Many voters who think English already is the common language of California may be surprised to find a measure on the November ballot — Proposition 63 — officially declaring this to be so.
Supporters of the proposition believe that English must be made the “official language” in order to provide some unity and cohesiveness in a rapidly growing state in which more than 100 languages are spoken.
They also believe that Proposition 63 would thwart attempts by Latino politicians to create islands of Spanish-speaking culture in California.
Opponents contend that the measure is unnecessary because the dominance of English is not threatened by Spanish or any other language.
They view the proposition as a symbolic protest against recent immigrants from Asia and Latin America and fear that it could lead to cuts in public services for these people and for others who are not fluent in English.
The proposed amendment states that “English is the official language of the State of California.”
It calls on the Legislature to “take all steps necessary” to make sure that English is “preserved and enhanced” and to “make no law which diminishes or ignores the role of English.”
If the proposition stopped there, opposition might be limited.
But it goes on to grant to any California resident, or person doing business in the state, the “standing to sue the State of California to enforce this section.”
State Atty. Gen. John Van de Kamp has called this “an open invitation to hundreds of hurtful and frivolous lawsuits” that could lead to elimination of such important multilingual services as court interpreters or the 911 emergency telephone service.
“I would certainly hope that no sensible court would entertain such notions here in California,” Van de Kamp said in recent testimony before a legislative committee, “but I can guarantee to you today that some zealous defender of ‘pure Americanism’ will raise each and every one of them in court — and set neighbor against neighbor in the process.”
Stanley Diamond, chairman of the California English Campaign, chief advocate of Proposition 63, said such statements are part of the opposition’s campaign of “deceit and scare tactics.”
He noted that the official ballot argument submitted in support of Proposition 63 allows an exemption from the English-only provisions “where public health, safety and justice require the use of other languages.”
Van de Kamp and other attorneys pointed out, however, that only the language of the proposed amendment, not the supporting ballot argument, would become part of the state Constitution if Proposition 63 is approved by voters on Nov. 4.
There is every indication that this will happen.
The California English Campaign obtained more than 1 million signatures to place the proposition on the ballot, one of the largest totals for any initiative in state history.
“Thousands of volunteers” helped to gather the signatures, said Diamond, a 60-year-old San Franciscan who has devoted much of his time in recent years to, as he put it, “protecting the English language.”
Polls have shown Proposition 63 leading by a large majority. The Los Angeles Times Poll in mid-September found 70% of the voters favoring it, 22% opposed and 8% undecided.
Diamond canceled a Los Angeles rally scheduled for late October because, he said, “we have such a big lead, it just wasn’t necessary.”
The opposition was slow to organize and, with the measure showing such a big lead in the polls, has had trouble raising money.
Diamond said supporters of the proposition have spent about $50,000, leaving more than $30,000 in the campaign treasury.
If more money is needed, he said, it will be provided by U.S. English, a national organization that is backing the California campaign and similar efforts in other states.
Diamond said the proposal is popular because of a “growing feeling of uneasiness about the fragmentation of our society.”
Concern about bilingual ballots and bilingual education, signs in Chinese or Korean or Spanish, news accounts of large-scale illegal immigration from Mexico
— all these “cause people to ask, ‘How can I deal with this?’ ” he said. “The unity of the English language, as something that is common to us all, gives them something to grab on to.”
Where Diamond sees legitimate public concern, Proposition 63 opponents see xenophobia — fear of foreigners — if not outright racism.
“They claim a philosophical commitment to English as a unifying factor when, in fact, they’re anti-immigrant,” said David Hamlin, Southern California coordinator for Californians United Against Proposition 63. “They are really saying, ‘Don’t come here unless you are fluent in the English language,’ which means, ‘Don’t come at all.’ “
Hayakawa on Board
Honorary chairman of the Proposition 63 campaign is 80-year-old semanticist S. I. Hayakawa, who, as a Republican member of the U.S. Senate, introduced a resolution in 1981 to make English the official language of the United States.
It did not pass, but similar legislation is again before both houses of Congress. Six states have passed such resolutions but none has made it part of the state Constitution, as Proposition 63 would do.
Hayakawa became interested in the issue, he said in a recent interview, because of “all the uproar” caused in his native Canada by efforts to make the nation officially bilingual in French and English.
“I followed those events closely, and I feared the same thing could happen here,” Hayakawa said, referring to Latino political support for bilingual
education, bilingual ballots and for conducting other kinds of official business in Spanish as well as English.
Asked if he believes that there is a Latino separatist movement in the United States, similar to the French separatists in Quebec, Hayakawa replied, “No, but I will say this much — when you go to a LULAC (League of United Latin American
Citizens) convention, you get a much more rabble-rousing kind of speaker and much stronger statements of ethnic solidarity than from other groups I have encountered.”
