FULLERTON — Jimmy Ramos strolls along Truslow Avenue in East Fullerton and kids swarm around him and holler: “Hey Jimmy!”
The kids delay their games in dirt yards to chat with the 25-year-old, whom many call the street’s community leader and main advocate for children.
His latest crusade has stirred up the neighborhood as residents and community leaders prepare for an 8-mile march today in support of bilingual education. It is one of the ways the neighborhood plans to protest the “English for the Children” initiative, a measure on the June ballot sponsored by Silicon Valley millionaire Ron Unz.
The initiative would eliminate bilingual education and replace it with one year of “sheltered English,” where students are taught in English with limited help in Spanish. Unz said he is responding to Hispanic parents in Los Angeles who demanded that their children be taught in English.
Ramos and his neighbors want to show that even though the initiative has strong backing in Orange County, their community wants to keep bilingual education. Community members, folk dancers and a mariachi band will march at 10:30 a.m. from the 400 block of East Rosslynn Avenue, east to Lemon Street, south to Orangethorpe Avenue and north to East Truslow Avenue.
Days before the march, kids demonstrated their allegiance to Ramos with rallying cries as he walked passed.
“Que queremos?! (What do we want?)” shouted a group of children, none taller than four feet.
Ramos shouts back: “Educacion bilingue (Bilingual education).”
The children cheered.
Ramos, a student at Fullerton College, works as a community liaison for the college’s Cadenas (Links) program. His job is to engage Spanish-speaking neighborhoods, such as the one on Truslow Avenue, in issues that affect them.
In the neighborhood near the Fullerton Amtrak station, people turn to him for advice on job applications and legal papers. They learn English in the makeshift Escuelita, the nonprofit “small school.”
The plywood-shack-turned-classroom at the edge of Ramos’ driveway holds 15 school chairs, a small blackboard and a few posters. It is a place where 40 adults come twice a week to study English, and about 26 kids come three times a week for tutoring. Another 150 people come from throughout Orange County to prepare for citizenship tests or get help on tax forms.
“I want my children to know both English and Spanish,” said Maria Salgado, one of the mothers helping Ramos pass out fliers for the march. Salgado, 24, was turned down for a job at a local Mexican restaurant when the owners discovered she wasn’t fluent in English.
“It was important that I could speak both languages,” Salgado said, glancing at her daughter Yadira, 8. “I like that she can speak English and Spanish. She can help me.”
Salgado and other neighbors cannot vote because they are not citizens, but they hope the march will help bring attention to their cause.
Salgado, her husband and three children share a house with another family. They live on the wages her husband makes as a cook’s assistant at a restaurant near Disneyland.
Ramos said many families in the neighborhood rely on education as a means to escape poverty. And he says taking away bilingual education takes away the tools that many Hispanic children need to succeed.
“When you teach people in English only, they feel nervous. They don’t understand the teacher. They can’t communicate. How are they supposed to do well in school?” he asked.
Ramos said he lived on the streets in Los Angeles, where drug dealers and car thieves tried to persuade him to join them. But instead, Ramos took a bus to Buena Park, found a job as a janitor and began night school, taking English as a second language.
Then multiple sclerosis hit Ramos and, faced with failing health, he found his purpose: to help other Hispanic people. Coming to America at age 13, Ramos didn’t know how to pay bills. He didn’t know how to save money in a bank. He didn’t know how to make his voice heard.
As he learned for himself, he wanted to help others.
“People come to me and ask me to fill out a job application,” Ramos said. “I say, ‘No.’ Instead, I teach them English and I explain the form so they can learn to do it themselves.”
He moved into a house in Fullerton in 1994 and began his crusade on Truslow Avenue.
Pablo Munguia, a biology student at Fullerton College, remembers what brought him to Jimmy Ramos.
“When I first came, I didn’t speak English,” said Munguia, who at age 16 started school as a sophomore at Anaheim High School. “I didn’t understand anything in government or literature class, so I stopped going to school. I didn’t go to school for five days because I was embarrassed. I found out about Jimmy and he helped me with my homework.”
Once he started learning English, Munguia said he learned to write papers and follow the lessons. “I’d be nowhere if it weren’t for Jimmy,” Munguia said. “Now, I want to be a doctor.”