LOS ANGELES – From the air, flying into Los Angeles from San Antonio, you approach the city over rows and clusters of roofs and streets, of homes and warehouses in neighborhoods and barrios that spread like an urban blanket from the ocean to the mountains. You fly directly over the heart of the Los Angeles barrio, East Los as they call it, East L.A.

Below is what could be called a barrio like any other barrio in the country, with businesses and homes where Spanish is spoken with an air of unpretentious familiarity, where signs are written in two languages and where culture is as important as family and politics.

But there is one thing that makes East Los different from all the other barrios in the country – East L.A. is in Los Angeles.

Somewhere in the throng of more than 3.5 million Los Angelinos is a man of means, a businessman named Ron Unz who has taken it upon himself to eliminate bilingual education in the state of California. His initiative, euphemistically called “English for the Children,” is already changing the way Californians discuss ethnicity and race.

The initiative, which is well on its way to being placed before the voters in June, would require limited-English children (read children of immigrants and second-language learners) to be taught in English unless their parents request otherwise. These students would receive one year of English instruction before being moved into a mainstream classroom.

The measure seems to be popular, even among Latinos in California. So much so that the perennial defenders of bilingual instruction, the members of state’s Latino Legislative Caucus, are looking for ways to ease the effects of the initiative through legislation. They know that the battleground in this case is not in the classroom but in the minds of the voters.

Bilingual education has its problems and the “English for the Chicken” proponents are attacking it from its weakest flank. Mainly, bilingual education, in California as well as in Texas, suffers from a lack of understanding and from a lack of qualified instructors.

What’s significant in California is that even among bilingual educators the word is that only 10 percent of the state’s bilingual programs are being implemented correctly. Across the state more than 20,000 additional bilingual instructors are needed.

The impression seems to be that the aim of bilingual education is to ignore English for the sake of cultural emphasis. But nothing could be farther from reality.

The aim of bilingual education, in California as well as in Texas, is to teach English knowing that the transition from the native language to a second language will be easier if the native language is strengthened. There are enough classrooms in the state where the aim is achieved to prove that it works, and works well.

The problem in California is that, unlike Texas, any nut with a little time and money on his hands can assemble any army to gather signatures to place initiatives before the voters. That same nut, with a well-oiled publicity machine, can convince the voters of just about any spin on any subject if he knows what he’s doing.

In Texas, this could never happen. Not only because initiative and referendum is not permitted under our state Constitution. Not even because our Republican governor has already stated publicly that he’s against such measures. No, such a thing could never happen in Texas because we have a different way of doing things.

Texas’ nuts with time and money don’t bother with signatures or publicity. What they do is barricade themselves in a trailer in the mountains and declare the property a sovereign state. Not very subtle, not very effective, but very Texan.

Which is exactly what makes the barrios in Los Angeles different from the barrios in say, San Antonio. In California, the issue of language has become highly politicized. While in Texas the language and education dialogue takes place mainly in academia and in the legislature, in California the dialogue is in the media and in the streets where, ironically, information is scant and time carries a price tag.

It’s hard to tell though, flying into Los Angeles over the streets and barrios. It’s hard to notice when you step off the airplane and the first language you hear is the Spanish of the baggage handlers, when waiters answer your gracias with an automatic por nada. It’s hard to notice, but it’s there in the newspapers and the television reports and in the attitude of those who feel “overrun” by something they don’t understand.

What they haven’t figured out in California, something that Texans have known for a long time, is that change is inevitable and that a language will never overrun a truly open society.

And they’ve yet to see the danger in letting their nuts run loose with time and money.

– Victor Landa is news director of KVDA-TV, Channel 60.



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