TUCSON — Three decades ago, this desert city was the birthplace of the
national bilingual education movement, a point of pride among many Latinos
here. For them, Spanish-language classrooms are as much a part of the local
landscape as the saguaro cactus.
This year, Ron Unz came to Tucson launching a voter initiative that would do
away with bilingual education in Arizona, a plan nearly identical to the one he
wrote and California voters approved last year.
But what really riles the bilingual faithful is that Unz has the support of
a small group of disaffected Latino residents: teachers, parents and
grandparents, some of them natives of Mexico. They invited the Silicon Valley
millionaire here to help jump-start their pro-English cause.
“I came across [the border] when I was 9,” said Hector Ayala, 43, a high
school teacher and co-founder of English for the Children of Arizona, which is
part of an umbrella group based in California. “None of us got bilingual
education. . . . We suspect that we got a lousy education, but our English was
there. We became Anglos.”
Critics of bilingual education argue that Spanish-language instruction is the
chief cause of the poor performance of Latinos in Arizona public schools.
The presence of Latinos like Ayala in the forefront of English for the
Children has added an especially bitter and personal element to the debate
Each side has a radically different notion of what it means to be educated as
a Latino in the United States. Their debates about the merits of Spanish
instruction often drift to seemingly tangential issues of culture and
identity–the presence of the Mexican flag in some classrooms, for instance,
and the teaching of “Hispanic studies” in Tucson schools.
When English for the Children launched its drive in January to qualify the
initiative for the 2000 ballot, angry Chicano activists descended upon their
small press conference, shouting a variety of ethnic slurs. “Malinchistas!”
they yelled, a reference to the 16th-century Indian woman who helped the
Spanish conquer Mexico.
Alejandra Sotomayor, head of the Tucson Assn. for Bilingual Education, called
the local English for the Children group “fanatical.” Sotomayor, a bilingual
teacher, said: “They want to go back to what they know, when people kept their
places. They don’t want to face the future, which is that there’s a lot of
Spanish-speaking people in this country.”
State Seen as New Land of Opportunity
Arizona is the first state in which Unz has sponsored an anti-bilingual
education initiative since his June victory in California, when Proposition 227
won 61% of the vote. Unz contributed about $750,000 to that campaign.
Unz said it will take less than $100,000 to get the Arizona initiative on the
ballot. He is considering an initiative in Colorado. Two other states with
large Spanish-speaking populations, Texas and New York, do not have the
For Unz, Arizona represents an opportunity that never materialized in
California: the presence of an organized Latino group willing to be at the
forefront of his movement. “I’ve been very impressed by how many very credible
spokespeople we have early [in the campaign] in the Latino community.”
In California, the debate over bilingual education took place against the
politically charged climate sparked by the passage of two earlier measures:
Proposition 187, which sought to cut services to illegal immigrants, and
Proposition 209, which targeted affirmative action programs.
Unz believes the perception that Proposition 227 was the latest in a string
of attacks on Latinos cost him support. More than 60% of Latinos voted against
“Arizona never had the immigration wars that California had,” he said. “In
California, we were disappointed that a lot of Latinos we talked to in private
who were supportive never came out to support us publicly.”
Some Say Outsider Taking Advantage
There are plenty of people in Tucson and elsewhere, however, who plan to cast
the Arizona initiative precisely as another episode in the nation’s culture
wars. For them, Unz is playing the role of the white millionaire from
California, a man out to erase an important victory of the Chicano civil rights
“Mr. Unz is taking advantage of this small group,” said Gus Chavez, 50, a
college counselor. “He doesn’t understand that he’s walking into a city that
has a proud history. This city has been bilingual, and this city will continue
to be bilingual.”
It was a group of Tucson educators who drafted the 1965 study that helped
lead to federal legislation subsidizing bilingual programs. Their report, “The
Invisible Minority,” concluded that the monolingual English classes contributed
to an “inferiority complex” among Mexican American children.
“The harm done the Mexican American child linguistically is paralleled . . .
by the harm done to him as a person,” the report said.
