Speaking The Same Language

English paves the way to American Dream, but native tongues tug on heartstrings

In the tiny, crowded apartment that is his family’s home in Santa Ana’s biggest ethnic-minority enclave, Erick Quinones is dutifully tackling his fifth-grade English vocabulary homework.

He is the picture of schoolboy diligence as he sits at the dining table, jotting down the new words in neat little columns, then composing sentences for them in his carefully formed script.

Not once is his concentration broken, despite the heavy humidity from late-afternoon temperatures that have soared into the 90s, the romping of the younger children atop the living room sofa, and the television that is blaring with yet another rerun of the slam-bang “CHiPs” crime-fighting series.

For a student like Erick, English is neither forbidding nor dull. “I like the new words and the stories. It’s fun, a lot of the time. It keeps pushing me.”

But Erick is also a bilingual child. Although all four Quinones children were born in the United States, they have grown up in a Spanish-speaking household — their father is Puerto Rican, their mother Bolivian.

And Erick, only 9 but the oldest of the Quinones children, has already learned the linguistic rules of making it in America. The American Dream, it seems, requires command of English.

“I have to be really good at English, you know. All of us do,” says Erick, his eyes calm and earnest behind his spectacles. “If I’m not, I can’t get anywhere. I can’t get to college. And I won’t get a good job.”

On the other hand, Erick isn’t about to abandon his Spanish. “I still like it, I still want to get better at it,” he says with adultlike solemnity.

He looks at his mother, who is in the kitchen preparing dinner. Their exchange of grins is warm, private. “Besides,” he says with a little-boy giggle, “my mother would get so mad if we all forgot our Spanish!”

Erick Quinones’ comment is a gently personal reminder of a decidedly ungentle, exceptionally volatile issue in American society.

Many critics of bilingual programs for the non-English speaking claim that the mounting Latino and Asian immigrant populations pose a threat to English as the nation’s supreme language.

The most outspoken of these critics include members of U.S. English, a nationwide movement founded by former Sen. S.I. Hayakawa (R-Cal.) to combat, members contend, an alarming erosion of the status of English as America’s sole official language.

And nowhere is this linguistic battle being fought more vociferously than in California.

This threat, critics of bilingual programs say, is all too demographically clear. Not only do ethnic-minority groups now make up 46% of the state’s population — and is expected to top 50% by 2010 — but California also has the biggest Indochinese concentrations in the United States — an estimated 100,000 in Orange County alone.

These critics cite growing use of non-English languages in business, such as the proliferation of non-English signs in Orange County’s “Little Saigon” and Los Angeles County’s newest Chinese enclave in Monterey Park.

They warn that bilingual education in the public schools — giving instruction to non-English-speaking children initially in their native languages — has drastically slowed the transition of these children into all-English classes.

Such trends, they contend, could lead to permanent “language ghettos” or, even worse, the kind of vehement “language separatism” practiced by French-speaking Quebec in English-dominant Canada.

It is such fears, these critics argue, that led in 1986 to the overwhelming voter approval given Proposition 63, a California initiative ballot measure that formally declared English to be the state’s “official language.”

But ethnic-minority activists call such attacks part of a discriminatory “English-only” movement. They maintain that it runs counter to the American ethos of pluralism — the United States as a land of immigrants and as a shelter to political and cultural diversity.

At best, these ethnic-minority activists argue, such attacks — including those by members of the U.S. English movement — represent an overzealous, confused Americanism, and at worst, a throwback to an old, familiar racism.

And what of the multilingual families in the middle of this battle? The vast majority of them apparently prefer to remain They try to stay clear of the major controversies. They want to be allowed to assimilate as quickly, as smoothly — and as quietly — as possible.

This is about two such families, both connected to Santa Ana’s James Madison Elementary School, which is mostly Latino and Asian.

One is the Phonethibsavads clan from Laos. The other we have already met: the Quinones family.

American assimilation seemed light years away for the Quinones family in 1982.

