Bilingual Issue Drives Recall Battle

Francisco Gonzalez was angry. All he wants, the Santa Ana father said, is for his two kids to be taught in English. And he wants to kick out of office a school board member accused of improperly supporting bilingual education.

So the burly 25-year-old got up to speak last week at a raucous board meeting of the Santa Ana Unified School District after listening to a score of fellow Latino parents call his views racist.

“I went through bilingual education and it got me nowhere,” the delivery man said. Gonzalez then switched to Spanish, his voice quivering, jaw clenched. “Don’t think I’m a racist; my parents are from [the Mexican state of] Jalisco,” he said, turning to a group of Latino parents. Many had come to support trustee Nativo Lopez, target of a vituperative recall campaign for his alleged defiance of a state law restricting bilingual education.

“I can speak in your language,” Gonzalez said. But “I want parents to have the right to have their children learn in the language they choose.”

Lopez, an immigrants rights activist, and his supporters say they want that too. If parents want their children to learn in Spanish, that also should be their right.

Four years after passage of Proposition 227, which greatly curtailed bilingual education, the choice of which language is spoken in classrooms still evokes strong emotions in a city where three-fourths of the population speaks Spanish.

In Lopez, an outspoken critic of the 1998 ballot measure, the opponents of bilingual education have found a target.

Recall backers accuse him of encouraging parents to apply for waivers to Proposition 227 regulations, thereby keeping bilingual education alive in the district. Lopez denies the charges, and notes that just 10% of the district’s 62,000 students have waivers, a percentage that has changed little in the last four years.

Backers of the recall against Lopez submitted nearly 15,000 signatures to the county Registrar of Voters on Thursday, setting the stage for a likely showdown at the polls early next year. If at least 8,624 signatures are verified, the school board must place a recall vote on the ballot, probably early next year.

The Santa Ana battle has even brought in the familiar face of Ron Unz, the businessman behind Proposition 227, whose group has donated money and equipment to the recall campaign.

The campaign against Lopez “may have enormous national implications,” Unz said in the newsletter of his Palo Alto-based group, English for the Children. “If it is opposition to ‘English’ that finally ends [Lopez’s career] in one of America’s most Latino, Democratic, and non-English-speaking cities, then perhaps that issue is indeed a magic political bullet.”

Unz’s group is backing anti-bilingual education measures on the ballot in Colorado and Massachusetts.

In Santa Ana, the conflict is as much about bilingual education as it is about Lopez. The 50-year-old is the longtime head of Hermandad Mexicana Nacional in Santa Ana, a nonprofit group that lobbies for and provides services to thousands of immigrants.

Few public figures in Orange County spark such extremes of hatred and admiration.

Many immigrants see Lopez, elected to the board in 1996, as their sole voice because they cannot vote. Critics, however, say he pits Latinos against whites and uses immigrants to advance his political career.

Lopez dismisses recall proponents as a coalition of few disgruntled parents backed by residents who oppose building an elementary school near their affluent area.

Recall supporters also campaign for defeat in November of John Palacio and Nadia Davis, who are seeking reelection. The two board members supported the elementary school project. Lopez’s term expires in 2004.

“It is not this innocent-sounding thing that they want their children to learn English,” he said. What his opponents really want is to kill the school construction project, Lopez said. Bilingual education is just a “knee- jerk, visceral issue” to that end.

Visceral it is.

Since the recall campaign began with a petition filed in March, the two camps have traded insults and accusations on streets and in parking lots.

Recall proponents accused Lopez supporters of trying to intimidate them as they sought to gather signatures. Lopez backers say the other side has made racist remarks denigrating immigrants. Both sides deny acting improperly.

Santa Ana police have responded to at least a half-dozen disturbance calls in the last month related to the recall effort. On Wednesday, Lopez and Palacio skirmished with recall signature gatherers at Santa Ana College.

According to police, a Los Angeles man was cited for misdemeanor assault after he allegedly spat toward Palacio, who was videotaping the signature-gatherers.

The recall campaign began with a small group of parents from Edison Elementary School. They complained that their children are floundering academically in a sea of Spanish-speaking children and complacent school administrators.

“My son was learning the alphabet in Spanish,” said Veronica Gonzalez, 23, Francisco Gonzalez’s wife. The couple are bilingual and have two boys in the school.

“Since the very beginning, my younger son had been placed in English immersion classes,” she said of the first- grader. “They didn’t say anything to me, so I automatically thought he was learning in English.”

Proposition 227 was designed to accelerate the English acquisition of students still learning the language. By law, those students must be taught primarily in English unless parents opt for bilingual education by signing a waiver. Students with waivers learn academic subjects in their native languages while also studying English to gradually shift to mainstream classes.

Theoretically, students learning in English should seldom, if ever, hear another language in class. Then there is the reality.

In a district where two thirds of the students still are learning English, Spanish is likely to seep into classrooms, school officials say.

“The reality is, children do not come in neat packets of 20,” said Edison Principal Mary Marquez, referring to class size.

“I don’t have enough English-only students in kindergarten or first grade to make a whole classroom.”

Marquez’s English-only students are not taught in Spanish, she said. But some of their classmates may receive support from bilingual teachers or aides in the classroom.

Because of the overwhelming number of Spanish-speaking families, the school also sends materials home in both languages. About a third of Edison students are also in bilingual education because their parents signed waivers.

Officials say that despite such challenging demographics, their students are making progress.

According to the latest Stanford 9 test results, about 32% of Santa Ana students scored at or above the national average this year. The number was 21% four years ago.

Edison students are doing better, too, for the most part. The number of its fifth graders scoring at or above the national average on the Stanford 9 reading tests doubled in four years, from 10% to 20%.

However, the school remains one of the state’s lowest performers, and critics blame the heavy presence of Spanish in the classroom.

“I am not against speaking two or three languages,” said Jo Ann Ramirez, a Santa Ana resident and recall supporter.

“But English is the universal language and that’s what [students ] should be taught. If they want to work in a car wash, that’s fine, but I don’t think they should be relegated to only that.”

Ramirez and others blame Lopez for promoting Spanish and bilingual education at the expense of academics.

Lopez counters that such views are narrow-minded and imply that English is superior to Spanish.

“It is nativism,” said Lopez. “It is based on racism and negativism.”

Many Latino parents at Edison and other Santa Ana schools see the recall campaign against Lopez as an attack on their immigrant roots.

“How can they deny where they are from?” Erika Gonzalez, 29, asked of the Latino parents who back the recall. “The more languages you know the better for you.”

Gonzalez opted to enroll her daughter Judith in bilingual education at Edison Elementary. She is in kindergarten.

“She is learning English fine,” the mother said. “It doesn’t mean they don’t know their country. My daughter knows her flag. She knows she’s an American.”

The battle lines have been drawn with anti-and pro-recall placards dotting many Santa Ana front yards.

Boosted by their signature-gathering efforts, recall organizers say they will keep the heat on Lopez. The trustee says he is ready for them.

The conflict has made the mood tense throughout the district, with few willing to comment publicly.

The last board meeting went past midnight because recall backers and detractors traded jabs for hours. Palacio, the board president, banged his gavel and called for order at one point.

“You are out of order,” someone in the audience shot back.

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