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Proponent of Hispanic assimilation to speak at USF

Published Oct. 12, 2005

Linda Chavez and her family have lived in the United States for generations. She grew up speaking English.

But when her son was about to enter first grade, school officials in the District of Columbia assumed by his name that he should be taught in Spanish.

"Something like that has happened to each of my children every time they changed schools," said Chavez, a former Ronald Reagan aide who has become a leading critic of the multicultural movement, especially as it involves Hispanics.

Chavez will be at the University of South Florida tonight, as part of the university's celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month. (College of Business auditorium, 8 p.m.) But her speech in favor of Hispanic assimilation won't make everyone happy.

Barbara Cruz, an assistant professor of education, is scheduled to give a 15-minute reply afterward. "It won't be a debate, but at the very least it should be a clear message that many USF faculty and students are not in agreement with her message," Cruz said Tuesday.

Chavez, who once was president of U.S. English, a private group that supported English as the country's official language, said she isn't opposed to ethnic groups trying to keep their cultural heritage. She just thinks Hispanics, in particular, should stop asking the government to support Spanish language and culture and start concentrating on blending into the "mainstream" of American life.

Many Hispanics have succeeded in doing just that, Chavez wrote in her recent book, Out of the Barrio: Toward a New Politics of Hispanic Assimilation. The same is true of other ethnic groups who haven't sought special government advantages, she said Tuesday.

Too many Hispanics, she asserts, are letting themselves get caught in a web of economic and cultural dependency. Such things as bilingual education and affirmative action hurt rather than help Hispanics, she says, by reinforcing the notion that they are second-class citizens needing special help.

At least two of Chavez's speaking engagements on western college campuses had to be canceled because of student and faculty protests. At USF, though, people who disagree with her welcome the chance to debate. Cruz, for example, says Chavez's opposition to bilingual education is plain mean.

Cruz, who emigrated from Cuba when she was 5, remembers being thrown straight into English at school and being punished whenever she spoke Spanish.

At one point, because of her language difficulties, she was classified as mentally retarded.

"It was sink or swim," Cruz recalls. "Even though I swam, there were many, many others who sunk at the bottom and never made it out."