Starting in May 2018, many Española Valley High School students will have an opportunity to graduate with a seal on their diploma that some belive could lead to future opportunities.
When 15-year-old freshman Anthony Thomas was much younger, he had a hard time getting his peers to believe he was Tewa, so in the eighth grade, when the opportunity arose, Thomas, who wears his hair in an afro and has a dark complexion, signed up for the Tewa language class.
“It is a part of my heritage,” he said. “When I was young, kids would say things like ‘You are Tewa?’ So I just wanted to prove to them, you know, I can say this, also. I am Tewa, too.”
Thomas said he enjoys taking the class, but he doesn’t plan on stopping there. In addition to learning how to speak the language, he also wants to learn some of the traditional dances. He wants to be an actor and believes learning the dances will help him overcome his shyness.
Thomas is one of a handful of high school students who are working toward earning a New Mexico Diploma of Excellence Bilingualism-Biliteracy Seal in either the Tewa or Spanish language.
The students can earn the seal, after proving proficiency as measured through course grades and exams.
Española Valley High School Tewa instructor Brian Cata said it is important that students like Thomas take an interest in learning the language to keep it “alive.”
That’s important because as the elders from the Nambé, Pojoaque, San Ildefonso, Ohkay Owingeh, Santa Clara and Tesuque pueblos and the Hopi Tribe of Arizona die, so does the language.
“It opens doors for you,” Cata said. “I am one of the youngest Tewa speakers in the village and I am proud of that. I am trying to pass it on because our elders are slowly dwindling.”
He said between the high school and Española Middle School, he has 45 students enrolled in the language class. Although all the students are native, the language is attracting the attention of students who don’t attend the class.
“I am seeing an interest because when I walk down the halls, non-native students are starting to tell me good morning in our language,” Cata said.
The Endangered Languages Project estimates, out of a 4,500 population, there are only 1,500 native language speakers living.
Google introduced the project as a way of using technology to track many of the world’s disappearing languages.
Personnel from Eastern Michigan University’s First People’s Cultural Council and the Institute for Language Information and Technology, currently oversee the project.
Like Thomas, 17-year-old junior Yessenia Dominguez hopes to earn a seal for her diploma when she graduates in 2019. The only difference is, the seal she earns will recognize her ability to speak and write Spanish.
Dominguez said even though she grew up in a Spanish-speaking household, she enrolled in the Advanced Placement (AP) Spanish class to gain a better understanding of the language and the culture.
“I know how to speak it and talk it, but I am not good at writing it,” she said. “I want to improve on that. I also want to go to college and have some Spanish credits, so I decided to do it through the school.”
Her classmate, 18-year-old senior Jose Antonio Rivera, also grew up in a Spanish-speaking household. He said taking the class so far, has given him a better understanding of when it is acceptable to use less informal language.
Rivera, who will be the first of the high school’s students to receive the seal, said he will be pleased with the recognition.
He and Dominguez said the negative rhetoric surrounding Spanish speakers doesn’t bother them too much, instead, it makes them feel more connected to their culture.
“I just wished people would be more open-minded and try to understand different perspectives and cultures,” Dominguez said. “It is a beautiful culture.”
Besides giving the students an opportunity to earn a seal that could help them improve their educational and employment prospects, Spanish teacher Enid Sepulveda-Rodriguez said there are other practical reasons for promoting the language courses.
She said, like Tewa, the Spanish language is in decline and she believes the seal could serve as an incentive to get more students interested in the classes offered by the high school’s Native Language Department.
“We know the second generation was floundering a little bit,” Sepulveda-Rodriguez said. “But the third generation, we are almost on the brink of extinction with the language (Spanish).”
She said the Spanish language is in such a crisis, 44 states don’t have enough teachers to provide Spanish instruction.
Sepulveda-Rodriguez spent most of her career teaching Spanish in college, but said she couldn’t pass up the opportunity to live in such a nice place.
“This is only my second experience teaching high school,” she said. “I usually teach college, but for one, I love the area, and two, the opportunity to teach Spanish at this level is a challenge and a commitment to help the language go on.”
Besides the seal, Sepulveda-Rodriguez hopes the dual-credit Spanish class and the Advanced Placement Spanish Language and Culture class will attract students.
The Spanish-speaking students will also get a chance to have their efforts recognized as a member of the high school’s Sociedad Honoraria Hispánica Chapter, “Bendíceme Ultima.”
“I wanted to be a part of a Spanish scholarship-seeking organization and we applied to have a chapter at Española Valley High School,” she said. “We need to celebrate the language.”
Sepulveda-Rodriguez anticipates the first member will be inducted in January.