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Translating beauty

Originally published November 10, 2010.

Alhambra Beauty College opened its doors 82 years ago. Today, 170 students from around the world are enrolled in programs in cosmetology, nail and hair care. Many are unable to speak English. To help them understand the lessons, most of the school’s instructors are bilingual speakers of Spanish, Chinese or Vietnamese.

Watch this video to get an inside view of how Alhambra Beauty College overcomes the language barriers facing its students to teach them skills.

The beauty school director, Jennifer Hong, says she has only received positive responses to their multilingual approach. ‟Everyone likes to be pretty, so it can be a universal language,” said Hong. She is quick to add, “beauty makes you start a conversation, but of course you need a real language to start to communicate.”

But not everyone has embraced the area’s linguistic diversity. Congresswoman Judy Chu, who used to represent Alhambra as a state assemblywoman (a role now held by her husband, Mike Eng) got her start in politics at a time when there was an emerging movement to limit foreign languages in the area. “English Only” demonstrations were particularly strong in Monterey Park. Older Anglo residents “felt threatened by the new immigrants that were coming in and could not tolerate this sort of change,” Chu said. “They wanted ‘English Only’ books, signs, everything.”

But for Chu, the first Chinese American woman to be elected to the U.S. Congress, multiculturalism is the United State’s strength and one of its core values. “We are a nation of diversity, of immigrants. We came from all over the world,” Chu said. “That is what has made America what it is now, a blending of cultures.” For her, the idea of making English America’s official language would be “a signal that immigrants are not welcomed.”

The debate over an official language in America goes back to the nation’s founding. Because German immigrants played an important role during the independence struggle, in 1795 there was a congressional debate about the possibility of translating US laws into German.

Ultimately, this motion was rejected, but the issue has never gone away. Today, 322 languages are spoken in an ever more multicultural United States and still, no consensus has been reached regarding the question of the country’s identity. Alhambra residents speak more than 30 languages.

According to Rob Toonkel from the advocacy organization English First, that is the reason why they want to make English America’s official language: “Language is our unifying bond, if we take that away, there is not much we Americans have in common.”

But at the Alhambra Beauty School teachers, students, and clientele are using beauty to find a common interest – despite linguistic barriers.

“I came from Cambodia, English is so hard for me, I have to translate from English to my language and I try my best,” said one student. “I also speak Spanish, I think I speak Spanish better than English, because 90% of my clients speak Spanish so I have to speak Spanish with them.”

Hong, the school’s director has never felt any kind of discrimination from those wanting to make English America’s only language. “Those who don’t like it can go somewhere else,” she says. And non-immigrant students from the Beauty College said that the school’s multicultural and multilingual approach is a plus to the profession: “I love the diversity of this school,” said one U.S.-born student. “I love the fact that there are different people from all different walks of life, because you are going to be dealing with that on the real world, so naturally when you come to school here it kind of prepares you for that.”

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1 thought on “Translating beauty”

  1. Fascinating article! I pass the school nearly everyday. Thanks for this inside look!