Cristina Alfaro: Bilingual Education is a Key
By Andrea Lopez-Villafaña
When Cristina Alfaro embarked on her first day of kindergarten – knowing only Spanish like many children in border regions do – the teacher made her wear donkey ears as a form of punishment.
Years later, Alfaro spoke to that same teacher, who then told her she was wrong in thinking Alfaro’s native language would stand in the way of her success.
“I realized that it’s just the way that we ideologically have been preparing teachers to think that English is the only way and not really understanding that students come with a cultural and linguistic database that is really an asset and not a defect,” Alfaro said.
Alfaro, professor and chair of the Department of Dual Language and English Learner Education at San Diego State University, works diligently to prepare teachers to instead build on student’s native language ability rather than take it away.
At this moment in time, especially in San Diego where there are 700,000 binational students shared among the United States and Mexico, Alfaro said, student’s realities are in English and in Spanish.
“Here more than anywhere else in the world because we are at the border it is really important that we learn to capitalize on the student’s assets and to really work toward bilingualism as a way of life,” Alfaro said.
For more than 30 years, Alfaro has dedicated her work to multilingual education and promoting diversity.
She is responsible for hiring and mentoring bilingual faculty for the department, which according to Alfaro is 100 percent latino faculty, as well as mentoring students – some of whose graduation pictures she keeps on her table.
Alfaro said that for some time, the interest in pursuing a bilingual credential was not there because under Proposition 227, which limited how english learners were taught in California. However, the passing of Proposition 58, which allows non-English languages to be taught in public schools, has triggered more interest in bilingual education and hiring bilingual teachers.
Alfaro is also currently leading and directing a program where they prepare teachers on both sides of the border through a binational bilingual educational curriculum.
“We are developing a common curriculum so that when we prepare teachers here they will have the knowledge base regarding the student’s sociolinguistic, sociocultural, socioemotional needs of students who are having to be trans-border students,” Alfaro said.
The binational and bilingual aspect allows teachers to understand how to teach students who for example were raised in the U.S. but are living in Mexico because their parents were deported and they do not have Spanish language capabilities.
The program is a collaboration among the California Association for Bilingual Education, the California Department of Education, Secretary of Public Education in Tijuana, Superintendent Tom Torlakson, Secretary of Education Miguel Angel Mendoza, UCSD, and SDSU.
For Alfaro, being part of this program is amazing because it has always been a part of who she is, she said.
“My life started at the border,” Alfaro said.
Originally from Calexico, Alfaro was raised in a working class home with 11 siblings where her front yard was the fence and every day she saw people cross over.
She recalls her lifestyle was talking to people over the fence and purchasing food from the food vendors on the other side.
“To me it was very normal, it was this fronterizo life that to me it was like, doesn’t everybody else live like this?” she said. “Not until now that I’m working with this binational project I think wow that was my life.”
Alfaro was the first woman in her family to attend college and the first in her family to receive a doctorate degree. She is also the small percentage of Latinas who is a full professor at a university.
Alfaro attended San Diego State University as an undergraduate and later earned her doctorate degree from a joint graduate program with SDSU and Claremont Graduate University.
Alfaro said she decided to pursue a career in education because of her own experiences.
“It goes to back to my own education and just realizing what teachers can do, teachers have the ability to really build up a student or to break them down,” Alfaro said.
And despite being in a all English program and having a teacher who at the time did not see the value of bilingual education, Alfaro did not breakdown.
“I was brought up to really believe that I was important and what I had to say was important and I was very self-confident until that first day of school, but my family was able to rebuild me,” Alfaro said.
In that same spirit that her family rebuilt her confidence and mentors like Alberto Ochoa who encouraged her, Alfaro mentors her students and helps them understand that education is a key to success.
“I feel a real commitment to continue to help others accomplish what I have been able to accomplish,” Alfaro said. “I really identify with being a mentor for other students and other colleagues to be able to continue the work.”
Alfaro hopes to continue her work with the binational program and to have the Department of Dual Language and English Learner Education recognized nationally.