In Aria: A Memoir of a Bilingual Childhood, Richard Rodriguez is focused on explaining the difficulties that come with being a bilingual student in an English-speaking environment.
He explains his background to readers to show why the issue is personal and important to him. His parents spoke Spanish at home, but they had to speak English in public dealings with people—at school or when doing work. Since English was a struggle for them, there was a sense of shame. At the same time, speaking Spanish with others made him feel close to and more comfortable with them.
He explains how learning to speak English made him feel like he belonged in the classroom; everyone could understand him. He gained a new sense of community. At the same time, though, he lost some of the intimacy he shared with the Spanish-speaking community. There is a sense of both winning and losing in this for Rodriguez.
Ultimately, though, he doesn't believe in bilingual education and thinks that students should be taught English. He believes it will improve their education because it will not isolate them from English-speaking students. Putting off language acquisition will only make it more difficult later and make it more difficult for them to move into an integrated classroom. He believes that bilingual students can have a public identity that speaks English and a private identity that speaks the language they use at home.
Richard Rodriguez's essay begins with a brief reminiscence about his first day in an English-speaking classroom in Sacramento, California, thirty years ago. He remembers that all of his classmates were white and came from socially advantageous backgrounds. Richard also remembers being perplexed that he, the lone Hispanic-American student, would soon be labeled a 'problem student.'
As time has progressed, Hispanic-American activists have managed to win congressional approval for bilingual education programs in schools. However, Richard maintains that he disagrees with the premise of such programs. He submits that a student's native language is intrinsically linked to familial intimacy and should be kept separate from the public discourse of a classroom.
Richard explains that he grew up in a very tight-knit family. His parents worked hard and stubbornly refused to allow entrenched prejudices to hold them back from pursuing their goals. Growing up, Richard relates that regular visitors to his home were always close relatives. Because of the language barrier, his parents never felt fully comfortable in public. However, speaking Spanish at home allowed them to be at ease and to enjoy a close fellowship with family members.
Richard confesses that, in his youth, he found the language of the Americans loud and coarse, so unlike the gentle, familiar Spanish diction spoken at home. His parents spoke halting English in the public sphere but could make themselves understood when necessary. Yet, Richard often felt ill at ease to see his parents struggle with the language of los gringos; English became a nemesis which weakened his parents' significance and relevance in the public sphere. Richard remembers being embarrassed by such parental ineptitude because it threatened his sense of security.
More than ever, he depended on Spanish to fuel his need for belonging and stability. The Spanish he spoke at home never failed to inspire him with a sense of peace and certainty amid the public alienation he felt on a daily basis. Richard recollects with fondness that his family even enjoyed a special lingo made up of combinations of Spanish and English words in the privacy of their home. When speaking Spanish, his father again transformed into the steady, confident family patriarch that Richard knew him to be. He remembers how comforting it was to drift off to sleep at night while listening to his parents' soft whispers in Spanish.
Richard proposes that most avid supporters of bilingual education do not realize that many socially-disadvantaged students view their mother tongue as a private language. He submits that, if his teachers had spoken to him in Spanish, he might have taken longer to learn that it was possible for him to have a public identity.
After nuns from his school visited his parents, Richard relates that his parents instituted English as the main language to be spoken at home. He remembers feeling lost, frustrated, and deeply grieved at the change. While the new change inspired his parents with more confidence to navigate the public sphere successfully, Richard felt that it marred much of the old intimacy and camaraderie he used to enjoy at home. Conversation became painful with his parents, as they often struggled to understand their children. Yet, as Richard grew in confidence in his English speaking skills, he came to realize an important truth: he had always been an American citizen, and this new fluency in English would fuel and support his newly realized American identity.
Richard ends his essay by arguing that supporters of bilingual education should not interpret assimilation into American society as a threat to the personal identity of socially-disadvantaged students. Rather, he proposes that they should recognize the value of differentiating between personal and public identities. In private, individuality is maintained through a separation from the larger society, while in public, individuality is sustained as a member of the larger society. Therefore, assimilation into society through increased fluency in English allows a Spanish-speaking child to craft his own public identity. In doing so, he may then avail himself of all the 'rights and opportunities' and 'social and political advantages' the public sphere holds. Richard submits that respecting the unique qualities inherent in both personal and public identities is key to helping the socially disadvantaged.