The Latinx Students of Bayside Want to Know Why Schools Don’t Teach Latin American Spanish—and We’re Wondering the Same Thing
Correction: An earlier version of this article referred to Castilian Spanish, which is the type of Spanish spoken among most Spanish-speakers around the world. It should have distinguished between Latin American and Spain dialects of Spanish.
Major spoilers for Saved by the Bell on Peacock are ahead. Latinx students’ relationship with Spanish class has always been fraught. In 1980, comedy duo Cheech & Chong wrote about it in their classic song "Mexican Americans." In it, there’s a line that’s relatable to most U.S.-based Spanish-speaking Latinx adolescents that critiques how these communities often "take Spanish and get a B." This is because the Spanish taught in U.S. classrooms isn’t the one spoken by the millions of Latinxs who live in the country. Instead, it’s Spanish from Spain. Forty years later, not much has changed—except now it’s the Latinx students of Bayside High School in the Saved by the Bell reboot taking on the issue.
In season 2, which starts streaming November 24, viewers are introduced to Señor Johnson, a Spanish teacher who doesn't know more than a summer abroad’s worth of his second language but purports that this version, in which the “z” sounds like a “th,” is the only way to speak Spanish correctly. While made for TV, the scenario rings true for many of us who took Spanish as a second language in school. Growing up in Arizona, where 19.5% of the population speaks Spanish, my Spanish classes were pretty much part of the colonial project. While Spanish is a colonizer’s language, so many Latin American and Caribbean communities have made it their own. However, this was entirely erased in my classroom. I mean, who else had to learn vosotros, a personal pronoun that’s not typically part of a native Spanish-speaking Latinx’s vocabulary? Moreover, these classes are often led by teachers like Señor Johnson, educators more interested in investing in the professional futures of non-Latinx white kids than affirming the culture, identity, and experiences of their Spanish-speaking Latinx students. In Los Angeles, where Saved by the Bell takes place, more than a third of people speak Spanish; across the country, 13% of people speak the language.
In the episode, titled “La Guerra de Aisha,” series lead Daisy Jiménez (played by Haskiri Velazquez) has been in the class for a while and is rolling with it. As an academic achiever, she’s taking her easy A and moving on. However, when Daisy’s best friend, jock, and rabble-rouser Aisha Garcia (played by Alycia Pascual-Peña) joins the class, things get heated. In one scene, Señor Johnson insists that Aisha, who is Afro-Latina, pick a “Spanish” name. When she picks her own name, he assigns her “Juanita” instead. Later, when Aisha is practicing speaking Spanish aloud, the teacher attempts to correct her accent. Ultimately, he gives the native Spanish-speaker a C-minus on an assignment while her non-Latinx white classmate receives an A. Furious, Aisha starts a rebellion, with Daisy now by her side.
Throughout the episode, Aisha also leans on her coach, Mario Lopez’s A.C. Slater, for advice. “The one thing that I thought no one could ever take away from me—the fact that I’m Latina—is being challenged by a cosplaying conquistador,” she tells him. That a Black Latina is so assured in her Latinidad is refreshing (and long overdo) in entertainment. For Coach Slater, it’s also inspiring. When Señor Johnson gets fired after ridiculing Aisha’s Spanish in front of the principal, Slater takes over the class. In part, it’s a way for his character to reclaim his culture and ethnicity—you know, that very visible part of his identity that is entirely glossed over in the original series. As Coach Slater says, “Growing up, we never talked about the fact that we were Mexican. My dad changed our name from ‘Sánchez’ to ‘Slater’ and made my middle name ‘America Rules.’”
Maureen Bharoocha, who directed the episode as part of NBCUniversal's Female Forward program, hopes the plot line validates all the Latinx students who have taken similar Spanish classes and illuminates the experience for others. After all, she tells Refinery29 Somos, school campuses too often turn into spaces where “others tell you who you are, and you have to justify to them who you are and your culture.” Co-written by Marcos González and Victoria González, with input from the series’ Latinx actors, she hopes the episode’s universality and humor will help audiences absorb the lesson. “With humor, you're able to reach more people, and people can digest it more because your heart is more open,” she says.
As a viewer, “La Guerra de Aisha” has been satisfying to watch, in part because it’s so different from my own experience. When I had a non-Latinx white missionary Spanish teacher, I just shrugged it off. I knew it was strange that he didn’t actually know much Spanish, but I didn’t want to stand out and cause a scene. I was a Daisy in need of an Aisha. But there was none in sight—we were all too timid. Even if there was one, I don’t think my school’s administration would have responded like the fictional Bayside faculty did. Maybe if I had watched a series like this, I would have felt empowered to speak out; perhaps—and hopefully—young people will now. Only then will we all be free of vosotros.