Maria José Palacios Figueroa

Beyond Language: Creating Opportunities for Heritage Speakers
Mary Gallagher

A senior majoring in Spanish and linguistics and minoring in Latin American studies. Palacios Figueroa is a native Spanish speaker who tutors fellow students in Western’s Modern and Classical Languages Lab and leads classes for WWU staff members in the Employee Language Program.

As an English-as-a-second-language speaker herself, Palacios Figueroa is fascinated by the politics of language. An estimated 21 percent of Americans speak a language other than English at home, and Palacios Figueroa believes their language skills and cultural knowledge are undervalued in the broader community. She’d like to see these heritage speakers make stronger community connections.

Palacios Figueroa wants to help more WWU students and community members put their first-language Spanish skills to work as volunteer classroom assistants at elementary and middle schools that have lots of Spanish speakers. The young students would learn much more than new vocabulary words, she says. They’d get a chance to explore questions of language politics and cultural identity – perhaps their own.

But Palacios Figueroa soon learned she needed more than a great idea.

“The students from Western that I was trying to connect with the community are the very ones that are already overburdened with trying to find support and create community at Western,” she says. “They thought it was a great idea, but none of them had the time -- even with support with all of the logistics. I wouldn't say that the project crashed and burned. It was more like it sputtered and wouldn't start.”

So Palacios Figueroa is considering the next step: “Everything that I do in my studies and extra-curriculars comes back to the same question: How do we integrate critical questions of justice, identity, and language politics into language education.” She’s also building a library of examples of how others are asking this question through art, writing and other work; she’s gathering inspiration for her next attempt. “I won't be able to do it as a student at Western since I graduate this spring,” she says. “I'm looking forward to it to though, however it ends up manifesting itself.”

How you can help: Palacios Figueroa hopes people will donate to the Changemaker Fellowship itself. “Students need a place to dream big and totally fail without dire consequences,” she says. “I want this to be a possibility for future students at WWU.”

Mary Gallagher is editor of Window magazine

Photo by Rhys Logan ('11)