Punished for Speaking Spanish

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 Photo by frankjuarez

Photo by frankjuarez

Just when you think things are getting better, you find out outrageous news like this one: a bilingual secretary in a public elementary school in North Carolina has sued the school district claiming she was fired for speaking Spanish to students’ parents.

According to the article in the Charlotte Observer, the lawsuit states that in 2006, Ana Ligia Mateo was hired as a bilingual secretary for a school with a student body that’s 42 percent Hispanic. Everything was fine until a new principal came on board in 2008 and “announced in a staff meeting that she would no longer allow Spanish to be spoken to parents by any of the faculty or staff,” according to the lawsuit.

I recommend you read the article to get all the details, but the main point is that Mateo apparently continued to use Spanish to communicate with non-English speaking parents even though she was told repeatedly not to do so. After a couple of disturbing incidents where the principal refused to allow Mateo to translate for parents seeking help, the secretary told administrators she felt her civil rights were being violated. The principal told her to “follow her policy of no Spanish speaking or she could leave,” according to the lawsuit. When she complained to the human resources office, she was told she couldn’t return to the elementary school until she agreed to the policy in writing. She didn’t and she was fired in September 2008.

Fortunately, Mateo didn’t stay quiet. She took her case to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which eventually ruled that there is “reasonable cause” to believe her civil rights were violated. Last week, her civil-rights lawsuit was moved from state court, where it was originally filed, to federal court. Good for Mateo.

I can’t deny I was appalled by the whole story. My biggest issue is that I don’t understand the reason behind the discriminatory policy. I mean, why would it matter to the principal if Mateo was translating for Spanish-speaking parents? Isn’t it common knowledge that the more parents are involved in their children’s education the better off they’ll be?

The contradictory thing is that this particular school district apparently prides itself in making sure it meets the needs of Spanish-speaking families by translating materials sent home from school and providing translators. After all, 16 percent of the district’s students – more than 21,000 of the 133,700 – are Latino.

How’s this for another twist? The principal, Suzanne Gimenez, is married to a Latino.

Just as outraged as I was about the story, I was encouraged by the fact that Mateo didn’t go down without a fight. She’s apparently not talking to the press, but I’d give anything to interview her. We definitely need more people like her to make sure this type of absurd, discriminatory policies cease to exist immediately.

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