Do most Latinos support Proposition 63, the Nov. 4 ballot measure that would declare English the “official language” of California, because they agree with it or, as some political observers suggest, because they do not understand the initiative?
Statewide polls have shown majority support for the proposition among respondents who say they are of Hispanic descent.
A Los Angeles Times Poll published Oct. 21 found that 58% of likely Latino voters favored the proposed state constitutional amendment, 35% were opposed and 7% were undecided. Among all Latinos, likely voters or not, 51% supported the proposition, 41% opposed it and 8% were undecided.
Mervin Field’s California Poll also found majority support for the measure among Latinos.
These results did not surprise Proposition 63’s backers.
“On this issue Hispanics have separated from their so-called leaders,” said Stanley Diamond, chairman of the California English Campaign, sponsors of the ballot measure. “They all feel English is the route into the American mainstream.”
J. William Orozco, Southern California spokesman for the campaign, said many of the Spanish-speaking customers at his downtown Los Angeles travel agency “thought English already was the official language” of the state and the nation and thought that was as it should be.
“None of them think it’s racist or any of that,” he said. “It’s their nature to feel that English should be the official language because this is an English-speaking country.”
This theme also was sounded frequently in half a dozen interviews with Latino voters who told the Los Angeles Times Poll that they planned to vote for Proposition 63.
“This is America, they should learn English,” said a San Fernando Valley woman whose mother was born in Mexico.
“I feel if they come to this country, they should learn to speak and adapt to this country’s ways,” said Anna Bourbeau of Ripon, in Northern California. “One of those things is the English language. I don’t think we should have to bend to them.”
Bourbeau said her father, who was born in El Salvador, “never became a citizen and never learned to speak English. ‘We are Spanish,’ he would say. ‘We speak Spanish.’
“I felt that was very wrong. I had a lot of trouble when I went to school, trying to learn English and all that.”
Sharon Dasher, a Costa Mesa nurse, said she was “tired of working with people who have been here for 10 years and still can’t speak English and won’t take the trouble to learn. I figure, ‘Why should we have to turn our jobs around to suit you guys?’ “
Dasher, whose mother is of Hispanic descent, extended her criticism to “some of the Asian doctors” at her hospital who, she said, “speak really bad English.”
However, none of the poll respondents who were interviewed demonstrated much knowledge of Proposition 63 or what effects it might have.
Indeed, three said they favored bilingual ballots, which the measure’s backers want banned, and three others praised bilingual education, which has been roundly condemned by the sponsors of Proposition 63.
Typical of Misunderstanding
Opponents of the initiative say this is typical of the misunderstanding to be found among all voters, not just Latinos.
“They don’t really understand what the initiative does,” said state Sen. Art Torres (D-Los Angeles). “But when you point out some of the details, especially that the courts can be used to harass them in a variety of ways,” then voters turn against the measure.
The constitutional amendment would grant any California resident, or anyone doing business in the state, standing to sue the state if the Legislature and state officials do not act “to ensure that the role of English . . . is preserved and enhanced.”
Torres and other Proposition 63 foes believe that this would lead to a flurry of lawsuits aimed at eliminating or curtailing not only bilingual ballots and bilingual education but also such things as multilingual emergency services, foreign-language court interpreters, Spanish- language Yellow Pages and foreign-language advertising.
Diamond, Orozco and other supporters of the measure say none of this would happen.
John Trasvina, an attorney for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said apparent Latino support for Proposition 63 does not mean that Latino voters oppose bilingual ballots or bilingual education.
He noted that research done by Caltech political scientists Bruce Cain and Rod Kiewiet found strong support for both programs.
Cain said the 1985 study found that 69% of Latinos favored bilingual
education, 22% opposed it and 9% were uncertain. Also, 60% of Latinos supported bilingual ballots, 31% were opposed and 9% were undecided.
“I think there is some confusion as to what the meaning of this proposition is,” Cain said. “Is it just a general affirmation of English as the official language or would it make some specific changes?”
If the effects claimed by Proposition 63’s opponents were better-known and were believed, Cain added, “you would find greater opposition, especially in the Hispanic community and the Korean community.”
He said, “This is a classic case of a proposition being worded in such a way as to seem to be nothing more than motherhood and apple pie.”
Foothold in U.S. Society
Some analysts suggested that Latino support for the “official English” initiative comes primarily from those who have jobs, have established a foothold in U.S. society and are anxious to separate themselves from more recent immigrants.
“It’s a prestige game,” one said. “People who have already succeeded in the occupational structure want to be able to say, ‘I’m different from those newcomers.’ “
Antonia Darder, a bicultural specialist at Pacific Oaks College in Pasadena, said, “Many people have been made to feel that bilingualism is detrimental to them and their children, that they are somehow deficient in citizenship if they do not support English as the primary language.”
Most Latinos “are just trying to survive,” she said, “even if it means giving up their culture and giving up their language.”
Richard Rodriguez, whose 1982 book “Hunger of Memory” was a powerful memoir of growing up as a Spanish-speaking child in an English-speaking society, said most Mexican-Americans “don’t object to becoming part of American society and they certainly don’t object to learning English, but what they are asking of America is some sense of dignity, some appreciation of what they are bringing to the United States.”