It was in this environment that a generation of Tucsonians like Sotomayor and
Chavez were educated. Back then, Spanish-speaking students of all ages were
placed in remedial classes called “1C.”
“If we were lucky, we were promoted to first grade,” said Leonard Basurto,
who now runs Tucson’s bilingual education programs.
Eventually, Tucson and other Southwest cities adopted most of the
recommendations in the invisible minority report. Culturally sensitive
curriculum was developed, Spanish-speaking instructors were hired.
Those gains were pushed through by a generation of activists who embraced the
term “Chicano” as an edgier synonym for Mexican American. They left their stamp
on Tucson in other ways, forcing the city to build the El Rio Neighborhood
Center for barrio youth next to the exclusive El Rio Country Club. Artists
painted colorful murals at the center celebrating their Aztec heritage.
Fast-forwarding the reel of history to 1999, a visitor would find that the
desert sun has bleached many of those murals of their bright hues. And on a
recent winter morning, they would have found an unlikely group staging an event
That Unz, Ayala and English for the Children would hold their campaign
kickoff at El Rio–hallowed ground for Chicanos here–infuriated local
activists. Perhaps that explains why some took to shouting “Coconuts!” (brown
outside, white inside) at Unz’s Latino supporters.
One harried member of the pro-English side retorted, “Go back to Mexico!”
Maria Mendoza, a grandmother and co-founder of Arizona’s English for the
Children, wasn’t a bit perturbed by the catcalls.
“They told me I was selling out my race,” she said. “I feel they are the ones
selling out the children.”
In the 1970s, Mendoza was a plaintiff in a landmark desegregation suit
against the Tucson Unified School District that led to a busing program and the
hiring of more Latino administrators.
“I believed that once we put [Latinos] in these positions, they would be able
to dictate changes,” she said. “Now we’re fighting our own race. How do you
like them apples?”
The group’s detractors say that in recent years Mendoza had become little
more than a gadfly who spoke out at meetings of the school board, to little
effect. Then she met Unz.
“It’s not a grass-roots group,” Basurto said.
English for the Children activists said they have a mailing list of 300
parents who support their cause, including some in Phoenix and Nogales. Most,
however, are residents of Tucson’s barrio, a collection of dusty neighborhoods
beneath Sentinel Peak.
One of those parents is Amparo Martinez, a 34-year-old mother of two and
Mexican immigrant from Chihuahua. She said it took her a year of hassles to get
her 7-year-old son transferred to an English classroom.
The family has lived in Tucson for six years and her son is fluent in
English, she said. But in his classroom, “the only thing they would do in
English is salute the flag.”
Ayala said he finds it ironic that many of the most fervent supporters of
bilingual education are, unlike the Martinez family, second-generation Mexican
Americans whose own Spanish has atrophied.
“The Chicanos harbor this romantic notion that they want to maintain their
culture and their language even though they never had it themselves,” Ayala
said. “In their longing for it, they’re forcing it on the kids.”
Tucson school officials like Basurto argue that studies show bilingual
education is the best way to teach immigrant children English. (The Tucson
district is 43% Latino, and about 1 in 5 students is in bilingual education.)
In the years since “English immersion” was eliminated, dropout rates have
declined. Still, the district’s own statistics show that, of the 12,000
students in bilingual classrooms, only 3.2% learned enough last year to be
“reclassified” as English-fluent.
The state school chief, Lisa Graham Keegan, has called bilingual education in
Arizona “a mess,” badly in need of reform.
For Gloria Martinez, a supporter of English for the Children, the “mess” is
mixed up with the “Mexicanization” of Tucson schools. Among other things, she
is upset that her grandson’s school did not teach him the meaning of Veterans
Day–Martinez’s husband, Gilbert, served in Vietnam.
Instead, she said, “my grandson came in with a Mexican flag. I was so mad I
tore it up. . . . We will continue to fight to take back our school to make it
an American school for our American children.”
To qualify their initiative for the ballot, English for the Children will
have to gather 110,000 signatures. For now, however, the small Tucson group
isn’t circulating many petitions.
“It’s a little slow. We haven’t been able to get too many people” to
volunteer, Ayala said. “We might have to call on paid people.”