As a small child, Felipe Sepulveda Jr. migrated with his family from Guadalajara, Mexico, to Southern California, a traditional destination for Latin American immigrants seeking a better life in the United States.
“Life was a struggle,” Sepulveda, now 18, recalled recently. His family moved from one low-rent apartment to another. Sometimes, money was so tight that they shared a unit with another family and crowded into a single bedroom. Other times, they lived in a relative’s garage.
Sepulveda didn’t speak English when, as a 5-year-old, he started kindergarten. Once, he couldn’t understand his English-speaking teacher when she directed him to the bathroom and wandered the campus in misery until a Spanish-speaking janitor gave him directions. But within two months, he spoke enough English to be the “first kid in the class to count to 100.”
As he advanced through elementary school, the instability of poverty made it hard to study: no kitchen table for homework, no house with a white picket fence to anchor him and his two siblings as they navigated two linguistic worlds—Spanish at home and English in school.
The Sepulveda kids and their parents belonged to a group the U.S. Census Bureau calls “limited-English proficient”—anyone older than 5 who self-reports speaking English “less than very well.” In 2010, 25.2 million people with limited English proficiency lived in the United States, about two-thirds of them Hispanic. Not surprisingly, the most people with limited English proficiency live in traditional immigrant destinations such as Texas, New York, Illinois, and, above all, California. But as diversity diffuses, their numbers are growing in places less accustomed to new arrivals, such as Alabama, Arkansas, the Carolinas, Georgia, Nebraska, and Tennessee, the Migration Policy Institute reported in 2011.
Once they started school, the Sepulveda children were also, briefly, part of a diverse demographic: the large number of students, primarily Latin American and Asian, known as English-language learners—students who are learning English but speak another language at home. These students, who have not yet mastered “academic English” (thinking in, reading, and writing English well enough to advance in school, college, and careers), now represent one in nine American students. About three-fourths of the English learners in elementary school, and half of those in high school, are American citizens.
The two groups—English learners in schools and those over 5 who report limited English proficiency—have fueled a bitter debate over the future of English, and how best to teach it, in an increasingly diverse nation.
Few people dispute that English is a key marker of the American identity—and the ticket to assimilation, economic success, and social cohesion. But the language wars, fought in state legislatures, the courts, and public schools across the U.S., center on whether new cultures and languages threaten or strengthen English, and the nation’s future.
In this regard, the story of Felipe Sepulveda’s family is instructive. His older sister attended public schools, barely earned her high school diploma, and now works at a movie theater. When she graduated, no one in the family knew much about college. Sepulveda figured if he, too, could just get through high school, he would escape the poverty he had grown up with.
In his first year of high school, though, he was accepted into the Puente Project. Funded by the state of California, it’s a bridge program that helps poor, mostly Latino high school kids, including many who speak Spanish at home, set goals for a four-year college diploma. Counselors, teachers, and parents team to nurture the critical-thinking, speaking, and writing skills that yield academic success. For Sepulveda, it worked. This fall he will attend Harvard University.
The Sepulveda family lives in Anaheim, in the shadow of the Happiest Place on Earth—Disneyland, the beloved theme park built around core American values of patriotism, hard work, and expanding frontiers. One ride, inspired by the song “It’s a Small World,” transports visitors through a musical global wonderland, which, according to Disney promoters, helps children “realize how much we have in common.”
Anaheim itself is a small world—but it hasn’t always been easy for the people living there to realize how much they have in common. The area has been a magnet for new arrivals since Spanish padres built missions and converted Native Americans to Catholicism in the 18th century. Successive waves of Indians, Californios, German grape farmers (Ana refers to the nearby Santa Ana River; heim means “home” in German), European-American citrus growers and real-estate developers, Mexican agricultural and high-tech workers, Vietnamese refugees, other Asian newcomers, and Arabs—all settled in what is now north-central Orange County.
This article appears in the July 28, 2012 edition of National Journal Magazine.