- LOS ANGELES TIMES
Friday, May 29, 1998
- CALIFORNIA ELECTIONS / PROPOSITION 227
Popularity Extends Past Racial Lines
Measure to virtually end bilingual education has
widespread support. Many say immigrant children haven't
become fluent quickly enough.
By BETTINA BOXALL, Times Staff Writer
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
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
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
"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
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
"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)
- * * *
- 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.
- Source: Los Angeles Times polls
- Copyright Los Angeles Times