Neither parent spoke much English. Oscar was born and raised in Puerto Rico; Jannet had emigrated from her native Bolivia.

And the couple and their four children had just moved from New Jersey and were now crowded into an one-bedroom apartment in one of Orange County’s biggest and seemingly most impenetrable “language ghettos.”

This was Santa Ana’s Minnie Street sector — a bleak, row-upon-row corridor of aging two-story apartment complexes centered at McFadden and Standard avenues, not far from Madison School.

The corridor, inhabited mostly by recently arrived Latino and Asian families, was known for exceptionally high unemployment, hundreds of families crammed into tiny units, widespread drug trafficking and an overall seething atmosphere.

When things didn’t improve for the Quinones family, Oscar left to seek work in the more familiar areas of New Jersey and New York.

Jannet, left with their four small children, managed to stay on at the $325-a-month apartment, supported by welfare or by taking odd jobs as a seamstress, laundress or baby-sitter.

But she felt that hopes of attaining the American Dream were fast slipping away.

“I came to America like everyone else, to find better work, to make a better life for myself,” she says. “But I felt then that all my chances had passed me by.

“I didn’t really know any English. I couldn’t get a real job. I thought I would spend the rest of my life washing dishes or cleaning someone’s house.”

She didn’t know it then, but 1983 was the turnaround for her family.

Erick, then 5, had entered Madison School and its program for the non-English speaking. Since he spoke very little English, Erick was placed in predominantly Spanish-language classes.

The educating concept was this: Erick would be increasingly exposed to English instruction in arithmetic, social studies and science, as well as reading and writing. So, by no later than the fifth grade he would be “fully transitioned” into all-English classes.

The bilingual education program was also a boon to non-English-speaking parents.

“Before, parents like us were too scared to be involved with the schools,” explains Jannet. “We felt isolated. We were ashamed that we didn’t know English.

At a school like Madison, Jannet found a linguistic rapport. “I could be a part of Erick’s education. I could go in and talk to the (Spanish-speaking) teachers like anyone else. I felt real proud.”

When Erick reached the second grade, he was put in classes that used a great deal of English. “Oh, he was so happy,” recalls his mother, “because he was bringing home his first English-language reader. It was his breakthrough.”

It changed Jannet’s life as well.

“Now I wanted to really learn English. If Erick could do it, so could I.” She started to read her son’s school books, which were mostly fairy tales. She urged him to read with her. “It was so funny because now my little son was my tutor!”

Her growing familiarity with English gave her new confidence. She found steadier employment as a plastics factory worker. She took her first steps — Americanization classes — toward U.S. citizenship.

And she became something of a community activist — a supporter of a Madison parents’ group and a Minnie Street-area counseling center, and a member of Santa Ana Unified School District’s parents’ advisory council on bilingual education, of which she eventually became chairwoman.

Best of all, she says, the bilingual program speeded the language assimilation of her four children.

The 9-year-old Erick, now in the fifth grade and also classified as gifted, has been in all-English classes for some time. Oscar Jr., 8, and Michael, 7, have recently been put in predominantly English classes. And the first-grader, Patricia, 6, is expected to be placed this fall in classes with mostly English instruction.

Neither Jannet nor Oscar Sr. — who has rejoined the family — sees the English-as-official-language movement as detrimental to multilingual families.

“We know what some Americans say about people like us,” says the 35-year-old Jannet, who has taken an English-improvement class at Rancho Santiago College and who now works as a staff aide in Madison’s bilingual program.

“They say, ‘If they’re in America, why don’t they speak only English?’ They think that maybe we don’t want to be real Americans.”

Such critics are all wrong, she says. “Why can’t we love both of our cultures? This is the American way, too, isn’t it?

“It (Proposition 63) said English is the No. 1 language in America,” says Oscar, 39, an auto body shop worker. “We understand this. You don’t need a law to tell people that. But it doesn’t say we can’t speak Spanish with friends — or at home.”

The Quinones family, once wholly Spanish-speaking, now gives English equal time.

