SANTA ANA, Calif.—Before you can walk the beat as a police officer in this Southern California city, you have to be able to talk the talk.
Recruits must be bilingual before they can wear a badge. City Hall employees, from receptionists to telephone operators, are required to speak two languages. Even park workers must be able to speak more than English. And for good reason: Santa Ana leads the nation in the percentage of non-English speakers.
More than 80 percent of residents age 5 and older speak another language at home, according to a U.S. Census survey of cities with more than 250,000 people.
Nationwide, 17.6 percent of people spoke a language other than English at home, according to the Census Bureau.
Rather than trying to pass English-only ordinances, the city is adapting to its newest residents.
Some school board meetings are translated to Spanish, as are some City Council meetings. A majority of the council even speaks Spanish.
“For years, we’ve been doing everything we can to diversify our work force by hiring Spanish speakers, Vietnamese speakers, Cambodian speakers,” Santa Ana councilman Jose Folorio said.
California leads the country in the percentage of people who speak a language other than English at home – 39.4 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. New Mexico was second with 35.5 percent and Texas third with 32 percent.
With 83.6 percent of its population in that category, Santa Ana is more than twice California’s average and is ahead of Miami at 75.9 percent and El Paso, Texas, at 72.3 percent. Los Angeles was fourth with 58.8 percent, followed by another Orange County city, Anaheim, with 55.6 percent.
“These cities are magnets. They have thriving economies with relatively low unemployment rates” and business connections to foreign countries, said William Gayk, director of the Center of Demographic Research at California State University, Fullerton.
“These are natural locations for immigration,” he said.
Spanish is the predominant foreign language in city and state census counts.
The challenge for communities is balancing efforts to accommodate non-English speakers and helping them assimilate, said Kevin Johnson, a law professor and sociologist at the University of California, Davis.
Santa Ana has long attracted predominantly Hispanic immigrants thanks in part to its accessible housing, bilingual public service programs and business partnerships with companies based in Latin America.
“There are two worlds in Santa Ana,” said Nativo Lopez, executive director of Hermandad Mexicana Nacional of Santa Ana, a Latino civil rights organization. “You have one world that speaks Spanish and one world that speaks English.”
The city also is home to the Mexico Trade Center, which connects small companies from Mexico and California by providing services and information about legal matters, tax issues and business or cultural differences involved in trade.
In nearby Anaheim, where schools report up to 70 different languages, there are few bilingual policies.
While immigration to Santa Ana has been steady for decades, Anaheim’s immigration influx has been relatively new in the past decade.
“Obviously with such a diverse community, we face challenges,” city spokesman John Nicoletti said.
He said the city has begun compiling census data to help with its plan to address its changing needs. The city also offers a hiring program aimed at attracting bilingual candidates.
“Neighborhoods, parks, community centers, other programs and where they need to go – that’s what this plan will do,” Nicoletti said.
In Texas, many cities already have taken that step. El Paso has partnered with its Mexican neighbor Ciudad Juarez in both business and city functions.
More Spanish than English television stations can be found on the airwaves.
Some of the Hispanic presence in El Paso can be traced to the “colonias,” poor neighborhoods without water or sewer service that are occupied by legal and illegal Mexican workers who have lived there for years.
The result is a population that mostly speaks Spanish, but also can get by in English.
“Most of us are very functional bilingual speakers. We speak Spanish at home and conduct business in English,” said Antonia Tapia, bilingual education director for the El Paso Independent School District. “It’s an asset we have. You might even call it a natural resource.”