i was thinking about this today as i was tutoring a 5th grader, a mexican-american bilingual. he seems shy about his spanish most of the time, and one need not stretch the imagination too far to wonder why. we were reading the name of this book is secret, a fantasy novel for kids, which is mostly delightful. it uses mystery, puzzle, and metafiction to get kids excited about turning the pages.
on page 20 something disturbed me, though. when describing the mysterious circumstances surrounding the disappearance of a magician, the realtor of his house explains that the gardner alerted her to the death when he smelled rotten eggs.
the thing is, the words used in the book are not "rotten eggs" but "huevos podridos." you know, because the gardner is obviously hispanic. this rather insignificant plot development in which a nameless gardner--the only nameless character in the book--speaks spanish delivers a double blow to the language. (i should mention that all of the characters are anonymous in this book, but they each receive carefully-selected pseudonyms). not only is spanish relegated to the language of the anonymous lower class, but the only spanish words mentioned in the entire text correspond to one of the most noxious smells to the human nose. also, how ridiculous is it that a spanish-speaking gardner living in the u.s. did not know how to say "rotten eggs" in english, but that the english-speaking monolinguals understood him? spanish is the offensive language of the linguistically-impoverished ghetto?
suddenly, i found myself in a difficult place as a tutor. how do i explain to my ten-year-old bilingual tutee the problem with this authorial choice that most likely would go unnoticed if i did not bring it to his attention? i felt obligated to at least try, but i wondered how much work i could do as one person against a widely-circulating stereotype. does a child believe you if you are one of the only people telling him that spanish lives in philosophy and literature and politics, too?
where is the juvenile fiction that gives spanish equal status with english? no, really, where are these books? i would like to find them and recommend them to my tuttee. and while i'm seeking advice, can i call his teacher and explain to her why i think she should remove this book from the classroom?