This bilingual debate team in NYC is fighting ‘English-only norms’ at national competitions

A wave of anxiety washed over Anyely Rijo as she stepped onto a debate stage in Washington, D.C.

The 13-year-old student from Brooklyn’s M.S. 50 was used to debating other schools across the city in her native Spanish, part of a small but growing cadre of bilingual debaters. Now, with help from an interpreter, Rijo and her debate partner were squaring off for the first time at a national tournament in English.

It didn’t go well.

Rijo, who immigrated from the Dominican Republic last year, said she struggled to follow the arguments the opposing team was making about the debate topic: whether the United States should substantially reduce restrictions on legal immigration. Their opponents lobbed a lot of arguments that felt overwhelming and disparate, from open borders to the politics of refugee resettlement. 

Worse, she worried the interpreter wouldn’t quickly translate their arguments, leading Rijo and her partner to repeat themselves, sacrificing valuable time.

“It was the first time we were debating and facing someone in English,” Rijo said in a recent interview that was interpreted by Carolina Hidalgo, one of her debate coaches. “I was scared, nervous — we cried a lot.” She and her partner lost all six of their debates.

The defeat stung. M.S. 50’s debate team, which has taken home three city championships in four years, is a source of pride for the school, which just five years ago was targeted for rapid turnaround under Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Renewal program. Ben Honoroff, the school’s principal, has infused the curriculum with debate, which he credits partly for recent boosts in enrollment and test scores. 

But the school’s staff is also pioneering an effort to include more English learners, who make up 18% of the school’s students, in its extracurricular debate programs. At first, the school’s Spanish-speaking students mostly debated each other. 

“They were like, ‘it’s not fair that we can’t go to these debate tournaments,’” Honoroff said. “They were hungry for competition against other schools.”

M.S. 50 helped persuade the citywide debate league to include Spanish-speaking debaters and has coaxed a handful of other schools to participate in bilingual citywide debates. M.S. 50 even set up a debate via Skype with a school in the Dominican Republic.

Buoyed by the Spanish debaters’ success at citywide tournaments, M.S. 50 officials wanted to enter them in national competitions that have historically been conducted exclusively in English.

“I was excited about challenging the English-only norms in the national debate tournaments,” Honoroff said.

Officials knew there would be challenges involved: The school would have to raise thousands of dollars to hire an interpreter. Honoroff, whose office is adorned with press clippings from his student’s debate triumphs, had never seen a tournament that had formal procedures for hosting teams that don’t speak English. He warned students they would likely be met with resistance.

“It’s a lot easier to not have a Spanish-language debate team,” Honoroff said.

Still, after Rijo’s experience in Washington, it felt daunting to compete in an upcoming tournament in Texas that was already in the works and would again require them to debate in Spanish with an interpreter simultaneously rendering their arguments into English. And it wasn’t just because they lost every round.

Back in Washington, “[Other] coaches were making our kids cry and making them feel uncomfortable that they were speaking in Spanish,” said Hidalgo, the bilingual debate coach. “They came back and they were really defeated.”

But Rijo, Hidalgo, and other team members decided to move forward with preparations for Texas. They began prep sessions on Saturdays, and Hidalgo put in extra hours translating the English-speaking team’s debate prep sessions, briefing materials, and arguments so the bilingual team would be better prepared. 

The subject — whether the U.S. should promote much more immigration — was also important to Rijo.

“I feel like I have to debate this topic. I have to change the mindset of people who think we’re rapists or criminals,” Rijo said, referring to comments Donald Trump made when he announced his run for president. “I wanted to change the mindset of all the people who think that we are bad people.”

When they got to the tournament in Dallas, things seemed to be going well. Hidalgo began each debate by explaining that the team would debate in Spanish with simultaneous interpretation and that everyone would have to wear headsets. 

“At the beginning they were very respectful of it,” Hidalgo said.

Rijo was still nervous, but she felt more prepared than she had in Washington. “I knew how they were going to speak, how they were going to translate. We were ready for some of the arguments we were not ready for in D.C.,” she said.

But by the third of six debates, one of the opposing teams had lodged a complaint, seeking to disqualify the bilingual team.

M.S. 50 hadn’t technically gotten permission to debate using interpreters from the National Speech & Debate Association, the organization running the tournament. “If I had asked and they said no, that would have put us in a little bit of a bind,” explained Honoroff.

The M.S. 50 debate team at a national tournament in Texas this summer. (Courtesy of M.S. 50)

The complaint didn’t surprise some of M.S. 50’s English-speaking debaters. “We’d be walking down the hall and we’d encounter a team who already went against our bilingual team and they’d be poking fun of them,” said Kevin Ascencion, a 14-year-old M.S. 50 graduate who made it to the semifinals in that tournament.

Honoroff explained to tournament officials that the Spanish-speaking debaters didn’t need extra time and the interpreter wasn’t one of the school’s debate coaches, which might have given them an unfair advantage.

“Our argument was that the national discourse on immigration is problematic right now and that one of the ways to improve the discourse would be to increase the number of voices, including bilingual voices,” he said. “They were actually really intrigued and supportive.”

In the end, the debate association allowed Rijo and her partner to finish all six debate rounds. Their final record? Four wins, two losses.

“I [felt] good, because I knew I was getting into their head,” Rijo said. “I felt proud of myself.”