Back in April, I had the opportunity to listen to a spanish-language AM radio station based in Connecticut. I think it's from the Hartford area. There's at least one in New Britain but I think I hit a different channel.
They took a break from playing music to do a political segment with a conversation between the two hosts, and as I listened I remembered enough from my Spanish classes of long ago to get the gist that they were talking about how to deal with illegal immigration. I didn't understand enough to figure out what the old guy's conclusions were. But at the very least I could get the sense that they were taking a moderate approach to that business and making reasonable arguments for it.
More important than the topic is that I felt like I was learning a lot more Spanish a lot faster and better than how it was taught in the classroom. It was an actual immersive experience, like everyone says is the best way to learn a language. Spanish class tried to replicate that experience by having the teacher talk only in Spanish, but those were years when I barely wanted to speak my native language at school, let alone venture into a new one -- so that approach never worked on me. I felt as though I had failed my Spanish class despite having middling grades because I never really got the hang of the language. Maybe if I had tried to listen to Spanish AM Radio back then it would have gone differently.
But then I thought, wait a second, why did Spanish Class never tell me these stations existed? Why did I have to learn about it from the bus driver playing his favorite hip-hop station every afternoon going home? Why did Spanish class go on and on about the wonderful Exotic Cultures of Latin America without telling me about the nearby communities of Spanish speakers? Why did Honors Spanish have to go all the way to Spain for their Immersive Experience instead of driving two miles to Little Puerto Rico in Hartford?
It's possible that they assumed I would have bothered to discover those things for myself already. Ah, but my face was always been turned toward the center of my hometown, and away from Hartford. Amid the obvious classicism of being scared to ride the city bus, there was some subtle ethnic prejudice going on in my head too. Not outright Xenophobia but enough to blind me to the real shape of my world. So I missed things that should have been obvious.
Also I was young and easily manipulated. I may be giving myself too much credit by assigning myself too much blame.
As it is, there's no real natural geographic boundary between Hartford and West Hartford. Some artificial boundaries like that bridge to the Wal Mart, or the entire Interstate system. (I have heard some concerning rumors to the effect that such barriers are deliberate.) But for the most part it took me a very long time to realize that the town line is right down the middle of Park Road. I had no idea that the West End with all those nice pretty Victorian houses was NOT part of West Hartford...
Because my visual cue of being in Hartford was always the sudden crumminess of everything around me. Poorly-kept sidewalks, peeling paint, potholed roads, stores with bars over the bottom windows, various other signs of poverty. Scary Poverty. CRIME. OH HORRORS.
So I always called Hartford a gloomy place, and I turned my face away in fear of Resentment From Poor Black People. I was blind to the shape of the world that the people of my valley had made. I only bothered to look at the nice parts because I was a rich kid who could get away with that. I never learned about the way people live on my town's southeastern corner, never went there, never looked south past the Home Depot, never even knew there was a part of my town where things are kind of industrial-crummy until high school.
And I didn't know about Little Puerto Rico, until my driving instructor had me take a spin through that area to demonstrate how to keep a sharp eye out for daring pedestrians. My dad complains about the folks in Hartford who cross the street willy-nilly and I wonder if that's because they're fatalistic in the quiet despair of poverty, or if they're just used to a place where pedestrian traffic dominates automobile traffic. I grew up in a place where the Automobiles rule, so I cross the street at the crosswalk, by the crossing light, like a good little rich suburbanite. I grew up thinking the cars would not stop for me or even slow down, but run right over me and keep going.
I guess I assumed a lot of dumb things back then. At the same time I was turning my face away from Hartford for fear of resentment I was turning my face away from everyone at school for the same thing! So I didn't try to talk to them, didn't learn how to hold a conversation until later than they did, didn't gain enough confidence in my native tongue to talk at all during language class, and there you go.
I'm not scared of the people in Hartford now even though people tell me I ought to be. I've walked back and forth from West Hartford to Downtown Hartford without trouble. I was going to walk home from the Trinity College campus but my parents said it was too dangerous at night. Well, what do I know, nobody in Hartford has done Crime to me yet. Someone on eastern Park Avenue answered the door for a pizza delivery and got shot out of nowhere and that's supposed to scare me away, but I still dismissed the idea because how often do people get shot in Hartford really?
Let's see here, crime rate in Hartford last year was...10.71 per 1000, with 1313 violent crimes and 4437 property crimes, versus West Hartford with 45 violent crimes and 1742 property crimes. In West Hartford my chances of being a victim are 1 in 1399 for versus one in 93 for Hartford.
Alright, so all I have to do is walk down Farmington Avenue 93 times and I should get shot at least once!
I guess I understand now why the Honors Spanish Class would have been reluctant to do an Immersive Language Experience daytrip to Little Puerto Rico. I wouldn't want to field a horrified call from a parent and have to explain that yes, it was my idea to bring an entire class of school children into a neighborhood with a reputation for violent crime.
But it's not like that's the only Spanish Language community in this valley, and they could very well have gone to a safer neighborhood. Maybe they did and I didn't hear about it? I don't know, I dropped out of Spanish after I realized in 10th grade that I wasn't remembering a damn thing from it. Maybe if they had incorporated the communities of local Latino folks into the curriculum I would have remained interested enough to continue! And that would have been perfectly in line with the idea that you have to learn about a culture to fully understand its language, which is why we watched all those happy videos about happy colorful little Mexico City where the happy music is always playing! The Latino people of this valley could have been a convenient resource for the curriculum! They could have at least brought someone in to speak to the class about how those communities talk Spanish differently than Spanish people do! They could have MENTIONED that there was more to my world than English speakers!
Instead what we got was a language curriculum decoupled from the world around it, so instead of having a safe and convenient immersive experience that would have taught us Spanish in a lasting manner, we sat at our desks and did worksheets and spoke the occasional sentence in Spanish without getting creative, wrote sentences in Spanish but barely ever wrote paragraphs, and...come to think of it that's a lot like how secondary education does math class.
I wonder if the people doing the Spanish curriculum were blind to local Latino folks like I was, for the same reasons? The point is, there was a chance for a proper, organic, immersive language learning experience and they muffed it.
I have no idea what they do now.