“We read aloud from the history and story books — English one night, Spanish the next,” explains Jannet. “We make sure we speak a lot of English now. But we make sure the children don’t forget their Spanish.

“Sometimes, I tell them stories about my husband’s family in Puerto Rico. Sometimes, my family in Bolivia. Especially about my father (Juan Mejia). Especially how he, too, was a multilingual teacher — how he taught the Indian people there in their own languages.”

Now, Jannet Quinones believes, the American Dream seems much closer for her family.

“We are finding new roots in America, we know,” says Jannet, an American citizen since 1986. “We want a home, a quiet place and a good job, too. All we are asking is that it’s OK to help our children remember our old roots.”

She pauses, then adds quietly but firmly. “We don’t think that’s a threat to anybody.”

Like thousands of other refugees who have fled Indochinese countries since 1975, the journey of Boualy and Viengkham Phonethibsavads to America was a painful and arduous one.

Boualy, the son of a Laotian farmer and a one-time university law student, was regarded as a promising young journalist-bureaucrat. The Communist government even sent him on a study tour of Moscow and Budapest.

But Boualy and Viengkham — who were not then married and who were both working for the government information office — had been planning an escape for months.

Late in 1978, in the middle of the night, Boualy, Viengkham and 13 others — including her mother, sister and three brothers — made the treacherous trek through the jungle to the Thai border. “We were very lucky,” says Boualy. “No one saw us.”

In 1980, Viengkham and her relatives were the first of the group to leave the vastly overcrowded refugee camps. Boualy followed several months later. A year later, the two were married in Santa Ana.

Last May, Boualy, 41, and Viengkham, 36, took on the official symbol of American assimilation — they became U.S. citizens.

They also seem to be making headway as upwardly mobile immigrants. They own a four-bedroom house — shared with Viengkham’s mother and two brothers — in a nice, tree-lined neighborhood near Rancho Santiago College’s Santa Ana campus.

Like Jannet and Oscar Quinones, the Phonethibsavads couple aren’t extremely critical of Proposition 63.

“The more our children speak English, the happier we are,” explains Boualy. “This is America, not Laos. It is the reality of the situation. It is as it should be.”

Indeed, he sees the Americanization of their children as inevitable.

“We want them to respect their Laotian and Chinese heritages. We want them to remember their grandparents’ cultures,” says Boualy. “But we know it is a losing battle. We see it already with other families.

“But our hope is that if we start early enough with our children — to keep the old traditions alive in them — they will not forget as quickly as others.”

Yet, in light of the rancorous statewide battle over language supremacy, Boualy and Viengkham remain a dramatic example of a multilingual family.

Boualy speaks English fluently, as well as French and his native Laotian. He has been a bilingual classroom aide in Santa Ana the past seven years, recently at Madison and now at the Roosevelt Elementary School Annex. Viengkham, who was raised in an ethnic-Chinese family in Laos, speaks both Laotian and Chinese Mandarin. She spoke little English when she arrived in the United States, but her English has improved markedly since she took two years of English-language night classes at Rancho Santiago. She is now a classroom aide at Madison.

Their American-born children — Navarad, 5, who just started kindergarten at Madison, and Anthony, 2 — are as much at ease with English as they are with Laotian and Mandarin.

Although Navarad has been placed in an all-English-speaking class, her parents believe the bilingual teaching concept is a necessary one.

“Many (non-English-speaking) families need this,” says Viengkham. “There is no other way that they can communicate, at least initially. It would be unfortunate if this (teaching) idea were drastically changed.”

And they are not about to dismiss the importance of being multilingual.

“It is very good if our children can stay that way,” says Viengkham. “Knowing more than one language, I think, makes you a fuller person, gives you a more understanding view of the world.”

She is planning to return soon to school for more language improvement. One goal, of course, is to gain greater command of English.

“But I’m thinking about taking another language — one that is very beautiful, too, and that is very appropriate and important in California.”

Her latest choice: Spanish.

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