Dispute over bilingual education in Santa Ana, California

Voters in Santa Ana, California, today decide whether a school board member who strongly advocates bilingual education will be recalled. Behind the recall campaign is the businessman who led California’s anti-bilingual education initiative. He says if he can defeat bilingual education in the heavily Latino Santa Ana school district, he can defeat it anywhere. NPR’s Mandalit del Barco reports.


Se habla espanol in Santa Ana, a city with one of the country’s largest concentration of Spanish speakers. It’s a mostly working-class immigrant community not far from Disneyland. Nearly all of the students in Santa Ana’s public schools are Latino, and today voters will consider whether to recall school board member Nativo Lopez, a longtime Latino activist. Lopez’s critics say he has led the school district to violate Proposition 227, the anti-bilingual education initiative that California voters passed five years ago. Ms. BEATRICE SALES: We’re trying to recall him because he’s not doing his job.

DEL BARCO: Beatrice Sales(ph) is one of the parents who’s been going door to door on a campaign to oust Lopez.

Ms. SALES: We’ve been asking him to put our kids in mainstream English, and because he wants to gain power and he wants our kids to learn Spanish first…

DEL BARCO: Sales is upset that she had to transfer her child to a school on the outskirts of town to find an English-speaking kindergarten. Such criticisms inspired Ron Unz, a multimillionaire Silicon Valley businessman who sponsored Proposition 227. That law, approved by California voters in 1998, generally says that students with limited English can stay in bilingual classes for only one year before moving to mainstream English- only classes.

Mr. RON UNZ: Nativo Lopez was probably one of the most visible and vocal public figures in the state of California, promising to fight its implementation tooth and nail; resist it every step of the way.

DEL BARCO: Unz has crusaded against bilingual education in states across the country. Now he’s donated more than $100,000 to recall Nativo Lopez.

Mr. UNZ: And if he’s brought down in the most heavily Latino, Spanish-speaking city in America over the issue of bilingual education by a grassroots revolt of Latino parents, I think that would be a very powerful message to political leaders around the United States.

DEL BARCO: Lopez has his own grassroots campaign of union workers and students, many of whom say they’ve successfully learned English through bilingual education. They say he’s being unfairly targeted by Unz and his supporters, a few Latinos, but mostly conservative, white, English-speaking voters. Lopez points out that under Proposition 227 parents have the right to sign a waiver that allows their children to opt for bilingual classes.

Mr. NATIVO LOPEZ: I don’t hide the fact that I’m an advocate for bilingual education. Absolutely I’m an advocate of bilingual education. But I’m more an advocate of the parents’ right to choice, respecting the parents’ right to choose the instructional program that they believe best fits their child or their children.

DEL BARCO: Lopez says the campaign to get him off the school board goes beyond the issue of bilingual education and has to do with his efforts to build a badly needed elementary school in a wealthy area of town. Mostly, though, he says it’s because he’s been an outspoken leader of Latino immigrants’ rights. Antonio Gonzalez heads the Southwest Voter Registration & Education projects.

Mr. ANTONIO GONZALEZ (Southwest Voter Registration & Education Projects): I mean, it used to be Orange County was right-wing turf, but the demographics have changed the county, and at least in the central part it’s very Latino, progressive, more liberal, more democratic. And they’re fighting it out for power.

DEL BARCO: Nativo Lopez has survived challenges before, including allegations of corruption and mismanagement. Even his new nemesis, Ron Unz, admits that with so many Latinos supporting him, Lopez will be tough to beat. Mandalit del Barco, NPR News, Santa Ana, California.

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