When Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Bilingual Education Act of 1968, language learning became a touchstone in the emerging culture wars. Nowhere was this more apparent than in Los Angeles, where elected officials from both political parties had supported the legislation, and where the most disruptive protests over it occurred. The city, with its diverse population of Latinos and Asian Americans, is the ideal locus for Zevi Gutfreund’s study of how language instruction informed the social construction of American citizenship. Combining the history of language instruction, school desegregation, and civil rights activism as it unfolded in Japanese American and Mexican American communities in L.A., this timely book clarifies the critical and evolving role of language instruction in twentieth-century American politics.
Speaking American reveals how, for generations, language instruction offered a forum for Angelino educators to articulate their responses to policies that racialized access to citizenship—from the “national origins” immigration quotas of the Progressive Era through Congress’s removal of race from these quotas in 1965. Meanwhile, immigrant communities designed language experiments to counter efforts to limit their liberties. Gutfreund’s book is the first to place the experiences of Mexican Americans and Japanese Americans side by side as they navigated debates over Americanization programs, intercultural education, school desegregation, and bilingual education. In the process, the book shows, these language experiments helped Angelino immigrants introduce competing concepts of citizenship that were tied to their actions and deeds rather than to the English language itself.
Complicating the usual top-down approach to the history of racial politics in education, Speaking American recognizes the ways in which immigrant and ethnic activists, as well as white progressives and conservatives, have been deeply invested in controlling public and private aspects of language instruction in Los Angeles. The book brings compelling analytic depth and breadth to its examination of the social and political landscape in a city still at the epicenter of American immigration politics.