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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Language Education, Race, and the Remaking of American Citizenship in Los Angeles, 1900-1968

  • Author(s): Gutfreund, Zevi
  • Advisor(s): Aron, Stephen
  • et al.

This dissertation uses language instruction in Los Angeles as a lens through which to explore assimilation, immigration, and what it means to be an American. It draws from sources such as curricular materials, court records, correspondence, blue book exams, and student newspapers in the city of angels' Anglo, Mexican, and Japanese American communities. They launched language experiments that attracted national attention from 1900 to 1968, the year of the federal Bilingual Education Act and the "Chicano Blowouts" in East Los Angeles. While many scholars have pointed to those events as crucial moments in the origins of the modern "culture wars," they came from a long history of language projects in Los Angeles. In studying that history, this work attempts to answer three questions. How did public schools design language instruction to Americanize foreign-born students before World War II? How did those students respond to Americanization curriculum? Finally, after the war, how did immigrant communities use bilingual education to reshape debates about desegregation and citizenship?

These questions were not often addressed in direct discussions between Anglo, Mexican, and Japanese Angelenos. However, telling the stories of colorful characters from each community suggests that language learning played a central role in local and national debates about immigration and education. The dissertation begins in the Progressive Era, when teachers, students, and community members argued about the idea of public schools as Americanization factories that produced assimilated citizens ready for the work force. After Congress imposed "national origins" quotas in the Immigration Act of 1924, many advocates of foreign-born children challenged the notion that education was a nation-building project and insisted that schools should celebrate their students' native cultures as well. Until the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, the Los Angeles school district and community-run heritage schools stressed language learning in their definitions of citizenship education.

This debate shifted during and after World War II, as the national interest in Americanization gave way to new ideas about racial integration. In 1947, a court ruling that stopped a school district in Orange County from segregating Spanish-speaking students on account of language became a precedent for the landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education. That case was heard in Los Angeles, where judges, officials, and reformers began to think about integrated schools along with another new concept, bilingual education. Since 1960, Angelenos have proposed a range of programs that created controversy leading up to, and after, the Bilingual Education Act and the East L.A. Blowouts of 1968. Taken together, the language projects of the city school district, immigrant educators, and student protestors reflect the coexistence of segregation and inclusive citizenship in Los Angeles schools.

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