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Words Were All We Had: Becoming Biliterate Against the Odds

reviewed by Marguerite Lukes - January 12, 2012

coverTitle: Words Were All We Had: Becoming Biliterate Against the Odds
Author(s): Maria de la Luz Reyes (ed.)
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 0807751804, Pages: 192, Year: 2011
Search for book at Amazon.com

“Growing up bilingual in America should be cause for celebration. Heritage languages are vital national resources” (p. 1) states María de la Luz Reyes, Professor Emerita at the University of Colorado-Boulder, at the start of her new edited volume, Words Were all We Had: Becoming Biliterate Against the Odds. This slim book introduces personal narratives of accomplished Latino education scholars who became not only bilingual, but biliterate and academically successful in the era when Spanish was explicitly banned from public schools. Reyes writes that these testimonials “represent a sliver of unwritten history of Latina/os’ triumph over a school system intent on suppressing non-English languages” (p. xiv).  Though each narrative provides a glimpse back to events that took place decades ago, readers will find elements reminiscent of current conditions and attitudes that persist in U.S. schools today. The testimonios that comprise Words Were all They Had are particularly timely in the current climate of anti-immigrant/anti-Latino sentiment and against a backdrop of disappearing bilingual maintenance programs for heritage language students.  Despite extensive research on bilingualism and language acquisition, the U.S. remains a pluralistic society with persistent unease, rather than celebration, about its many heritage languages (Valdes, Fishman, Chávez, & Pérez, 2006). Despite growing immigration, the U.S. places little value on multilingualism, with limited efforts to encourage the development of heritage languages in schools where language shift toward English is more the norm among immigrants than the exception (Valdes et al., 2006; Wiley, 2005).

In her introduction, Reyes makes clear the purpose of the volume. The contributors are from a generation of U.S.-born Latinos who grew up between the mid-1940’s and 1960’s without the benefit of bilingual education. These Puerto Rican and Chicano authors are from populations that comprised the majority of U.S.-born Latinos in that period, prior to significant migration from Cuba, Central or South America to the U.S.  Reyes provides historical context and describes the policy landscape prior to the 1968 passage of the Bilingual Education Act. Key in the introduction is Reyes’ rationale for the book -- the testimonials of the eleven contributors are important because they emerged as success stories from a  “school system that crushed the spirit of millions of others who dropped out of school over the past 60 years or more” (p.8.). She makes clear that her point is to reveal the relentless effort needed to achieve and maintain a linguistic resource in a climate in which schools do not support it.

Each personal narrative is written by an accomplished education scholar who is a recognized leader in bilingual/multicultural education. Part I, “Embracing Biliteracy with Conviction and Purpose,” portrays the varied development of biliteracy against a backdrop of Spanish dominance at home. Sonia Nieto tracks her linguistic development toward a rejection of all things Spanish, only to return to embrace Spanish, minor in it in college and subsequently become a bilingual teacher. Josué M. González describes the rich linguistic context of his childhood in South Texas where he not only fell in love with Spanish but stood up for his right to use it in school. Carmen I. Mercado traces her personal development in the shifting contexts of Puerto Rican New York and visits to family in Puerto Rico, tenaciously pursuing the goal of developing and maintaining academic proficiency in Spanish. The narratives in Part II, “Novelas, Revistas, Fotonovelas,” present the creative and novel ways that the contributors’ families supported their biliteracy development through an assortment of texts. Lilia Bartolomé relates how entry into the world of her female relatives’ love for novelas and fotonovelas sustained her Spanish literacy development.  María de la Luz Reyes tells of her family’s active attendance at mass, in which bilingual (Latin/Spanish) editions of the mass and Spanish prayer books were a stepping stone to learning to read in Spanish. María Balderrama writes of how her loving aunt taught her to read in Spanish using the popular women’s magazines Vanidades  and Confidencias only to later face racism and xenophobia from English speaking classmates.

The third section, “Resistance, Agency and Biliteracy,” explores cultural agency and linguistic hegemony and how the contributors struggled to maintain their identities. John Halcón describes his role as school translator and standing up for his and his classmates’ right to speak Spanish in school.  In a different role as cultural broker, Stephen Arvizu underscores the vital and nurturing role of his mother in fostering his bilingualism and biliteracy. His testimonial presents a strengths-based perspective on the opportunities that families provide for students to stretch and develop their biliteracy, rather than fostering the persistent deficit view that families’ non-English language practices are a problem. In her coming of age story, set in Texas in the 1940’s, Concepción M. Valadez provides an evocative first-person account of pre- and post-World War II era segregation for U.S.-born Latinos and the institutional racism of schools.  The two contributions in Part IV,  “Island and Mainland Influences on Biliteracy” focus on the role of circular migration in biliteracy development. María Fránquiz’ story of her Puerto Rican military childhood documents her shifts between locales and their differing cultural contexts and linguistic expectations. Pedro Pedraza describes the diverse linguistic and cultural identities he developed in his East Harlem neighborhood, in school, visiting family in Puerto Rico and encounters with other communities and how these interactions fostered his social consciousness.

In her conclusion, Reyes positions the contributions as “counterstories” of Latinos “who managed to outfox a powerful system intent on transforming them into something less than they were capable of becoming” (p. 143).  The development of biliteracy is presented as a conscious act of resistance and struggle.  She also extols the important roles that parents and caregivers played in providing vehicles for developing biliteracy and providing opportunities to read, write and develop fluency outside of the context of schools -- and despite schools’ explicit message that English alone had value.

Although there are no explicit policy recommendations in the book, the glaring pedagogical and institutional issues presented in the narratives provide important lessons for teachers, administrators, community college and university faculty and staff, social service providers, and anyone working with emergent bilingual students who has a role in their social and emotional development. The volume gives a human face to issues related to language in education policy, and the compelling personal stories tell us loudly and with clarity what is at stake. This hopeful volume is an important addition to existing literature on bilingualism and language policy. It provides detailed background on multiple facets of emergent bilingualism, the politics of bilingual education in the U.S., and Latinos’ on-going struggle to maintain language and identity in a public school climate of pervasive institutional racism. Dedicating her book to the next generation, Reyes writes “when you are old enough to read this book, I hope you will understand the importance of the bicultural identity you have inherited.” The book can serve as a reminder of the importance of continuing the struggle against linguistic and cultural hegemony in hopes that the linguistic resources of a future generation of children will be nurtured by home and school and that growing up bilingually will indeed be a cause for celebration.


Valdes, G. , Fishman, J.A., Chávez, R., Pérez, W. (2006)  Developing Heritage Language Resources: The Case of Spanish in California. Clevedon, UK: Multilingual Matters.

Wiley, T.G. (Ed.) (2005) Literacy and Language Diversity in the United States, 2nd Edition. Washington, DC: Center for Applied Linguistics and Delta Systems.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: January 12, 2012
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16647, Date Accessed: 12/7/2021 3:26:26 PM

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About the Author
  • Marguerite Lukes
    City University of New York's New Community College
    E-mail Author
    MARGUERITE LUKES, Ph.D. is Assistant Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies at the City University of New York's New Community College. She completed her Ph.D. in education at New York University’s Steinhardt School of Education, Culture and Human Development, where she researched the pathways of young adult immigrants in adult and alternative education programs. A chapter focused on this research will appear in The Education of the Hispanic Population, edited by Richard Verdugo & Billie Gastic (in press). Her work on native language literacy and Latino adult learners has appeared recently in The International Multilingual Research Journal and The Journal of Latinos and Education. She is currently conducting research on post-secondary pathways of Latino immigrant youth.
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