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Mexican immigrant daughter now speaks Maya, Aztec, too

STANFORD -- When she was a first-grader growing up in the farming community of Madera, Calif., Bianet Castellanos surprised some of her classmates by learning to read basic English in just one week.

Until then, the daughter of Mexican immigrants had been in the school's bottom reading group: the one reserved for Spanish- speaking children.

"I wanted the other kids to know that just because I read in Spanish, it didn't mean I was stupid," said Castellanos, now 22. "I was really motivated to achieve."

Today, Castellanos - a graduating Stanford University anthropology student - speaks not only Spanish and English, but two more unusual languages as well: Yucatec Maya and classical Aztec, or Nahuatl.

Recently, she was among nine Stanford students honored with the 1993 Deans Award for Academic Achievement. Her just- completed senior honors thesis is based on interviews she conducted with teen-age girls in a remote Yucatecan village.

Castellanos was born in Colima, Mexico, and came to California with her mother and seven siblings in 1974 (a set of twins was born soon afterward). Her father, a farmworker who never went to school, had come to the valley a year earlier, hoping to find work.

Considering their difficult start, the 10 Castellanos children did extremely well in school. Nearly all went on to college, including a son who is currently at the University of California- Irvine Medical School and a younger daughter who is now a freshman at the University of California-Davis.

Bianet, the seventh child, had an artistic bent and came to Stanford thinking she would major in art history. Then, in her sophomore year, she took Professor James Fox's course on Yucatec Maya, which is spoken today on the lowlands of Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula.

"I knew that there still were some Maya around, but I didn't realize that they still had a strong culture until I took that class," Castellanos said.

"The language is infiltrated with some Spanish words, but it's still hard. There are these things called glottal stops, where you repeat a vowel or consonant - sort of a popping noise. The first quarter I felt like I was making no progress, but by the end of the year I could write it decently."

Supported by grants from the Department of Anthropology and Stanford's Undergraduate Research Opportunities program, Castellanos spent a good portion of the next two summers conducting interviews with teen-age girls in a Maya village near Valladolid, where Fox had done field work before.

Though she relied primarily on Spanish for the sessions, her Maya had a good workout. "I knew what I was trying to say, but that wasn't always what they heard," she said. "They would laugh at my questions! But by the end of the first two months, I was able to understand a lot."

Castellanos decided to focus her research on a group of young unmarried women who had left the village, without chaperones, to find jobs in surrounding cities.

This was a new phenomenon for the village. Previously, the only girls who had left were those who ran away, or "escaped" to get married without the permission of their parents.

"I studied the community's expansion of the definition of escapar to include unmarried girls who left the village to work in the cities," Castellanos said.

"The community did not know how to react to their behavior. They classified it as a type of escaping because their behavior incurred risks similar to those incurred by girls who ran away to get married."

Castellanos presented her research findings at a recent session of the National Conference on Chicano Studies. She also used her talents as an artist to draw Mayan inscriptions for an article Fox published in the Handbook of Mayan Historical Linguistics, and has been active this year as head advising associate at Faisan house, in Florence Moore Hall.

Eventually, Castellanos would like to get a doctorate in education or anthropology, with a focus on Maya studies. Before that, though, she has some unfinished business.

"I'm going to be a bilingual elementary school teacher next year in the Teach for America program, probably at a school in the Bay area," she said.

"One of the promises I made to myself after high school was that I was going to help those who didn't have as many opportunities as I had. I've spent the last few years focusing on my own studies. Now I want to give something back."

Her whole family - including all nine brothers and sisters - will be at Stanford for her graduation June 13.



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