In 2018, Producer Jeanne Montalvo was a new mother looking back at all the decisions her parents made when raising her. Namely, the differences in how Jeanne and her brother looked at and embraced the Spanish language. So, to understand and better inform her own parenting decisions, she reported on her family’s choice to teach her children Spanish.

Five years later, Jeanne’s oldest, Martin, just finished kindergarten, and her youngest is a talking toddler — both commanding the Spanish language. But Martin, who was 2.5 years old when New York City shut down during the pandemic, was thrust back home after six months of preschool. When the family eventually came out of seclusion, Martin did not speak English.

Jeanne and her husband, Ernesto, didn’t really hesitate to put him into daycare in English since Jeanne grew up in a bilingual home. But Martin struggled. Despite an understanding with the daycare that Martin only spoke Spanish, the school’s administration suggested he might be on the spectrum due to some of his behavior. The family was surprised as they never anticipated anyone questioning their bilingualism in a multicultural bubble like New York. After speaking with doctors and psychologists, Jeanne found it is actually quite common for children who do not speak English to be misdiagnosed and put into special education — something that began many decades ago.

In this follow up, Latino USA takes a look at the school system in New York City and its history as Jeanne navigated through it with a toddler who did not speak English. We see how the city arrived at bilingual education and how that quest for information made Jeanne feel less alone as she found solidarity in the ghosts of New York City’s past.

Featured illustration by Jeanne Montalvo Lucar. 


Latino USA is celebrating 30 years, 30 años, and we would love to hear from our listeners. Would you share with us your favorite Latino USA episode? Maybe it’s the one you remember the most, the one that kept you company during a road trip or the one you most shared with others. Or maybe you just have a birthday wish for us. Please leave us a voicemail at 646-571-1224 and we might feature your message in an upcoming show. Gracias.

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3 thoughts on “Bilingual Is My Superpower

  1. I understand as parents we make many decisions for our children in how we wish to raise them. However, as an educator of young ones (3-11 years), I was saddened for Martin and his struggles which could have been avoided had Jeanne and Ernesto chosen to teach him at least some English at home rather than sending him to school and expecting him seamlessly to learn it there. It is completely unsurprising he exhibited behavioral issues. Would you want to be dropped into a situation where you can’t communicate, but are expected to perform tasks and integrate socially? Additionally, educators are so overwhelmed as it is, expecting them to teach skills the parents have the ability to is an unnecessarily high expectation. There are children whose parents cannot help with English, and they get ELL support, as well they should! With that, those children suffer socially and emotionally during the process of trying to assimilate, communicate, and fully participate in school. Why make their little lives harder if you could choose to provide the skills they need before sending them to school? Will they make it? Yes, absolutely, but at what cost to them in the meantime?

  2. Your piece, “bilingual is my superpower,” brought back memories of my father’s mother. i think her ancestors immigrated to the US from what is now Germany in about 1849. They settled in what were probably tenements in either Manhattan or Queens. From her stories, this influx of families from central Europe were no more appreciated or welcomed than the Puerto Ricans several generations later.
    My grandmother grew up speaking German at home. America was the land of opportunity So, many non English speaking kids like her went off to school, probably grateful for the chance to learn English and get on with the better life that was promised them.

  3. I loved, loved, loved your “Bilingual is My Superpower” podcast! (I studied French in high school and college.) My son took Spanish in grade school, high school and college (Spanish was his 2nd major). He’s going to Law School in the Fall; I hope there is some way he maintains it. I told about a school in my city that teaches English and German. Well done!! Muchas gracias!!

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