Spanish speakers fight to overturn bilingual education
With a touch of defiance and no shortage of pride, Alice Callaghan calls herself a “flaming street activist.” She has been arrested a dozen times or so (she’s lost count) protesting the Vietnam War, standing up for illegal immigrants, and defending the rights of homeless people in Los Angeles’s vast skid row. She is, in short, no one to mess with, something she is proving again with her latest cause: dismantling a controversial educational program that she says keeps poor Spanish-speaking kids trapped in poverty.
From a storefront community centre in the heart of the city’s garment district, Callaghan has spurred a movement to do away with California’s system of bilingual education. It is the latest hotbutton issue to confront the voters of the state that so often sets political trends for the rest of the United States. And if the polls are right, they will follow her lead in a ballot next week— and support a measure to eliminate a system once seen as a fundamental right of California’s fast-growing Latino population.
Callaghan is originally from Calgary, but has been in Los Angeles for 40 years—much of it as an Episcopal priest working with Spanish-speaking immigrants. At the centre she runs, called Las Familias del Pueblo, dozens of squealing children tear around as they wait for their parents to finish work in the sweatshops nearby. Almost no
one speaks English. Callaghan acknowledges that ending bilingual education—which in California means teaching primarily in Spanish—is an unusual cause for her. It allies her with conservatives who are uncomfortable with the rising influence of Spanish-speakers, and pits her against Latino activists who see eliminating bilingual programs as yet another right-wing attack on their community. But for Callaghan, the issue is clear: the parents who come to Las Familias know that in America, English is the language of success.
“They don’t want their kids selling tamales or cleaning offices,” she says. ‘They want something better for them.” It was, in fact, Mexican immigrants themselves who began the current drive against bilingual education.
The debate could have turned ugly. California’s recent history has been scarred by bitter controversies over such issues as eliminating social benefits for illegal immigrants (passed in 1994) and doing away with affirmative action for minorities (adopted in 1996). Now, emotions on both sides are rising as Californians prepare to vote on June 2 on a raft of measures—including Proposition 227, the initiative to end most bilingual education. But the surprise is that the debate has been relatively civil. And for some analysts, an important part of the reason is that California’s Latinos are acting less and less like a minority under siege. In some
areas—including Los Angeles— they are nearly the majority, and surveys show that most will support Proposition 227. “We were a beleaguered minority,” says Gregory Rodriguez, a researcher at the Pepperdine Institute for Public Policy in Malibu. “Today, we’re a potential majority, and we’re starting to feel our power.”
In fact, after decades of staying on the margins of American political and economic life, the 30 g million Americans of Hispanic | background are influential and i fashionable as never before.
Census projections show that | they will surpass blacks as the § biggest American minority £ group by 2005, and will form fuly ly one-fifth of the U.S. population by 2035. Marketers have discovered their $500-billion purchasing power—up 67 per cent since 1990. Major corporations are pouring money into advertising campaigns aimed at Latinos, fuelling a growth in Hispanic advertising agencies (there are now 160, up from half a dozen in 1980). New magazines are popping up—such as People en Español and Latina, a glossy quarterly aimed at young Hispanic women. All across Los Angeles, billboards proclaim that the city’s No. 1 TV station for news is Spanish-language KMEX—flagship of the national Univision network. Business is so good that Univision’s share price more than doubled in the past year.
Politicians, too, have woken to the importance of the Latino vote.
The four leading candidates for governor of California last week staged the first-ever statewide debate on Spanish-language TV (they debated in English and were simultaneously translated into Spanish).
Republicans, especially, are worried that their past support for measures widely seen as anti-Hispanic under Gov. Pete Wilson may doom them among the fastest-growing sector of the electorate. “The trend is obvious and the political danger is real,” California Republican strategist Stuart Spencer wrote in a memo to party leaders. The party’s response: it named a 27-year-
old Latino, Mike Madrid, as its statewide political director.
