A cultural and linguistic home for Spanish

October 3rd, 2023

What began as a course in "Spanish for the Spanish Speaking" in the fall of 1965 has grown into the oldest and most extensive Spanish as a Heritage Language program in the country.

The University of Arizona, along with the University of New Mexico, was a pioneer in bilingual education, with a focus on sustaining language and culture at a time when the prevailing trend was to eradicate the varieties of Spanish that Latinx students brought with them into the university setting, said Lillian Gorman, an assistant professor in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese and director of the Spanish as a Heritage Language program in the UArizona College of Humanities.

Heritage learners of Spanish are students who have been exposed to Spanish in their homes or communities from a young age. The program has been serving that population of students long before UArizona achieved its designation as a Hispanic Serving Institution in 2018.

"The Spanish as a Heritage Language program is intrinsically about serving and our HSI mission," Gorman said, referring to the university's designation as a Hispanic-Serving Institution. "It's important to understand the history of linguistic discrimination, the way that Spanish was eradicated from Latino families, so there's always been a need for a program like this, regardless of the HSI designation. There's a strong history of this program and a strong history of these classes here."

'Not just a language class'

The program's founder, Adalberto Guerrero, taught the first class in 1965 after launching similar classes at Pueblo High School in 1959. A faculty member in what was then the Romance Languages Department, Guerrero continued as a faculty member in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese until his retirement in 1994. He was also the first assistant dean of students of Mexican American Affairs, directed the New Start summer program, was chair of the Mexican American Studies Committee, and, along with his wife, is the namesake of the Adalberto and Ana Guerrero Student Center. The heritage program's popular Club Bilingüe meets weekly at the Guerrero Student Center.

"I am pleased and proud that such an exceptionally competent and highly motivated professional as Dr. Lillian Gorman is directing, improving and extending 'my logical program,' which is now almost universally accepted and required in the better university language programs throughout the land," Guerrero said.

Students in the heritage program more often continue to minor or major in Spanish, including a growing number of double-major students who are interested in bringing bilingual fluency to their career goals.

"Many students haven't heard of the term before they enter the university. 'Heritage language' is an academic term, but when they understand what it references and how it relates to their experiences, they find it empowering," Gorman said. "It's important and valuable to be in the classroom with students who have a similar language experience. It's not just a language class and it's not a culture class in the sense that the subject is something that's outside their experience."

Today, courses for heritage Spanish speakers are common at universities. Formal programs are less common, but others are well established, such as the growing program at Arizona State University, led by the former director of the UArizona program. Other programs such as the one at the University of Illinois Chicago have large student enrollments, but limited levels of instruction.

"We're one of the few programs in the country that serves all levels, from beginning to advanced. Research tells us of the necessity of having beginning heritage classes," Gorman said.

The program serves nearly 500 Spanish heritage learners every semester, at all proficiency levels, through a sequence of six courses. The program starts with two courses — Spanish 103 and 203 — that replace the four-semester series of 101 through 202 in the basic language program. The sequence continues with four more courses — 253, 323, 333 and 343 — that progress students through the intermediate and advanced levels.

"Within the heritage program, our curriculum gives an introduction to sociolinguistics, translation and interpretation, Latinx health issues, Latinx literature and tastes of other topics. Students can dive into things with relevance to their everyday lives," Gorman said. "Culture is always integrated."

For some students, they may have grown up with family stories of being ridiculed or punished for speaking Spanish, or seen Spanish-speaking family members judged negatively. A prevailing English-only ideology in the U.S. and perceived lack of value can correspond to linguistic insecurity, misconceptions about bilingualism, a lack of awareness about how language is lost over generations and a lack of opportunities for formal language education. 

While educational materials are seldom centered on the U.S. as a Spanish-speaking country, the U.S. ranks second in the world for Spanish speakers, behind Mexico. The U.S. has 42 million native Spanish speakers and 14 million bilingual speakers, with the highest concentration in the Southwest, precisely the population served by the Spanish as a Heritage Language program.

"Most are from Southern Arizona, with varying degrees of proficiency," Gorman said. "We affirm the language skills that the students have, while also expanding their range. We're not trying to replace their Spanish varieties with a variety that gets away from where they are. In our curriculum, the student experience takes center stage. We start with where we are and where the students are from. The materials are based around Tucson and often coincide with the students' experiences, and the curriculum continues that way."

Reconnecting students to the language

Cassandra Cazares, a senior from Phoenix studying business management and Spanish, came to UArizona as a community college transfer student. She said she grew up with Spanish-speaking parents, so she knew the basics, but that was insufficient.

"In high school, I was struggling because they weren't teaching the Spanish I knew from where I was from," Cazares said. "Here, I felt more included with the actual curriculum and more comfortable with the other students and the professors. It's a lot more inclusive. Being in the heritage program definitely helped me with my identity. As a Latina, I feel closer to my community by building my Spanish and being able to speak it fluently and not be nervous. I can reach more people, talk to more people."

Loveliana Diaz, a junior double major in Spanish and early childhood education, came to Tucson from the Chicago suburbs, where she grew up speaking Spanish. She didn't have fond memories of the by-the-book Spanish classes she took growing up.

"I told myself I was never taking a Spanish class again, but when I got here, I found myself placed in the heritage classes and it felt more personal. It's changed my mindset about what Spanish classes can be and I've built a lot of positive connections."

Now, Diaz wants to become a teacher who brings bilingual studies into the classroom, possibly in kindergarten.

Gabrielle Yocupicio, a current Ph.D. candidate, instructor and heritage program alumna from Nogales, said her first heritage course as a student was the first time she understood from a teacher that her language skills had value. She now works to pass that understanding on to her own students.

"The students arrive with a lot of the same ideas about their Spanish being not good enough or less valid than other varieties," Yocupicio said. "But when we start learning Spanish by talking about our experiences growing up in the U.S., putting that into context with sociolinguistics, they start making those connections.”

Xochilt Montaño, a heritage program alumna who has been teaching in the program since 2013, grew up in Tucson with Spanish as her first language, but over time stopped using it as much and felt a barrier develop. In her classes, Montaño works to create the same level of comfort and community that she felt being surrounded by people who had the same linguistic and cultural background.

"I realized my experience was very common for children of immigrants," she said. "Now, I let my students know how I felt disconnected to the language. It really helps them to see how somebody started out in a similar position. They feel much more encouraged to reconnect with the language and keep learning it and push themselves on the journey of understanding it more and practicing it more."

Gorman said her own story as a student and educator is rooted in being a Chicana Spanish heritage learner.

"Spanish as a Heritage Language approach strengthened my connection to all four of my grandparents," she said. "Is there a greater impact an academic class can have on a student than to transform both the relationship to their languages and to the loved ones who are connected to these languages?"