MIAMI – Barbara Parekh is just the kind of person backers of the “English Only” campaign were looking for Tuesday – white, middle-class and irritated with changes that have transformed her hometown.
“There are parts of this city where I can’t even communicate because no one speaks English,” complained Parekh, a hospital research technician who voted in the Florida primary, then walked about 200 yards to sign a petition calling for a constitutional amendment that would make English the state’s official language.
“I hope it passes,” Parekh said. “You shouldn’t have to speak Spanish just to survive.”
About 260,000 signatures were collected on Super Tuesday to far exceed the amount needed by Florida English, the organization working to get the amendment on the November ballot. The group has until Aug. 9 to collect the needed 342,939 validated signatures.
“We are feeling very good,” Patricia Fulton, spokeswoman for the Florida English Campaign, said after the polls closed.
“The next job is getting them validated,” Fulton said. “We will continue collecting petitions until we are sure we have enough validated.”
Volunteers throughout the state collected about 60,000 signatures of registered voters on Super Tuesday, and workers from a California company collected nearly 200,000, she said.
Before Tuesday’s effort, organizers said they already had collected at least 238,000 signatures, about half of which have been validated.
Voter signatures must come from two-thirds of the state’s 19 congressional districts.
Fulton said volunteers were taking signatures in at least a dozen counties across the state Tuesday. Those counties included Hillsborough and Pinellas, which had contributed almost 30,000 signatures prior to Super Tuesday. But the largest concentration of volunteers were stationed outside polling places in Dade County, an area sharply divided along ethnic lines.
Fulton admits that organizers are attempting to mine that division.
Dade County’s Anglo residents, she said, are among the most vociferous supporters of the proposed amendment, which backers say will require state and local governments to conduct official business strictly in English.
But the drive has produced few friends among local Hispanics. Many consider the proposed amendment racist, unnecessary and aimed specifically at them.
“Hispanic immigrants to this country are among the hardest-working and most patriotic people this country has,” said Mark Gallegos, president of the Hispanic National Bar Association, and a spokesman for a coalition of groups that oppose the petition drive. “This amendment is an insult.”
Some supporters were worried that passionate feelings on both sides of the issue could create problems for those collecting signatures.
Ann Grimshawe, the Dade County coordinator of Tuesday’s petition drive, said she warned volunteers not to argue with people who oppose the amendment. “We told them just to let people walk away,” she said.
Grimshawe said she avoided stationing volunteers in predominantly Hispanic areas. “We didn’t figure it would be very productive,” she said.
If Armando Ruiz’s reaction is any indication, Grimshawe probably was right. Ruiz was walking away from a voting booth in West Miami early Tuesday morning when he grabbed a petition from a rickety card table set up a few yards from where he had parked his car.
His eyes scanned the paper, which he quickly crumpled and threw to the ground.
“This is racist,” said Ruiz to the elderly man who was handing out the petitions. The man ignored the remark and continued handing out the forms. Ruiz turned and walked away.
“There are so many small minds,” he said.
But Ruiz’s reaction was the exception on Tuesday. Most of the people who signed petitions were enthusiastic about the proposed amendment.
Helen Fonteboa grabbed an entire stack. “I’m going to give these to the girls,” she said.
Fonteboa said her parents came to the U.S. from Cuba more than 50 years ago. They made their way without bilingual ballots, bilingual billboards and bilingual education, she said.
“I think English is Florida’s official language,” she said. “I don’t see anything wrong with saying so.”