From the College of Humanities and Social Sciences
Maria Luisa Spicer-Escalante

Maria Luisa Spicer-Escalante, associate professor of Spanish and linguistics, is fascinated by languages and advocates for dual immersion programs in Utah.

Una Voz Fuerte/One Strong Voice

By Kristen Munson

Upon answering the telephone in her Logan, Utah, home, Maria Luisa Spicer-Escalante has been questioned whether or not she has a social security number. When shopping at Latino grocery stores she has been asked if she works as a janitor at Utah State University.

Spicer-Escalante, an associate professor of Spanish and linguistics, is not bothered by these questions. She is bothered that many Latinos do not see themselves in another capacity, and resolves to paint a different picture of Latinos than often ascribed.

“We are not all illegal,” Spicer-Escalante said. “I wish people would look at us as more than house cleaners. I want people to know that Latinos are not a monolithic group. That we are different. We bring different strengths to this community. That we have social security numbers. That we have PhD’s—even if we have thick accents.”

Spicer-Escalante believes her accent, her language, and her heritage are beautiful; and she wants other Latinos to feel similarly. That’s why she recently sat in a staff break room at Mountain Crest High School in Hyrum, Utah waiting to talk to students she has never met before. Once they arrive Spicer-Escalante is on her feet smiling. The top of her head barely crests their shoulders. She extends her hand. The students shyly take it and shake.

“No,” Spicer-Escalante says wrapping her fingers firmly around their palms and pulling hard. “Fuerte.”

Randy Williams

Randy Williams initiated the Latino Voices Project when she discovered library archives underrepresented the Hispanic community in northern Utah.

A Different Story

The students were there to learn about the Latino Voices Project, an ongoing effort to collect the stories of Hispanics in Cache Valley for the Merrill Cazier Library Special Collections archives. Randy Williams, Fife Folklore Archives Curator at the library, spearheaded the project in 2007.

“We have a strong and growing Latino population in Cache Valley, but the holdings here didn’t reflect that,” she said.

Williams, ’85, MS ’93, decided to establish a new collection to record the stories of dozens of Latinos in the county. It includes copies of the Deseret News’ Spanish language newspaper OKespañol, a literary publication produced by Latinos at Mountain Crest, and 45 interviews with local Hispanics conducted in Spanish and English.

“One of the first ways into a community is an oral history project,” Williams said. “Communities are robust. They have all facets. You might think you know something about a community. Oral history could break down stereotypes.”

The collection won a 2009 Human Ties Award from the Utah Humanities Council and includes stories of laborers in meat packing plants, homemakers, doctors, and academics. Spicer-Escalante and Eduardo Ortiz, PhD ’09, a researcher at the university’s Center for Persons with Disabilities, were among the first interviewed. Afterward, they were both sold on the project.

“Maria Luisa felt something was lost in the translation,” Williams said. “She helped revamp the questions. From that point on Maria Luisa had a lot of buy in with the project. She really is a key to keeping this project alive.”

Spicer-Escalante, Ortiz, and Williams are writing an article for the Utah Historical Quarterly on the history of Latinos in northern Utah. However, after reviewing the collection, they realized youth voices were not represented. The three traveled to Mountain Crest, where there is an active Latino student group to convince members to share their stories. Ortiz, a demographer who studies population dynamics, made the case for their involvement: Latinos comprise 16 percent of the population in the United States and are the nation’s fastest growing group. The median age of the population is 27, meaning they are a population of young workers.

“You are the future of this country,” he told the students. “You are the ones who are going to support us. You are the ones who are going to make any changes here.”

He wanted them to understand their voices matter, and that there is a need for them to be heard by individuals outside their community.

Eduardo Ortiz

Eduardo Ortiz, a demographer, argues the stories of all generations should be told. “The history of each generation is important,” he said.

“The history of each generation is important,” Ortiz said. “What happened to us is different from what happened to our parents and our grandparents. We need to know each other. We need to hear from you. We cannot assume things, because we can be wrong.”

The students were apprehensive. It’s a little weird. Why should we tell our stories? We don’t know you, they said. Spicer-Escalante helped facilitate the discussion, switching between Spanish and English. The underlying message was clear—she operates in both worlds.

“Is your story different from your parents’ story here in Cache Valley?” she asked.

Heads nodded around the table.

“If you participate in the Latino Voices Project, people who are behind you will learn from you the same way you learn from your parents,” she said. “We really would like to hear your stories if you’re willing to share them with us.”

Spicer-Escalante told the students a little about herself. She is from Mexico City. She works as a professor. And the most important thing she does is train future language teachers.

“That is a superpower,” she said. “Do you know what the most important profession is if you want to save the world? A public school teacher. Teachers save lives.”

All 10 agreed to be interviewed for the collection.

A Fighter for the Languages

Spicer-Escalante worked for several years in publishing and as a journalist after graduating college. Eventually she returned to school. She received a master’s degree in linguistics and enrolled at the University of Illinois at Champagne-Urbana, planning to study Indian languages such as Náhuatl, the language of the Aztecs, and Otomí.

“I think I didn’t know what I wanted to do when I was young, but I have been fascinated by languages my whole life,” she said. “In Mexico, we still have 57 different Indian languages. I thought my life was going to be in Mexico.”

But plans change. As a native Spanish speaker with expertise in writing she proved an asset to the university’s language program. Spicer-Escalante was asked to develop a curriculum for heritage speakers centered on writing—an area often identified as the weakest for language acquisition. She is now an expert in the field and working on a book (Re)Vision in Bilingual Narratives that calls for improvements in bilingual education. Spicer-Escalante argues students are often penalized because teachers do not understand how they are employing aspects from both languages in their writing. For instance, when writing in English, students may be criticized for using long run on sentences—a type of sentence structure normal in Spanish where parts of speech are used differently.

