In a battle where symbolism counts more than substance, supporters of bilingual education must do a better job of countering misconceptions that bilingual education is anti-English, a national Latino civil-rights leader said Tuesday.

Raul Yzaguirre, president of the Washington, D.C.-based National Council of La Raza, the nation’s largest Latino civil-rights organization, was in Phoenix to denounce Proposition 203.

Proponents of the measure have portrayed bilingual education supporters as anti-English, he said, but just the opposite is true.

“Who among us would be against learning English?” Yzaguirre asked during a luncheon of bilingual education supporters that included many prominent Latino community leaders from Phoenix and Tucson.

“We are about the business of teaching English in this country, but our opponents have positioned us very differently.”

At the same luncheon, bilingual education supporters announced that a campaign to fight Proposition 203 is in full swing.

Arizona Citizens Opposed to Proposition 203 has raised more than $100,000 and has begun running radio advertisements opposing the initiative, said Paul Berumen, the coordinator.

Another anti-Proposition 203 group, English Plus More, also is gearing up its media campaign. The group began running cable television advertisements in the Phoenix market last weekend, said Raul Aguirre, president of R & A Communications, the company producing the ads.

Financed by California software millionaire Ron Unz, Proposition 203 would replace bilingual education in Arizona with a one-year English immersion program. Its proponents say bilingual education is a failure that prevents immigrant students from learning English.

But Yzaguirre said research has shown repeatedly that students learn better in bilingual education than in English immersion, and that bilingual programs have the added benefit of preserving the child’s primary language and culture.

He said there is an undercurrent of racism and xenophobia driving some of the campaign to get rid of bilingual education, noting that it has come under increasing attack with the growth of the Latino population.

“For the first years of its life, bilingual education was like motherhood and apple pie,” Yzaguirre said. “Now, with a Taco Bell on every corner, all of a sudden it’s controversial.”

Getting rid of bilingual education, he said, would deny Latinos a method for preserving their language while non-Latino parents are rushing to enroll their children in Spanish classes.

“It’s almost as if others are saying it’s OK for our Anglo kids to speak Spanish, but it’s not OK for Latino kids to speak Spanish,” Yzaguirre said.

Reach the reporter at or (602) 444-8312.

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