Sen. Lopez's stance on bilingual education a mystery

Come home, Joe Eddie.

That was the message from 30 Latino parents who huddled in the garage of a Glendale home Monday to share horror stories about bilingual education programs and rally support for a proposed ballot initiative that would end them.

There were coffee and tostadas. And there was an empty chair set aside for a friend who wasn’t there but should have been.

The friend is state Sen. Joe Eddie Lopez, D-west Phoenix, who opposes the initiative and who has emerged as the Legislature’s top champion of bilingual instruction.

Lopez has proposed a bill that would increase funding for bilingual programs but require that students be pulled from the classes upon parental request.

But there’s no support for Lopez’s bill among the parents in the Glendale garage. There’s only confusion about why Lopez has lined up against them.

One of the confused is Norma Alvarez, who has known Lopez for nearly 3O years. A woman from a working-class family, Alvarez is the mother of two children who attended a Glendale school district. She is also a pioneer in “la resistencia”, the resistance of Latino parents to bilingual education. She started her crusade about a decade ago — long before Californians ended bilingual education with Proposition 227 and long before a group of Latino parents in Tucson proposed an initiative for Arizona.

Alvarez first got on her soapbox when the program started to affect her family. When her now-grown son, Jeffrey, got roped onto a bilingual track for something as arbitrary as his surname and despite the fact that he didn’t speak Spanish, Alvarez raised hell. And raised the ire of district officials, who not-so- politely told her that they knew better and to get lost.

Aided by a community advocate, Alvarez succeeded in removing her son and, later, other students from the bilingual program.

That advocate was Rosie Lopez. That’s right, Lopez. Rosie is Sen. Lopez’s wife.

West Phoenix is a small world.

Rosie Lopez, founder of the Arizona Hispanic Community Forum, has a reputation as a fighter for educational issues and parents’ concerns. And so does her husband.

Rosie Lopez is a former bilingual teacher. She supported bilingual education then, and she still does. But she also believes that parents should have a voice in their children’s education and a choice in whether they stay in bilingual programs. Her years in the trenches convinced her that school district officials don’t always yield to parents or even listen to them.

Sen. Lopez has said that he can “sympathize” with parents who want their kids out of bilingual education and favor English instruction. But Lopez can do more than sympathize with those parents. He can empathize with them.

That’s because, nearly 20 years ago, the Lopez’s oldest son was placed, without his parents’ permission, in a bilingual program at a junior high school in the Isaac Elementary School District.

Rosie Lopez, who did not grant permission for the placement, believes that it happened because of her son’s skin color and surname. She went to the school and, like Norma Alvarez a decade later, raised hell. She demanded that her son be removed. Faced with the complaint of a bilingual teacher, district officials complied.

The Lopez family’s personal history leaves Alvarez bewildered.

“I feel bad for him. I don’t understand why Joe Eddie is saying all this and supporting bilingual education,” Alvarez said.

“He knows better. He used to help us so much.”

Others in the room shake their heads. They say that Sen. Lopez is being pressured by the bilingual lobby to defend a program that nearly swallowed up his own son.

The mystery doesn’t end with one state senator. It extends to those legions of Mexican-American professionals who support bilingual programs despite strong opposition to them among low-income Latinos and recent immigrants.

In a poll by Public Agenda, a nonpartisan research organization, 56 percent of Latino immigrants opposed bilingual education.

This class division was broached in a Jan. 31 article in the New York Times Magazine, which noted:

“The beneficiaries (of bilingual education) are much less attached to it than its advocates, the professionals and academics who already have the luxury of being firmly ensconced in the middle class.”

Norma Alvarez is holding out hope that her old friend, Sen. Lopez, will break his sentimental attachment to bilingual education and rejoin his old friends. And in case he does, she’s saving him a chair.

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