When I see someone like me, I try to make the student feel like I have their back. I didn’t have that… I was on my own. Yet, I knew if I had a chance later on I’d reach out to members of my community and try to speak to them in our shared language.”
When he was a student and new to America, Dr. Francisco Alatorre at times struggled with the language barrier. The Mexican native, who was 30 years old when he came to the United States, was just learning English and had to take extra steps to pass his classes.
“At the beginning, I couldn’t understand,” he said. “I had to bring a tape recorder to class and then go home and listen again, pausing the tape as I went.”
Other assistance came from mentors and ESL tutors, along with English-speaking friends who helped with his writing. It worked. Dr. Alatorre, associate professor in the Department of Criminal Justice, earned a law degree and a PhD. His varied career has included working as a lawyer for the federal government in the human services sector and for nonprofits.
The experience of feeling shut out of those early classroom lessons left an impression, however. Throughout his life, Dr. Alatorre has reached out to young people he sees struggling with the same issue. Now that he’s a faculty member at Bridgewater State University, that practice has only increased.
“When I see someone like me, I try to make the student feel like I have their back,” he said. “I didn’t have that… I was on my own. Yet, I knew if I had a chance later on I’d reach out to members of my community and try to speak to them in our shared language.”
To that end, in spring 2024 he will introduce a first for the institution – a special section of a course he’s often taught, Introduction to Criminal Justice, but this time it will be in Spanish.
“This will open the door to more students,” Dr. Alatorre said.
Other schools offer similar courses; in fact, some institutions offer degrees taught entirely in non-English languages.
“I think it makes students more comfortable,” he said.
Beyond this, law enforcement in general is looking to increase the number of bilingual officers around the country. Last year, the Department of Justice introduced the Law Enforcement Language Access Initiative, meant to “assist law enforcement agencies in meeting their obligations to provide meaningful language assistance to limited English proficient individuals.”
“Providing law enforcement agencies with the tools they need to ensure effective and meaningful language access promotes and advances greater safety for limited English proficient people,” said Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. “Through this initiative, we will be able to share these language-access best practices and similar resources with law enforcement agencies all across the country.”
This would be right in step with Dr. Alatorre and his upcoming class.
He’s seen the needs of the underserved up close and personal since first coming to the United States in the early 1990s.
“I’ve witnessed firsthand hunger and deprivation,” he said. “I just want to make a little difference for the people who speak my language and alert others to the fact that there’s a lot of inequity in the world.”
Dr. Alatorre has been at BSU for four years. The Spanish-language course, he said, is foundational to much of the other work he does, on and off campus. These include helping law-involved individuals who do not speak English, reaching out to LGBTQ students who may not feel fully comfortable on campus and putting a greater focus on the victims of society. He also works with and encourages minoritized students interested in conducting undergraduate research and seeks ways to eliminate human trafficking.
Finally, Dr. Alatorre is the chair of the university’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee for his department; co-chairs the Department of Criminal Justice’s Conference on Gender, Domestic Abuse and Racism, which is slated for next spring; and co-chairs a university committee on domestic violence.
He said his guiding ethic in all the work he does is one informed by passion and empathy.
“At the end of the day, it’s all about being more humane to others,” he said.