“They are punished for things that belong to two rhetorical aspects,” she said. “They borrow linguistic and rhetorical aspects from both [English and Spanish].” Spicer-Escalante co-directs the university’s Masters of Second Language Teaching Program, which trains instructors how to teach language acquisition to non-native speakers. She advocates bilingual learning in American schools and has consulted with the Cache County School District in its endeavor to bring dual immersion programs to the valley.

“Multilingual kids have an advantage over monolingual kids,” Spicer-Escalante said, pointing to research indicating multiple language learners have increased plasticity of their brains. “My fight is for languages.”

In 2008, Utah became the first state to establish funding for immersion programs in schools to help meet growing business needs for multilingual workers. (Delaware is the second and replicated the Utah model.) The program uses a 50/50 format where students spend half the day in their target language and the rest learning in English. The aim is to graduate high school students equipped with advanced proficiency in a second language. This fall, six schools in Cache County will join a statewide effort to offer 100 immersion programs in languages, including French, Chinese, Portuguese, and Spanish by 2014. Gregg Roberts, world language and dual immersion specialist for the Utah State Office of Education, is charged with creating the model to make it happen.

People were skeptical at first, but they understood the economic argument, he said. “For students to compete for jobs in an increasingly globalized world, they have to be prepared. It’s a skill that is going to be necessary in the 21st century.”

Studies of students in dual immersion programs show they perform better on standardized tests and have greater cognitive ability. Still, skepticism persists. When push comes to shove, I don’t think a lot of people believe that you can take half the school day away [taught in English] and still teach math and language arts well, Roberts said. However, data says you can. The Office of Education recently received its first results of criterion-referenced tests from third grade students indicating they outperformed their monolingual peers in both math and language arts.

“We now have data that says we’re doing no harm,” he said.

Spicer-Escalante has been involved from the ground floor. She helped devise the state model and taught professional development courses for teachers. She views language as a cultural and professional tool. At home, she and her husband speak Spanish with their son. While still in high school he secured a semester’s worth of college credit because he passed USU’s language exam.

“My son has lived with this idea that being bilingual is neat, that it’s beautiful,” she said. “Not everybody has that same story.”

Maria Luisa Spicer-Escalante in classroom

Maria Luisa Spicer-Escalante recruits members of the youth community to participate in the Latino Voices Project. She and Eduardo Ortiz will discuss the project at Kiger Hour, February 21 in Logan.

Planting a Seed

The question Spicer-Escalante lobbied to ask students participating in the Latino Voices Project was ‘Where do you see yourself in five years?’

“I think the idea that you can plant a seed that you can be someone else, somewhere else different is important,” she said.

Mexican Americans are statistically the least likely to be involved in their children’s education. The reasons are varied, but in many cases, both parents are working, and children are raised by their siblings, Spicer-Escalante said. The dropout rate for Mexican American students is the highest in the nation. Spicer-Escalante seeks to remedy that. For several years she has spoken at area schools with Latino parents and teens about USU and the opportunities that exist for them.

“[Parents] don’t know how to navigate the university system,” she said. “They don’t even know where they are allowed to park on campus. I want to convince them that they can have a greater impact in their kids’ education.”

Teri Cutler, principal of Willow Valley Middle School, began holding forums for Latinos while the principal at South Cache nearly a decade ago at the suggestion of an English as a Second Language teacher. Educators who speak Spanish meet Latino parents to review grading practices and school policies and to explain after school programming available. The conferences force students and parents to think about what their future looks like and plan how to get there.

“Most parents that I work with, and this goes for every race, want their students to be successful in school,” Cutler said. “A lot of the Latino parents I work with have sacrificed so much to be in the United States to give their students an opportunity they couldn’t have otherwise. Even though so many have given so much, it’s still difficult for the parents to help their children succeed because of the language barrier.”

The conferences are designed to show how parents can be involved with their children’s education regardless of the language they speak.

“They show parents they don’t need to sit on the sidelines because they don’t speak English. They can help their students,” Cutler said. “They are just relieved to know that they don’t have to be afraid to come to school, that we do have ways to communicate with them, and that ultimately, we are here to help their child succeed in education.”

She invites Spicer-Escalante to speak about how to prepare for going to college. Cutler believes the event is an eye-opener for students to see a Latino working in higher education. “I have had kids say this to me, ‘it’s like I have so many strikes against me, I can’t hope to go to college,’” she said.

Spicer-Escalante is proof they can.

A Tough Cookie

Rocio Franklin, ’12, understands feeling stuck and out of place. Born in Mexico, she moved to the United States when she was 15. She didn’t speak any English.

“I always wanted to be a teacher,” she said.

Once fully immersed in a new language in high school, Franklin saw her dreams of becoming a teacher slipping away. It took prompting by a bilingual math teacher to give her the confidence to continue pursuing it.

“He stayed after school to help me. He spoke to me in Spanish so that I could learn the material,” she said. “He did it for all his students.” Franklin is now a student teacher at Box Elder Middle School in Brigham City where she instructs math and Spanish classes. She hopes to teach secondary education upon graduation.

“I want to help other kids who are in the same place that I was,” she said.

Spicer-Escalante supervises her training. She visits her classes, evaluates her methods, and offers tips for improving.

“Students like to say she is a tough cookie because she challenges us,” Franklin said. “She wants us to be successful in the classroom. She has a personal interest in us. Every time I see her she makes sure I know my strengths. And she doesn’t just do this for me—she does this for everyone.”