EDINBURG, RGV – Dr. Francisco Guajardo, executive director of the B3 Institute at UT-Rio Grande Valley, has explained the rationale for making UTRGV a fully integrated bilingual, bi-cultural and bi-literate institution.

Guajardo spoke about the initiative, and the absence of bilingualism at UTRGV’s predecessors, in a recent speech at the Museum of South Texas in Edinburg. The speech was titled, From Taming a Wild Tongue to Becoming a Bilingual University.

In an interview after his power point presentation, Guajardo said the idea of creating a fully bilingual, bi-cultural and bi-literate institution came from on high. He said he hopes and believes it will be embraced by the local community.

“UT System has put its stamp of approval on UTRGV moving toward a bilingual, bi-cultural, bi-literate university,” Guajardo said in an interview with the Rio Grande Guardian. “When UTRGV was created, the board of regents laid out a set of principles, 15 principles. One of those principles said that they would like this university to explore, through the humanities and the fine arts, to explore issues of bilingualism, bi-culturalism and bi-literacy. So, in some ways, the regents were saying to us, the door is open to explore some of the natural assets, the geographical assets, the cultural assets, may be as part of how you shape the new university. This was something that was desired, it seems, by regents and the System.”

Guajardo said the vision of the UT System’s board of regents in establishing a bilingual, bi-cultural, bi-literate university in South Texas, has won the backing of faculty at UTRGV. “The local leadership embraced it. When a group of faculty members were convened to explore how this could look, that made it serious. It made it part of the institutional goal. Today, even as the university goes through its strategic planning process, if you look at the emerging vision statement, the vision statement says, explicitly, that we are moving towards a bilingual university. The institutional core values… are represented as fostering bilingualism, biculturalism, bi-literacy.”

Asked why a bilingual, bi-cultural and bi-literate university is important for South Texas, Guajardo said: “UTRGV becoming a bilingual institution is important because this is where we are in this period of history. That is to say that with the emerging demography, with the globalization of this region, with the kind of cultural history that we have, which includes, of the course, the linguistic history of this region, it is an appropriate time to really begin to view Spanish and English as assets for how we live, for how we transact, for how we trade, for how we build and for how we envision as well.”

Community support

In his speech, Guajardo said some people feel a fully bilingual university for South Texas could have been achieved a long time ago. Others, he said, believe it to be a crazy idea. In his interview with the Rio Grande Guardian, Guajardo said:

“We could have done this a long time ago but I do not know that we were there in terms of a consciousness. I do not know that we were there in terms of institutional courage. The leaders have stepped up and said, this is an important thing to do and we have found there are a number of faculty members that are in agreement with that. We think that sizable parts of the community are also in agreement with us. If there is a reason to pause it is that the university is leading this. And so the pause there is that we hope that the community embraces it as much as the university leadership has embraced it. But, this is part of the work, building the awareness, building the support for it.”

Asked if other universities might follow in UTRGV’s footsteps, Guajardo said: “When we do this, other people will say, not only is this interesting, not only is that compelling, but that gives them a competitive edge. People are always looking for a competitive edge, in all walks of life. I suspect that when we do it well, people will want to do something like this as well. And so, yes, I do expect that a lot of eyes will be on us and we welcome that.”

Asked if he would like to make any other comment on the goal of making UTRGV a bilingual, bi-cultural and bi-literate university, Guajuardo said:

“I would like to encourage all of us as a community to be about a different type of discourse. A discourse that is informed by the value and the importance of bilingualism. But, especially of telling our children and telling our neighbors, telling our co-workers that the Spanish language has value, that it is not a language of the second class. It is a language that is as important as any other language, especially for us in this region. I do not know that we have talked like that in past as a community but I think that this is a good time to really begin to shift how we view it and how we talk about it. Because I think there is so much to be gained from it, rather than that we do this as a cost. I do not think there is any cost. I think it is only a benefit.”

In his speech, Guajardo discussed the roots of bilingualism at UTRGV’s predecessors. He pointed out that the university began as a junior college in the 1920s. Formed by Edinburg CISD, it was first known as Edinburg Junior College. Guajardo focused on one person he thought of great consequence when discussing bilingualism at UTRGV’s predecessors – Emilia Wilhelmina Schunior Ramírez.

Schunior Ramírez (1902 to 1960) was a teacher, lay historian, and school administrator. She taught adult education and later Spanish at Pan American College. Guajardo said that while there is a marker on the Edinburg campus in honor of Schunior Ramírez, “I don’t think she is as celebrated as the depth of her work really warrants.” If Schunior Ramírez had not died in her late 50s of pancreatic cancer, Guajardo believes she would have had a big impact on ensuring Pan American College embraced Spanish. Instead, he said, the number of “speech professors” was increased during the 1950s. The job of these professors was to help students speak better English, or, to put it another way, to knock the Spanish out of them.

Guajardo noted that a famed student of Pan American University, Chicana writer Gloria Anzaldua, had written about her time at the institution in her 1987 book, Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza. The chapter on those times was titled Taming a Wild Tongue. Guajardo argued that if Schunior Ramírez had lived longer, Anzaldua may not have experienced the prejudice against Spanish she encountered at Pan American.

Editor’s Note: Reporter Ena Capucion and Video-Journalist Apol Sandoval contributed to this story from Edinburg. Photo by Ena Capucion/RGG.