Hispanic power is evident in many key states where national elections are decided—New York, Texas, Florida, Illinois and New Jersey. But nowhere is it more obvious than in California, whose fight over bilingual education is being watched carefully by politicians and educators nationwide. If Proposition 227 passes, they say, it could provoke similar measures in other parts of the United States. Like many such issues, it is about much more than education—ethnicity, class, culture, and how best to integrate the second-biggest wave of immigration this century into the American mainstream. And it reflects a seismic shift in the ethnic makeup of California.
Statewide, Latinos make up nearly 30 per cent of the population, with blacks at 7 per cent and Asians at 9.1 per cent. But the Latino community is growing faster than the others, fuelled by immigration and a high birthrate. Los Angeles County, 80-per-cent white as recently as the late 1960s, now has no ethnic majority. Hispanics
A NEW POWER IN NUMBERS
Growth and projected size of California’s Hispanic community, as a percentage of the state’s population ¡¿£1
Projected size of the Hispanic minority by the year2000
In the United States
have long spilled out of traditional barrios like East Los Angeles, where English signs are almost as rare as in east-end Montreal and billboards for Maxwell House coffee read “Bueno hasta la última gota” (Good to the last drop). But, just as important, U.S.-born Latinos are moving quickly into the middle class and fleeing the city for the suburbs. A 1996 study by Rodriguez of the Pepperdine Institute showed that half own their own homes and have family incomes over $50,000. Overall, Latino incomes are still only two-thirds those of whites and just behind those of blacks. But the averages are pulled
down by mixing in new immigrants with those born in the United States. “We’ve been led to believe what screwups we are,” says Rodriguez, “but when you take out the immigrant generation, Latinos are moving up like other groups.”
It is not the newly comfortable Latinos, however, who most concern Alice Callaghan. For all the economic gains U.S.-born Hispanics are enjoying, the new immigrants from Mexico and Central America who pour into Southern California still face little but poverty. The men and women who send their children to Las Familias typically take home only about $200 for a week’s work of sewing clothes in the surrounding factories. Almost all are in the United States illegally, but it was they who sparked the fight against bilingual education. In 1996, about 90 of them pulled their children out of the nearby Ninth Street Elementary School because the bilingual program they were in was failing to teach them English. Like most of the 410,000 pupils in California’s so-called bilingual classes, they were being taught almost entirely in their native language—in this case, Spanish.
The school refused to switch them into English classes, so the parents staged a two-week boycott with Callaghan’s help. It drew statewide headlines and forced the school to change. One of the parents, 33-year-old Fredesvinda Angel, who came to Los Angeles from Mexico 10 years ago, explained through an interpreter that her daughter, Jessica, was losing the little English she had picked up the longer she stayed in school. “She learns Spanish at home,” said Angel. “The important thing is that she has to learn English at school, so she can go on and get a good job.”
Their boycott drew the attention of a Silicon Valley entrepreneur
In Los Angeles
named Ron Unz, a onetime Republican candidate for governor. He contacted Callaghan, and used his own money (about $lmillion so far) to start a campaign to do away with bilingual education, which he has called “completely illogical, if not loony.” His campaign, dubbed “English for the children,” gathered almost half a million signatures to put Proposition 227 on next week’s ballot. It would abolish bilingual education, and instead put students with limited English into one year of English immersion before moving them into regular classes.
The irony is that bilingual education was launched in the late 1960s in California as a way of easing children with little or no English into the state’s school system. And since 80 per cent of them were Spanish-speaking, it became inextricably entwined with a drive by Latino nationalists to boost their language and culture. Today, about 1.4 million students in California’s schools, a quarter of the total, speak only limited English— more than any other state.
The theory was that they would spend a short time being taught in their native tongue before being moved into the English system.
