Three focal students
Delia was born and raised in Central Texas after her parents immigrated from Mexico. Her education was almost entirely in English, and her parents worked long hours. However, when Delia was in her early teens, her mother developed a serious health condition and stopped working. Delia became very close to her, and they communicated entirely in Spanish. Although her siblings were not academically ambitious, Delia became the valedictorian of her high school class. She received a scholarship to attend university, originally planning to be a pharmacist but eventually switching to a bilingual
Heritage speaker agency in Guatemala 165 education major. She expected to improve her Spanish through SA, but testing at the Guatemalan language school placed her above the advanced level at which they planned to offer classes, so they suggested she take Kaqchikel instead.
Nicole was born in Belize to a Belizean father and a Honduran mother. Her family immigrated to a large Texas city when she was five, and she was placed in English-only classes. She grew up speaking mostly English with her father and brothers, and Honduran Spanish with her mother. In high school she took one year of “Spanish for native speakers”. That class boosted her confidence and prompted her decision to become a bilingual teacher. After high school graduation, she attended two years of community college, where she tested into fifth-semester Spanish and passed with a B. However, when she arrived at university as a bilingual education major, she was required to take an advanced grammar class, which she failed because she had never learned grammatical terminology. The class into which she placed in Guatemala was the equivalent to that grammar course, a requirement of her bilingual teacher certification program.
Wendy was born and grew up in South Texas, on the Mexican border. Her father was Mexican and her mother came from a large Mexican American extended family. Her parents divorced in her early childhood, and she was not close to her father. Her mother, a teacher, spoke only English to her, though the rest of her family was bilingual. She sent Wendy to an English-only private school. Based on Wendy’s self-report, she could understand Spanish but not speak it. At university, she majored in Mexican American Studies, planning to become an immigration attorney. An excellent student overall, she struggled in university Spanish classes. At the Guatemalan language school, she placed into intermediate Spanish. In our observations, she tended not to speak Spanish outside of language class.
In this section, we share classroom interaction data from the three classes, as well as data from interviews and writing assignments in which participants evaluated their classroom experiences.
Delia in the Kaqchikel class
There were four students in this class, three women and one man. The man (Jay) and two of the women (Delia and Xochitl) were advanced SHSs. The other woman, Maylene, was bilingual in English and Thai, and an advanced learner of second language (L2) Spanish. Maestro Valentin, the teacher, was bilingual in Spanish and Kaqchikel, and primarily used Spanish as the language of instruction.
When interviewed about her classroom experiences, Delia expressed dissatisfaction:
Delia: Oh my God. Kaqchikel is, it’s a really, really ... Can 1 be honest and tell you like ...
Julia: Yeah. No, please be honest.
Delia: 1 think the hardest thing that ... I don't wanna seem like I'm bashing the teacher. [...] [But] he’s very typical machista Guatemalan, very, very sexist,2 and like just the dialogue that he gives to us and like, “Oh, we’re the women that has to be cooking and cleaning in the house”.
The adjective machista in Spanish refers to men who follow traditional gender ideologies: the dialogues which Maestro Valentín gave the students to perform in Kaqchikel positioned them in gender roles that Delia found objectionable. Most offensive to her were the stereotypical parts that her one male classmate, Jay, was repeatedly asked to play: “I’m constantly in the same roles and the guy’s like, ‘Oh mi cielo (my sky)', and I’m like, ‘This makes me wanna barf, I was like, ‘Can I do something else?”’ Delia complained about typical scenes in which Jay’s character “gets home, he wants his food”, adding, “I feel that’s not Jay’s fault, he’s just reading”. Most of these comments construct a lack of agency in the classroom, with the “machista” teacher forcing students to perform sexist scripts. However, there is some suggestion of agency in Delia’s question “Can 1 do something else?” In this regard, she mentioned that her classmate Maylene had started playing male characters in the dialogues, at her own request.
Interestingly, none of these gender issues appeared in Delia’s final paper for her education class, which she submitted two days after the interview. Since she started her interview comments by asking if she could be “honest”, it is possible that she was not entirely forthcoming in this assignment. Nevertheless, her paper convincingly argued that studying Kaqchikel had supported her professional development as a bilingual teacher. Specifically, she claimed that translating dialogues from Kaqchikel improved her Spanish:
1 found that 1 was using so much Spanish, both orally and in writing, to translate the dialogues from Kaqchikel to Spanish. Not only was I just writing and speaking Spanish, but 1 was in a classroom setting with a professor, so that pushed me to speak more formally and academically.
In her essay, Delia connected this experience to educational debates on the use of a first language (LI) in the L2 classroom, claiming that her LI Spanish had been a constant resource for her Kaqchikel learning.
The first author’s final two classroom observations help to illustrate the extent to which the Kaqchikel learners exercised agency. On July 31, 2015, they were reviewing terms of endearment (Brown, Maxwell, & Little, 2006), with Delia actively participating:
Nuch’umil, mi estrella (my star).
Nuch’omil. Oh I like that one! [...] ((pause)) Nuchomil?
((slowly)) Nuch’umil. Mi estrella (my star). [...] Entonces ti ñute’ es mi amor (so ti ñute' is my lové).
After Maestro Valentín agreed, and Jay mentioned a similar expression nuk'uxaj, “my heart”, Delia had another question for her female classmate Xóchitl:
Delia: ¿Cómo dijiste tú qué significa “mi cielo”? (IVhat did you say "my
Here Delia would appear to exhibit linguistic agency in striving to learn phrases like “my sky” as decontextualized expressions: however, it should be noted that these also appeared in a dialogue about a young bride learning how to cook (so as to please her hungry husband) - a situation which Delia mentioned in her interview as objectionable due to sexism.
These tensions surfaced when Jay asked a question about the heroine of the dialogue:
Jay: ¿No sabe cocinar? (She doesn’t know how to cook?)
Maestro Valentin: ((laughs))
Xóchitl: ((whispering sarcastically)) ¿Y sí se casó? (And she
actually got married?)
Delia: Ay Jay ese... (oh, Jay, that...) that’s like the biggest
sin in your book, huh? ((everyone laughs)) Worst nightmare.
Xóchitl: Keeping alive the Mexican patriarchy, gotta love it.
Jay: Gotta represent, ((everyone laughs))
Delia and Xóchitl went on to reminisce in English about encountering these sentiments back home in Texas, with Delia emphasizing her habitual stance when this occurs: “I'm just like rolling my eyes like nonstop”. In this way, the English shared by the Texas students but not their Guatemalan instructor provided affordances for the women to humorously reprimand Jay if they observed even a hint of sexism in his behavior. His humorous response “gotta represent” draws on hip-hop discourses about community pride, and this appeared to remove the discursive pressure from Jay as an individual male - for now.
A better solution to these dilemmas appeared in the first author’s observation a week later, when the dialogue about learning to cook was actually performed - with Jay in the role of the bride! In her field notes, the first author wrote: “Jay asks if he should do it in the voice of a woman. He is reading in a really high voice”. It is notable that Maestro Valentín was willing to accept this solution. More importantly, the fact that the Texas students had to negotiate their parts in the dialogues with Maestro Valentín in Spanish suggests further reasons why learning Kaqchikel appeared to help them develop their heritage language - through employing it for the pragmatically complicated task of challenging their teacher’s pedagogical practices. In a follow-up interview with the second author six months later, Delia reported occasional Kaqchikel practice with Jay - suggesting that she still found value in the language despite misgivings about sexism in the pedagogical materials.