Unusual Crusade: Que Pasa Aqui?

Activism: Spanish-speaking garment workers and their fervent advocate seem an unlikely group to launch the bid to virtually end bilingual education.

This is ground zero of the latest hot-button initiative to confront Californians: a roomful of chattering children ruled by a no-nonsense Episcopal priest on the urine-scented fringe of Los Angeles’ skid row.

It is here, in Alice Callaghan’s storefront center for garment workers’ families, that she and a group of Latino parents launched a rebellion against bilingual education, inspiring software millionaire Ron K. Unz to craft the June ballot proposal that would all but eliminate such instruction from the state’s public schools.

At first blush, Las Familias del Pueblo appears a curious spawning ground for Proposition 227.

Callaghan has ample liberal credentials. She has been arrested for protesting the treatment of farm workers and the deportation of illegal immigrants. She has staged City Hall sit-ins to demand portable toilets for the homeless and holds mail for them at the center.

For years, she says, she never questioned the value of bilingual education: “I just accepted it as a justice issue.”

The parents who send their children to the center for after-school care are even less likely rebels against bilingual teaching. They are poor immigrants who remain firmly planted in a Spanish-speaking world years after their arrival in this country, unable to teach their children much English because they have never mastered it themselves–precisely the people bilingual education would seem to be designed for. But Callaghan is not one to toe the party line, liberal or otherwise. As a young woman she was a Goldwater Republican. Then she became a Vietnam War protester. She was a Catholic nun and then became an Episcopal priest.

A media-savvy skid row activist, she shuns coalitions. She operates her small community center–a large aqua room with a fenced off driveway for an outdoor play area–without government money so she can run it as she pleases. A fellow priest with whom she butted heads once described her strength and weakness as one and the same: that she is “strong, unyielding, uncompromising.”

“We don’t worry about what people think,” said Callaghan, who sprinkles her conversations with a vaguely royal “we,” never making it clear just who the “we” is. “We don’t worry about being politically incorrect.”

When she decided that bilingual education wasn’t working, she turned against it with the ferocity she has brought to other causes.

As for the parents, their motivation is all too simple. Their children need English to escape the sweatshop life. And by the parents’ telling, their children weren’t getting it.

“They were just teaching them in Spanish and nothing in English,” said Maria Hernandez, whose 9-year-old daughter, Ashley Almonza, was one of about 90 Las Familias children who boycotted classes at Ninth Street School two years ago to demand English instruction.

“I want Ashley to be somebody, have a good job,” Hernandez, 45, said through a translator when she came to pick up the third-grader after a day at the sewing machines, where Hernandez earns about $240 a week.

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She has always wanted her children to do well. She came to this country nine years ago because she needed to make more money to help send her three older girls to college in Mexico, where one now works as a nurse, one as an accountant and the third in computers.

She has heard criticism of Proposition 227 on Spanish-language radio, making her wonder: “Am I doing the right thing?”

Her resolve returned when she spoke to her neighbors. She says most of the people she knows favor the initiative because their children are being taught in Spanish. The February 1996 boycott lasted for two weeks, drawing reporters aplenty. “You need all the help you can get,” said Callaghan, who had invited media attention from the beginning. “And because I am an organizer, I know we need to use the press.”

She depicted the school administration as obstinately resisting the parents’ request to transfer their children into English-based classes. The school responded that the students were getting English in the bilingual curriculum–albeit some of it during recess and homeroom–and that only a handful of parents had formally applied to move their children out of bilingual instruction.

From the administration’s perspective, the Las Familias bilingual revolt was Callaghan’s doing, not the parents’. But the school nonetheless relented. Since the fall of 1996, most of the Las Familias children attending Ninth Street have been in the English development program.

“They like it. It’s a little hard for them,” Juana Lozada said, referring to her two children, Anna and Edgar Alvarado. When Edgar was in the bilingual program, he could speak some English but could not read or write it, Lozada said through a translator. Now Edgar’s verbal English has gotten better and he is progressing with the written.

In the joyful din of the center, children speak Spanish among themselves. When they talk to Callaghan, asking for something or complaining of a playmate, it’s in accented English.

“He hit me with the Lego,” reported one boy in a typical exchange, drawing out his vowels.

“Ultimately everybody learns to speak [English]. That is not the issue,” Callaghan said. “We’re talking about children learning to read and write English.” The center’s children, Callaghan said, “would go all the way through elementary school and they would go into junior high, maybe reading and writing at a first- or second-grade level.”

A few months after the boycott, Unz called and said he was thinking about drafting an anti-bilingual initiative. Callaghan was all ears.

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“When Ron came, we were ready,” she said, simultaneously conceding that “initiatives are not a great way to do social policy.”

But in this case, she said, a ballot measure is the only recourse. “There is no other way on God’s earth, I am absolutely convinced, that the bilingual program will ever change in Los Angeles, ever. There is so much invested in the system.” System. Invested. Callaghan’s choice of words is telling. She sees herself fighting the good fight on the part of the struggling poor, while portraying the chief bilingual education supporters as members of the Latino establishment protecting the status quo.

“These are all people who have a piece of the goods. They’ve gone to colleges and universities. They’re lawyers. They’re businesspeople. They’re saying the children of garment workers should be learning to read and write Spanish.”

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The offices of the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Educational Fund are a few blocks from Las Familias. But “not once” during the boycott “did they call to help our parents, not once,” fumed Callaghan. “Because our parents were being politically incorrect. So none of the traditional supporters of garment workers would help.” What of the fact that two of the leading proponents of the initiative–Callaghan and Unz–are white? What of the charges that Proposition 227 is the child of Proposition 209 and the grandchild of Proposition 187, just the latest Golden State slap at immigrants and minorities?

“The only people who are trying to say 227 is analogous to 187 are the activists,” she said. “Because they can’t argue about bilingual education. Because there’s no defense of bilingual education.

“How is this any bit resembling 187?” Callaghan asked. “The roots of this are an attempt by impoverished garment workers to get an education for their children.” A friend who does community organizing in Long Beach told her the Latino community there thinks of her as the “antichrist.”

She is unfazed, talking to reporters from as far away as Europe and consulting daily with Unz on the initiative, which calls for children to get no more than a year of intensive English instruction before moving into regular, English-only classes. “What people need to focus on is not Ron Unz or me,” she said. “They need to focus on bilingual education. Has it worked? It’s bilingual education on trial here.”

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