Hayakawa then handed a reporter a pamphlet arguing that some “Chicano activists” want to establish a Spanish-speaking state of Aztlan in an area including the southwestern United States and northern Mexico.
The short paper, written by R. E. (Rusty) Butler, an aide to U.S. Sen. Steven D. Symms (R-Ida.), says this alleged movement “has national security implications.”
At a legislative hearing in Los Angeles on Oct. 1, Assemblyman Frank Hill
(R-Whittier) charged that some Latino leaders — he mentioned the Mexican-American Political Assn., the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund and the League of United Latin American Citizens — want to control Latino communities by keeping people in “a language ghetto, a language barrio, where they’re out of touch with the common language of this country.”
Antonia Hernandez, president of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, replied with restrained anger: “I consider that to be an absolute insult to our community — to the integrity and independence of the Hispanic Latino community.”
Diamond said some Latino politicians and “Hispanic academics” have a “hidden agenda” of trying to build a bilingual, bicultural society within California and other parts of the Southwest.
Among them, he named Mario Obledo, who for a time was secretary of health and welfare under former Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr.; Josue Gonzales, president of the National Assn. of Bilingual Educators, and Maurice Ferre, former mayor of Miami.
‘Fiber of This Society’
Asked if there are current Latino officeholders in California who hold separatist views, Diamond replied, “I’m not sure about Alatorre,” referring to Los Angeles City Councilman Richard Alatorre.
In an interview, Alatorre replied: “Look, we are part of the fiber of this society. If anything, I want to bring Hispanics more into the mainstream of the society, not keep them separated.”
Hayakawa said that some of the strongest supporters of Proposition 63 are themselves immigrants or children of immigrants.
Said Diamond: “I’ve been in the streets, gathering signatures for these campaigns for three years, and I hear a lot of people say, ‘My grandparents learned to speak English, why can’t they?’ ” referring to recently arrived Asians and Latin Americans.
Proposition 63 opponents point to a study by demographer Kevin McCarthy and economist R. Burciaga Valdez, Rand Corp. researchers, who found that more than 90% of first-generation Mexican-Americans born in the United States are proficient in English and that by the second generation the majority speak English only.
Proposition 63 foes say that newly arrived immigrants want to learn English but often are thwarted by a shortage of qualified bilingual instructors in public schools and by a lack of classes in English as a second language for adults.
The opposition to Proposition 63 includes not only Latinos but representatives of Armenian, Chinese, Japanese, Korean and many other minority groups.
When the Turks occupied Armenia, “there was forceful pressure to change the Armenian language and adopt Turkish,” said Berdg Karapetian, executive director of the Armenian National Committee of Southern California. “We feel this kind of proposition could lead to that.”
Irving R. Lai, a Los Angeles businessman who is national president of the Chinese-American Citizens Alliance, recalled the California laws that discriminated against Chinese immigrants in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
“We went through the mill, fighting for our rights,” Lai said. “Anything like Proposition 63, we’ll fight.
“We feel this is a mosaic-type country,” he added. “We all speak English but we want to maintain our own heritage too.”
Said Ron Wakabayaski, executive director of the Japanese-American Citizens League of San Francisco, “In some ways, it’s harder for Japanese-Americans to get excited about this, because most of them speak English. But we’re perceived as part of the threatening population because we have Asian faces, so it’s our fight too.”
Charles Kim, executive director of the Korean-American Coalition in Los Angeles, said passage of Proposition 63 “may cause unnecessary problems by cutting down bilingual services” for the 300,000 Koreans and Korean-Americans who live in Southern California.
Both Gov. George Deukmejian and his Democratic opponent, Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, oppose the measure. So do U.S. Sen. Alan Cranston, San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein, state Superintendent of Public Instruction Bill Honig, the Catholic Bishops of California and Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl F. Gates.
Gates joined Van de Kamp and Assembly Speaker Willie Brown — an unlikely political threesome — in writing the official ballot argument against the proposition.
Gates did so, a Police Department spokesman said, because the chief fears that passage might force the department to do away with effective minority services like the Spanish telephone hot line and multilingual storefront police stations in Chinese, Korean and Spanish-speaking communities.
What Lies Ahead?
If Proposition 63 passes, what will be the results?
The two major targets are bilingual ballots and bilingual education, but in both areas the state is limited in what can be changed by federal law and U.S. Supreme Court rulings.
According to federal law, bilingual ballots must be made available in 10 California counties with substantial percentages of residents who are limited in English proficiency.
Los Angeles and San Francisco are not among them. Los Angeles County sends bilingual ballots, in Spanish, only to those who request them, but San Francisco County still mails trilingual ballots (English, Chinese and Spanish) to all registered voters.
Diamond insisted that he is a “strong supporter of bilingual education” but thinks the “transitional” approach being used in most California schools is ineffective and is “one of the major factors” in the high Latino drop-out rate.
In “transitional” bilingual classes, pupils study such subjects as math and science in their native language, while simultaneously learning English.
