“Latinos are shaping the future of this country, and education is paving their way,” said Professor Rosario Torres, highlighting the theme of Hispanic Heritage Month—Paving the Way for Tomorrow—and introducing guest speaker Ofelia Garcia, Professor of Urban and Latino Education as well as Hispanic and Luso [Portuguese] Languages and Literatures at the CUNY Graduate Center.
“Education is not only acquired in books, but outside the school, in the sharing of culture,” Professor Torres added, and Dr. Garcia picked up the thread.
Born in Havana, Cuba, she came to New York at age 11 with her family, and though her father—who had practiced law in Cuba—“worked in a deli, 12 to 12,” she said, “those were the best years of my life. It was a very diverse community, and we all helped each other out.”
The roots of bilingual education
Weaving the story of her career within the history of CUNY’s changing demographics, Dr. Garcia told of first earning a bachelor’s degree at Hunter College.
“Tuition was $30 a semester then, and my parents couldn’t even afford that,” she said, and told of working as a key punch operator while in school, recalling that “Hunter had maybe 30 Latino students.”
After graduating, she taught in an alternative high school in New York City.
“I came to bilingual education before there was bilingual education,” said Garcia, who authored the recent Bilingual Education in the 21st Century: A Global Perspective and Handbook of Language and Ethnic Identity, and co-authored dozens of books on culture and language, as well as hundreds of scholarly articles on the subject.
A changing paradigm
“The paradigm is not to think of it as bilingual education, but as bilingualism in the classroom,” says Dr. Garcia.
“We’re working with 27 low-performing New York City public schools on how to use ‘translanguaging’, linguistic opportunities in which the students’ language of origin is a resource in the classroom,” she explained, referring the CUNY-New York State Initiative on Emergent Bilinguals, a project of the Research Institute for the Study of Language in Urban Society, and the CUNY Graduate Center’s Ph.D. Program in Urban Education.
Dr. Garcia also shared how her career at CUNY evolved alongside immigration patterns and shifting demographics of New York City’s Hispanic community.
“When I was first at CUNY, my Latino friends were all Puerto Rican,” she said. “Then the City began changing, and there were more Dominican, Mexican, South American and other Hispanic groups and communities.”
“Their story is my story.”
BMCC President Antonio Pérez welcomed Guest Speaker Garcia and told of watching the recent Veterans’ Day Parade in New York City.
“You could see the changing demographics of the City in the marching bands and in the ROTC sections,” he said, noting a phenomenon that reflects BMCC’s evolving demographics, with its shifting proportions of Hispanic, Asian and African American students.
BMCC Vice President for Legal Affairs Robert Diaz also spoke of a changing Hispanic community in New York City. “One of the things I like about working here is seeing students,” he said. “Their story is my story.”
Speaking to Dr. Garcia, he added, “Your story is my story.”
Growing up in the Bronx, he said, he accompanied his grandmother to La Marketa every Saturday, and saw Spanish Harlem change over the years.
“The Puerto Rican Spanish Harlem I knew is Mexican, Salvadorian, Colombian now,” he said. “It’s a new mix of cultures, music and food.”
Student Steven Aguilar, President of the BMCC Business Enterprise Club and one of the event’s organizers, shared that “being Latino has helped me build a stronger future.”
Raised by his grandparents in Colombia, moving to New York and going straight to work in an auto repair store after graduating high school, he was on the subway—the “E” train—when he noticed the BMCC ad and slogan, “Start Here. Go Anwhere.”
“I am amazed at how many doors have opened for me here,” he said.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Hispanic Heritage Month was organized by Professors Carmen L. Martínez-López, Ivelisse Rodriguez, Rosario Torres and Raquel Goodison; staff members Rosa Martinez and Anna Daniels; Office of Accessibility Director Marcos Gonzales; students Steven Aguilar and Siegfried Vieluf, and alumni John Ortiz.
Click here for more Hispanic Heritage Month events, including exhibits, performances and forums now through December 5.