MONTEREY PARK — A measure to declare English the official language of the city appears headed for the ballot next April amid charges that the proposal exploits racial fears for political advantage.
R. E. (Pete) Hollingsworth, president of the city library board, said he and others are forming a committee to oppose the initiative. Hollingsworth said the initiative itself is worded in such an innocuous way that he is not surprised that proponents claim they have collected enough signatures to put the measure on the ballot.
The initiative petitions have been signed by nearly 3,000 registered voters, almost 800 more than are needed to qualify the proposal for the ballot, proponents said.
Hollingsworth said the initiative petition "sounds (like) apple pie and motherhood." It declares that "English is the language that we use when we want everyone to understand our ideas. This is what unites us as Americans, even though some of our citizens speak other languages. Let us make English our official language as our symbol of unity."
But, instead of promoting unity, Hollingsworth said, the initiative is dividing the city.
"In no way does it symbolize unity," he said. "It is purely a political device to be used as the launching pad for those who wish to gain political power in the community." He said the initiative exploits a fearful reaction to the influx of Asians into Monterey Park to help supporters of the initiative elect candidates in the next City Council election.
Barry Hatch, one of the initiative's proponents, denied that there are any racial motives behind the initiative. "There are definitely no feelings of racism," he said, noting that he has often associated with persons of different cultures. He said he lived with a Chinese family in Hong Kong for three years and teaches in a school that is nearly all Latino.
Frank Arcuri, who authored the initiative with Hatch, said about one-third of those who signed the petitions are Latino, one-third Asian and one-third Anglo, percentages that are roughly comparable to the city's population as a whole. The Asian population has risen sharply over the past decade with the arrival of immigrants from Hong Kong, Taiwan and elsewhere.
But Arcuri and Hatch said some of the petition signers said they resent bilingual education, Chinese business signs, Latino advertising directories and other evidence of the diminished importance of English. And, they said, there is also support from people who are dissatisfied with the replacement of general supermarkets by stores specializing in Oriental food, the proliferation of tiny shops, the high-density development and the traffic congestion in Monterey Park.
Arcuri said that replacing current City Council members is one of his goals because "they are the cause of the problem." All three council members who face election in April--David Almada, Lily Lee Chen and Rudy Peralta--have denounced the English language proposal as divisive to the community and insulting to Asians and Latinos.
The initiative petitions will be delivered to the city clerk within a week or two, Arcuri said. The clerk and county registrar of voters must verify the signatures and, if the initiative qualifies, the council will have the option of adopting the proposal, which is unlikely because a council majority is already on record against it, or submitting it to voters.
Arcuri said the initiative is symbolic; it would not forbid anyone to use a foreign language. But, he said, it would send a message to city officials and make newcomers aware of the importance of learning English. Without English, he said, immigrants will remain apart from other Americans.
It was in the context of a discussion of cultural differences, specifically the gulf that Chinese have told him exists between American-born Chinese and older immigrants, that Arcuri said he raised a question that led to an emotional outburst at a recent meeting of the city's Community Relations/ Neighborhood Improvement Commission. Arcuri said he had been told that older immigrants from Asia have no desire to become assimilated into American society.
Arcuri, who had been invited to explain the initiative to the commission, said he asked commissioner Francis Hong whether "deep in his heart" he really thought he was an American. Observers said Hong denounced the question as insulting and racist, and the confrontation became so emotional that some members of the audience burst into tears.
Hong, who was born in China but has lived in this country for 17 years and is fluent in English, said he hopes that that exchange does not reflect the direction of the initiative campaign, but he fears that what is ahead for Monterey Park is an "angry and nasty process," with groups becoming polarized over the issue.