Asked why he supports Proposition 227, the ballot initiative that would virtually eliminate bilingual education in California, Tony Mitchell replies, “They need to speak English. This is America, right?”
Maria Espinoza, who grew up in a Spanish-speaking home, favors the initiative because “when we were little there was no bilingual education and I learned English just as well.”
Barrett Sherwood thinks bilingual education should be dropped because “it does impede Latins from speaking English and therefore getting ahead quickly.”
Mitchell is black. Espinoza is Latino, and Sherwood is white. That all three stand on the same side of Proposition 227 reflects the extent to which the initiative is gathering support across racial and ethnic lines. The most recent Times poll showed that among Latino, white and black voters, a majority in each group favored the June 2 ballot measure.
The racial divide so apparent on other controversial initiatives involving minorities–Propositions 187 and 209–appears to be dissolving on this issue. Latino support for 227 has actually risen, despite the fact that much of the Latino leadership opposes the proposition.
In more than two dozen interviews, whites, blacks and Latinos often echoed one another, returning again and again to the same themes. They viewed fluency in English as the key to success and assimilation–and felt that bilingual instruction didn’t move immigrant children into fluency quickly enough.
Some complained that bilingual instruction is soaking up hundreds of millions of dollars in an education system that can’t always afford such basics as textbooks and lockers.
And whatever their ancestry, many contended that the English-immersion approach that worked for previous generations of immigrants should work for this generation. “Being an immigrant to the United States is not a new thing,” said 83-year-old Jean Clemente of Camarillo. “It’s a very old thing, and up to not too many years ago, it was up to people to learn the language if they wanted to get along. My father-in-law came from Italy when he was 7 and was put in school and didn’t speak a word of English. And he wound up speaking seven languages.”
Clemente acknowledged some ambivalence–“It’s hard for these kids to be thrown into a language”–but said that because much of bilingual instruction is in a child’s native language “it makes it easier for the kids to dawdle about learning English.”
Paul Porter questioned the wisdom of bilingual programs in a polyglot culture like California’s.
“Most people think it’s just a Spanish thing. But in California we have people from all over the place. So what are you going to do?” asked Porter, 46. “Are you going to have a bilingual class for every group that comes in? I don’t think so. That’s spending too much money.”
As a municipal fire inspector in Southern California, Porter said he often talks to immigrant families and notices “it’s more or less the kids translating. So the kids are learning English really fast. It’s the adults that are kind of slow.”
Voice of Experience
Aurora Esqueda, 54, doesn’t like bilingual education because it didn’t work for her son. “It didn’t help him. Made him more confused,” said Esqueda, a file clerk from El Monte who pulled her now-grown son out of the bilingual program after a year.
As far as Yolanda Valenzuela, 61, is concerned, Spanish should be taught at home and English at school. “I think they should teach just English, because that’s more important,” said Valenzuela, a sales manager from Arcadia.
Steven Barajas is more than 40 years younger than Valenzuela, but the East Los Angeles Community College student agrees with her. “I believe if you’re in this country, you should learn to speak the language first. . . . Go out to somewhere in Nebraska and you’re not going to see any sign in Spanish or Japanese.”
A Times poll conducted May 16-20 showed that statewide 62% of Latino registered voters favored Proposition 227, roughly the same level of support found among white voters and a marked increase from April poll figures–when 50% of Latino voters said they would vote for the initiative.
Black support had fallen, although Times Poll Director Susan Pinkus cautioned that the relatively small number of African Americans polled made it difficult to draw conclusions about the decline. A slight majority of black voters continued to support 227. The number of Asians polled was too small to characterize their position.
The growing Latino support is particularly striking because it runs counter to the trend of two initiatives approved by voters: Proposition 187, which in 1994 targeted public benefits for illegal immigrants, and Proposition 209, which in 1996 banned government affirmative action programs for women and minorities. Minority support eroded for both measures, and Latinos voted en masse against them.
Analysts suggest that two factors are contributing to Latino support of 227: a general unhappiness with public schools and the community’s intense desire for economic assimilation.
“In general, with regard to assimilation in the economic and educational structure of the United States, Latinos realize English is a very, very important trait,” said Abel Valenzuela, an assistant professor in Chicano studies at UCLA. “They really value that.”
Moreover, he said: “Most Latinos in our public school system in Los Angeles are really, really dissatisfied with the type of education they receive. . . . So I think parents are kind of glossing over the complexities of bilingual education and are in part voting because they think something needs to be different in education in general.”
Debating Perception of Measure
Some political observers and opponents of the anti-bilingual measure argue that it is cut from the same cloth as 187 and 209, and amounts to another attack on minorities and immigrants, but many in the Latino community clearly do not share that perception.
“I don’t think it’s anti-immigrant,” said Joe, a 40-year-old Latino corporate account manager in Northern California, who did not want to give his last name.
“It’s saying [that] in order to succeed in this country you have to speak English, and I agree with that,” he said. “For those folks who want to live in the United States, they have to take it upon themselves to learn the language and compete.”
Nonetheless, there are undercurrents of competition between immigrants and more established residents–even within the Latino community–as well as resentment that the newcomers are eating up resources.
“Such a big amount of people have come over here, and we’re being drained of our tax dollars,” said Espinoza, a retiree from Pico Rivera.
Said Shavonne Conley, a 29-year-old homemaker from Los Angeles: “Why should they learn Spanish if they want to be in America? Why put us behind to help them do something they could do in their own country?” she asked.
“We have other problems and have to put our money on that–safety and security. My daughter needs lockers at school,” she said. “There are better ways we could spend our money than accommodating [them].”
Helen Clemmons is principal of Los Angeles’ 95th Street Preparatory School, where the student body is 58% Latino and 42% African American. She says that, in the African American community, she hears parents grumble that bilingual instruction is “taking away from programs for everybody” and that it’s a form of special treatment.
UCLA political science professor Frank Gilliam also sees a broader theme in the initiative, one that appeals to whites.
“It fits into the anti-politics of identity. . . . I think there’s a general sentiment out there that minority groups are too interested in their identity and own cultures. They shouldn’t be. They should be Americans.”
Dale Laster, 66, a property manager from Santa Monica, would undoubtedly agree.
“I’ve been signing petitions for English-only for 25 years,” he said. “It’s the principle of the thing. You can’t have everybody on every other block speaking a different language and have peace in the country.”
* * *
Strong Support for Prop. 227
Proposition 227, which would dismantle bilingual education in California, continued to enjoy strong support in a Times poll conducted May 16-20.
If the June election were held today, how would you vote? (among likely voters)
For 63% 63%
Against 23% 23%
Don’t know 14% 14%
* * *
Why would you vote FOR Prop. 227? (asked of those who support it; two replies accepted; top four responses shown; among registered voters)
If you live in America, you need to speak English: 57%
Bilingual programs hurt students who don’t speak English: 12%
Prefer immersion programs: 11%
Bilingual education is not effective: 10%
Note: Percentages may not total 100 where more than one reply was accepted or some answer categories are not shown.