But as the years dragged by, many children ended up in bilingual programs for most of their school careers—often spending almost all day in Spanish. And many English-speaking students were directed into bilingual classes simply because they had Spanish names. Evidence mounted that even many Latino children born and raised in the United States were graduating unable to compete in English.
“Kids are coming out with diplomas that mean nothing,” says Henry Gradillas, a former principal of a tough high school in East Los Angeles who is campaigning for Proposition 227. “They’re born here and they end up competing for the lousiest jobs with new immigrants straight from Mexico. ”
On the other side, most Latino organizations and teachers’ unions say abolishing bilingual classes will have disastrous results— forcing Spanish-speaking children into an all-English environment before they are ready. Bilingual education, they say, is being scapegoated for the failures of California’s much-criticized public school system. And Unz’s Proposition 227 is a blunt instrument: it will force all school boards to adopt the same solution instead of tailoring programs to local conditions. “It’s throwing the baby out with the bathwater,” says Antonio Villaraigosa, the 45-year-old Speaker of the California legislature and the state’s highest-ranking Hispanic official. “It’s another wedge issue that divides and polarizes people.”
Villaraigosa himself is a prime example of how California’s Latinos are leveraging their newfound influence. Until recently, their increasing numbers were not reflected at the polls. Many Hispanic immigrants did not become U.S. citizens, but the emotional campaigns to deny benefits to illegal immigrants and end affirmative action galvanized them. They felt under attack, and defended themselves by taking out citizenship and registering to vote. More His-
panics were elected to office, and the most successful ones, such as Villaraigosa, are reaching beyond ethnic politics. He started out as a poor kid in East L.A., with an abusive father who left the family when Antonio was 5; at 15 he had “Born to raise hell” tattooed on his right arm, and at 20 he was acquitted on an assault charge. Now, the tattoo is long gone. “My son started to notice it, so I had it removed. And yes, it was painful,” Villaraigosa said in an interview. He calls himself “a politician who happens to be Latino, not a Latino politician. You can’t be ethnic-based any more. In the California of the future there will be no majority. You have to be a coalition-builder.” Others who have made the difficult journey out of the barrio without the help of bilingual education are passionately opposed to abolishing it. “Ultimately, the children will be harmed,” says Antonia Hernandez, a lawyer and president of the Mexican American Legal
Defense and Educational Fund. Hernandez, who grew up speaking Spanish at home, today serves on a host of distinguished boards of directors and is among the new Latino professional class that is helping to reshape California. She does not want today’s kids to go back to the hardship she experienced, growing up in East Los Angeles as the daughter of working-class Mexican immigrants. She met her first Hispanic teacher in Grade 6. “I made it in spite of the [English-only] system. I didn’t really learn to think in English until law school. Before then I used to translate everything into Spanish and back into English,” she recalls. “Count all the kids that didn’t make it. Don’t count me.”
„ These days, though, her
views are increasingly under Ú attack—even among His| panics. Edward Zapanta lives d only six kilometres from his 5 boyhood home in East Los g Angeles, but it might as well
be another country. Now a neurosurgeon in an uppermiddle-class neighborhood
of Pasadena, just north of Los Angeles, he sits on the boards of two major corporations, the Times Mirror Co. and Southern California Edison, and is a trustee of the University of Southern California.
Unlike many Latinos today, Zapanta grew up speaking English at home. He learned Spanish later, to understand his many Spanishspeaking patients, and confesses to speaking it poorly. His wife, Norene Murray, is an Anglo, and none of his four children speaks Spanish. Zapanta takes pride in the success of Hispanics, but has little time for nationalist arguments. He supports doing away with ethnic preferences in universities and does not support bilingual education. Latino children, Zapanta argues, “are living here. They will have to compete in English. Spanish should be kept alive at home.” That kind of unsentimental thinking may not please Hispanic leaders more concerned with culture than economics. But these days, it’s the majority view among Latinos determined to seize control of their future.
With ANNE GREGOR in Los Angeles
'They don't want their kids selling tamales'