Tony Báez has always seen literature and education as ways to strengthen his activism and political arguments. As a young activist growing up in Puerto Rico, Báez looked up to prominent Latino leaders who fought for issues like Puerto Rican independence and civil rights. “We were reading their books and tearing up the literature of Latin America,” he says. He continued his education as a means to inform others on issues that need to improve, such as human rights and bilingual education. Now in his 70s, Báez is the director of the Milwaukee Board of School Directors, District 6. He continues to challenge the norms of school curriculums and push for teaching practices fair for all students.
In the early 1970s, Báez moved to Milwaukee and got a job at Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS). He helped develop the curriculum for bilingual education, a topic he would focus on for the next 40 years. Before Báez and other leaders of the bilingual movement began changing school curriculums, lessons were taught in English and translated into Spanish with no consideration for culture. Students who were not native English speakers were forced to assimilate, bettering their English but leaving behind their own cultural identity. Those students were not receiving an equal education, Báez explains, because they were forced to take standardized tests and learn standardized lessons that were not adapted to their culture.
With a committee of people adamant about incorporating bilingual education into schools, Báez and the group negotiated with MPS to implement new bilingual practices. The program was one of the first in the country and became a model for other states.
These issues are personal to Báez because he understands the challenges of trying to become part of a new culture. Originally from a poor neighborhood in Puerto Rico, he moved to Chicago in his early 20s. Worried for his safety because of his involvement in protesting the Vietnam War, his parents sent him to America. Almost immediately, he got involved with the Young Lords, a national human rights organization that fought for neighborhood empowerment and the rights of Puerto Ricans and other Latinxs.
For Báez, assimilation was never the answer. His experiences in Puerto Rico and Chicago taught him the importance of building a new cultural identity alongside one’s home language and traditions. He has always stressed that suppressing one’s culture hinders an individual’s potential and hurts a community. The bilingual education movement does more than help individual students, it helps create leaders for the future.
There are still improvements to be made to our education system so segregation does not cripple the opportunities of specific groups of students. And Báez does not plan to slow down his work. “To do the right thing for everybody is going to require that we change how schools function,” he says. “I think that’s what my role on the board is going to be. To keep pushing for that.”
Visit mps.milwaukee.k12.wi.us to learn more about MPS’ Bilingual Resolution.
View the article on the Shepherd Express website, part of my regular Hero of the Week column.