits of bilingualism, dual language programs would be the norm around the country.

On another note, I was introduced to professor Rubén G. Rumbaut a sociologist who’s been studying children of immigrants since the 1990s. I think I might have heard his name before, but it reminded me that this is someone I’d really like to read more about because his research sounds invaluable to someone like me who is raising children of immigrants.

“To be bicultural, to be bilingual, means to feel comfortable in two cultural worlds, to feel comfortable and proficient in two languages,” Rumbaut said, describing exactly what I, and many of you who read this blog, can identify with easily.

In the next few days we plan to bring you previews of some of the other stories in NPR’s series and hopefully an exclusive interview with Claudio Sanchez, the station’s education correspondent who spent some time in Coral Way Elementary School in Miami, the nation’s oldest bilingual immersion program in the country.

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