Why Students of Spanish Should Prepare to Be Advocates

Next year's conference will be in Salamanca, Spain.
by Ann Abbott

This year's annual conference of the American Association of Teacher of Spanish and Portuguese celebrated the 100th anniversary of our professional association. The inimitable and admirable Sheri Spaine Long invited me to participate on a plenary panel consisting of several people who had written essays or rejoinders for the centenary issue of Hispania that will come out in December of this year. It promises to be an expansive look at where we have come from and where we are going as a profession.

I'd like to share below my presentation from the plenary. What do you think our challenges are as a profession? What do you think "Spanish" means today and for the future? Do you think that teaching Spanish in this political climate requires us to rethink anything we do? Or teaching it in this changing environment of higher ed? I'd love to hear your thoughts.

I don't have a picture from the plenary panel, so I'm sharing
picture from my room in the conference hotel in Chicago. It
was a wonderful conference and great to see so many friends.

My goal for the next few minutes is to light a fire under all our seats.

Online, you can read the very good essay by Prof. Robert Bayliss and Prof. Amy Rossomondo to which I wrote a reply. (Other essays are also available online.) They situate the ongoing work of Spanish programs within the demographic growth of Latinos in the US that necessitates the linguistic and cultural knowledge that we are already providing to our students. My rejoinder says that those demographic changes create tensions, complexities, and, frankly, dangers, that we are not preparing our students for. To truly rise to these challenges, we need to do our work harder, better, faster, stronger.

We need to get political. In many spaces and moments, speaking Spanish in the US is a political act. In a wonderful session at this conference by Stacy Hoult-Saros (Valparaiso University) and Sarah Degner Riveros (Augsburg College), I saw a video of candidate Trump criticizing Jeb Bush for speaking Spanish on the campaign trail and declaring that we need to speak English. For many people, he was “telling it like it is.” Is your program explicit about what it means to learn and to speak a stigmatized language? In our classrooms, Spanish might be just a vehicle to communicate what we did last weekend or what our analysis is of a piece of literature, but outside our classroom Spanish is always already politicized.

Furthermore, I don’t believe we should invoke the numbers of Latinos and Spanish speakers in the US as justification of our discipline’s relevance and then ignore the millions among those numbers who are undocumented or in mixed-status families. My work involves community service learning, and colleagues have challenged that work by, among other things, claiming that it reinforces stereotypes of Spanish speakers as undocumented, poor and in need of service. I say that a Spanish program that wants to increase enrollments by appealing to astonishing numbers of Spanish speakers in the US and at the same time erases the lived reality of many of those people is dishonest. So take a look at your program, your curricula: are undocumented Spanish speakers mostly absent, reproducing their lives in the shadows within our larger society?

As we know from recently published analyses of voters in the 2016 election, racism, nativism and Islamophobia are tenacious attitudes in our society, capable of producing political turns that then reproduce and reinforce these same attitudes among individuals and within our systems. Teaching against these forces is not easy. Preparing students to actually push back against these forces when they leave our classrooms is even harder.

So how can we approach this?

Yes, the first step is to simply inform students about these issues, and in many cases help them un-learn notions that have been ingrained in them. For example, Spanish programs are uniquely positioned to help students understand today’s Islamophobia by learning about the attitudes and actions of Christians, Muslims and Jews in Medieval and Early Modern Spain. But the connections to today must be explicit and teased out for students. Do students leave your program also knowing about Arabs and Muslims in Latin America--beyond a bit of trivia about Shakira and Salma Hayek?

After we inform students, I believe the next step is to educate them to be advocates, to turn the knowledge we provide into actions that are big and small. Let’s face it, issues like racism and nativism can create scary, even dangerous situations. Here are a couple of examples of how I broach this in my classroom.

My students watch Kim Potowski’s TEDx talk called “No Child Left Monolingual” and read one of her articles about immigration and heritage languages. In class I put them in two rows facing each other. One one side, I hand students note cards with nativist statements like, “This is the US, speak English.” And worse. The person facing then uses the information from the video and article to present counter arguments and examples from their work in the community. This is surprisingly difficult for both sides--emotions often get the best of them. But we work through this, and hopefully this better prepares them to dialogue with nativist Uncle Dan at the next family get-together, instead of just ducking the issue or getting into a heated debate that is ultimately unproductive or potentially destructive. (This blog post that describes the lesson more fully.)

In another activity, my students read an anti-immigrant letter to the editor and present arguments to refute its specious claims. They relish this. But then I ask them to find one piece of common ground with the writer. They often struggle with this. When they find it--maybe it’s as simple as “I also struggle with changes,” or, “We all want a community that is safe and secure,”--they must begin to write their rejoinder from that common ground. In fact, that’s a model of productive dialogue that you will see in the Hispania Centenary issue.

So just remember, our work is important and we need to dig deep to truly confront our country’s changing demographics. US Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly are working fast and furiously on their approach to confronting our country’s demographic changes. We need to work harder, better, faster, stronger on a better approach.


  1. Felicitaciones Ann!! A trabajar mucho por los cambios que se vienen en nuestros Programas de Español en EEUU.

  2. I am glad a wider audience gets this call and glad you have them a practical start. Taking these opportunities to make it happen is a great example. Gracias


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