“We object to the methodology of teaching them in their primary language,” Diamond said. “We want ‘no-nonsense teaching’ that brings them into English in no more than 18 months.”
Diamond appears to favor the “English as a second language” approach, in which most of the instruction is in English, or some form of “immersion” program, in which children who do not understand English are taught in English anyway.
Many educators say classes in English as a second language can be an effective part of a total bilingual program but that “immersion,” or what was once called the “sink-or-swim” method, would only increase the drop-out rate among the state’s 570,000 limited English proficiency students, 46% of whom are in Los Angeles County.
“Immersion” programs might also run afoul of a 1974 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the Lau case, involving Chinese pupils in San Francisco public schools, requiring the district to provide special help for pupils who are not fluent in English, including, if necessary, instruction in their native languages.
“We’ve got to abide by the Lau decision,” Hayakawa said. “It’s not up to us to decide which method (of instruction) is best, but if bilingual education is not doing the job, then I think the taxpayer should have the right to sue.”
On this point, as on several others, Hayakawa acknowledges that he is somewhat at odds with Diamond and other leaders of the Proposition 63 campaign.
“My colleagues in U.S. English and the California English campaign are much more doctrinaire than I am,” Hayakawa said. “They are asking for much more in the way of results.”
The only certainty about all this is that if Proposition 63 passes, there are almost certain to be legal challenges to bilingual education and bilingual ballots.
Diamond said the measure will not affect 911 emergency phone service, foreign-language court interpreters or medical care for those who cannot read or speak English.
Driving tests could still be taken in Spanish and school notices could still be sent home in languages other than English, he said, and those who say otherwise are making “emotional and inflammatory statements of misinformation,” he said.
However, Diamond and the U.S. English organization, in a proceeding before the California Public Utilities Commission, have challenged a proposal by Pacific Bell to provide new multilingual services.
Diamond said that only non-English speakers, not all Pacific Bell customers, should pay for the extra services.
U.S. English also organized a letter-writing campaign last year, objecting to Pacific Bell’s publication of Spanish-language Yellow Pages. The campaign was unsuccessful.
Diamond and Hayakawa said Proposition 63 would affect only “official government business” and would have no effect on the private sector.
But Terry Robbins, a former U.S. English coordinator in Dade County (Miami), Fla., tried to stop Burger King and McDonald’s from printing Spanish-language menus.
“We do not approve of her activity,” Diamond said.
Robbins no longer is affiliated with U.S. English, he said, because “she was not following U.S. English policy . . . of allowing what happens in the private marketplace to prevail.”
Pressuring companies to advertise only in English “is not one of the implications of making English the official language of California,” Hayakawa said. “As far as I know, a McDonald’s menu is not an official communication.”
Gerda Bikales, executive director of U.S. English, put it somewhat differently.
“Our position is very clear,” she said. “You have a First Amendment right to advertise in any language, and we respect the First Amendment. There are certain questions that should be raised — ‘Is this the way to go? Is this good for the country?’ — but we would never demand that any company stop advertising in whatever language they choose.”
Similarly, Bikales said, U.S. English has asked the Federal Communications Commission to look into complaints that there are not enough English-language radio stations along the Texas-Mexico border, “but we have not asked them not to grant licenses” to foreign-language broadcasters, as some opponents of Proposition 63 have charged, she said.
Dade County Clues
Some clues to the future might be found in Dade County, where voters in 1980 approved an ordinance declaring English to be the official language of the county and prohibiting expenditure of county funds for other languages.
Murray Greenberg, first assistant county attorney there, said in a telephone interview that 911 services were not affected but that signs throughout the county were posted only in English (including signs describing animals at the zoo), that the county stopped spending money on the annual Spanish Heritage Week celebration and that advertisements seeking Latin-American tourists had to be in English, even when they were placed in Spanish-language Central and South American newspapers.
Four years later, Greenberg said, the ordinance was amended to allow important information to be made available in Spanish and Creole (for the Miami area’s large Haitian population), as well as in English, at county medical facilities and centers for the elderly and to allow the county to place Spanish-language ads.
Greenberg said the county, in “trying to balance the interests,” has drawn a distinction between activities that are “informational” and those that involve “public health and safety.”
For instance, travel information for riders of the Miami Metro Rail is printed only in English, while warnings to stay away from the electrified third rail are in English and Spanish.
Similarly, diabetics can go to the county hospital to learn in English, Creole or Spanish how to take insulin but “basic nutritional information” is available only in English.
“It’s a very thin line,” Greenberg acknowledged, “but I think everybody realizes we’re calling them both ways; we’re trying to be fair.”
Proposition 63 supporters say it is not their intent to engage in such legal and linguistic hair-splitting, but opponents say the provision that grants individuals the right to sue to enforce the amendment guarantees endless litigation on these kinds of issues.