The Tucson launch of an initiative to dismantle bilingual
education in Arizona turned into a shouting match today, with
opponents and supporters exchanging personal attacks.
“Coconuts!” some of the 75 mostly Hispanic protesters yelled at
members of English for the Children – Arizona. The derogatory term
refers to Hispanics being “brown” by appearance only.
“Go back to Mexico!” at least one of the half dozen members
The announcement of today’s initiative filing set the stage for
what is expected to be a racially charged and emotional controversy
over the next few months.
The Tucson-based group needs 115,000 signatures over the next 1
1/2 years to put the measure on the 2000 ballot.
Even the site of the group’s announcement – El Rio Neighborhood
Center, 1390 W. Speedway Blvd. – was hotly contested.
Gus Chavez and other protesters called the site selection “an
insult,” because El Rio is viewed as where the Chicano struggle began
“It’s the heart of the barrio ,” said Chavez, an instructor at
Pima Community College whose children attend school in Tucson Unified
Spearheading today’s announcement was Ron Unz, the Silicon Valley,
Calif., millionaire who bankrolled that state’s initiative, which
voters approved in June.
Unz already has given English for the Children – Arizona more than
$4,000 for polls, office equipment, campaign signs and bumper
“Unz, go home!” the crowd chanted, as Unz sat unfazed.
“He is not welcome in our community,” said Lorraine Lee, director
of Chicanos Por La Causa, an agency that helps minorities find low-
“I think this effort by Ron Unz is an insult as a parent and
citizen of Arizona. This man believes because he has money that he
can move in here and change our educational system. But that would
hurt children, and we’re going to fight this.”
Longtime local education activist Maria Mendoza, cofounder of
English for the Children – Arizona, said Unz is here at her request.
She said she and other members appreciate his help.
“This opposition does not scare me,” Mendoza said, referring to
protesters. “They are more concerned about preserving their roots
than about educating Mexican-American children.”
Hector Ayala, co-founder of the group and an English teacher at
TUSD’s Cholla High School, agreed.
“We think bilingual education is the most insidious educational
program for Mexican-American students,” Ayala said. “It just keeps
relegating Hispanic students to the lowest position in society.”
Ayala said that during his 12 years of teaching at Cholla he has
seen many incoming freshmen with poor English competency. He blames
bilingual programs, which he says most of his students have been
The Arizona initiative is the result of six months of meetings of
parents and teachers dissatisfied with bilingual programs.
Highlights of the English for the Children – Arizona initiative:
Schoolchildren would learn English by being taught in English.
Children with limited English proficiency could enroll in
“sheltered English immersion” programs for as long as one year.
Foreign language classes for children who already know English
would be unaffected, as would special education programs for the
physically or mentally impaired.
Parents could submit a written waiver to keep their children in
bilingual programs. Schools where 20 or more students in the same
grade request a waiver would be required to offer a bilingual class.
To monitor academic growth, a written test – in English – would be
given annually to all students, starting in the second grade.