Efforts to establish English as the official language in Monterey Park and Alhambra suffered two major setbacks this week, but the proposals may have served to open what some consider a badly needed dialogue on human relations.
The Alhambra City Council rejected an English-language resolution, but the leader of the city's English-language movement said he will work to resolve differences with the Asian business community through direct talks.
And Monterey Park Mayor Rudy Peralta said that although he hopes the English-language issue will be kept off the city ballot, the city must address the human relations concerns that have been raised.
Meanwhile, Edward Howden, mediator with the U. S. Justice Department's Community Relations Service in San Francisco, said his office has been following developments in Alhambra and Monterey Park because of potential tensions from the influx of Asian immigrants. The Asian population is estimated at 40% in Monterey Park and 25% in Alhambra.
Howden said he has talked to leaders of the English-language movement and to city officials in Monterey Park. "We're exploring whether (the problem) could lend itself to mediation," he said, noting that his office's sole function is to help communities resolve problems involving minorities.
In both Monterey Park and Alhambra, residents have been unsuccessful in seeking declarations that English is the official language. Proponents have argued that the declarations, though only symbolic, might prompt government agencies to use only English in such matters as voting materials and driver's license tests and would encourage immigrants to learn and use English, thereby improving communication between racial and ethnic groups. Opponents assert that an English-language declaration would insult immigrants, infringe on free speech and encourage racism.
In Alhambra, the City Council refused Monday to make English the official language after Mayor Michael Blanco said the resolution offered by All We Can Afford, a loosely knit citizens group of about 75 members, might "be misunderstood and tend to divide us rather than unite us."
At a stormy, standing-room-only meeting, the resolution was debated, with proponents saying it was time to tell immigrants to start using English and opponents charging racism.
Mark Lockman, leader of All We Can Afford, said his group is considering an initiative to put the issue before Alhambra voters.
Despite the council's refusal to adopt the resolution, he said, public debate on the issue accomplished a great deal.
"The meeting opened a dialogue where before things were only whispered about," Lockman said. "A message was sent."
Asian business owners now know that their non-English signs make longtime residents feel unwelcome in their own city, he said. Lockman said he and Alhambra attorney Yee-Jen Shuai plan to meet with Asian business owners to discuss signs.
"We are not going to try to dictate to them, just try to explain why their signs alienate people," Lockman said.
Shuai, who came to the United States from Taiwan nine years ago, said he disagrees with Lockman on the English-language resolution because he thinks its underlying message to immigrants is, "If you do not speak English, you are not one of us." But, he said, he agreed to accompany Lockman in calling on Asian business owners because the owners need to understand the sign problem.
Meanwhile, in Monterey Park, where city officials have refused to put an English-language initiative on the April election ballot, city councilmen said they still are trying to understand why more than 3,300 people signed the initiative petition.
"Maybe it's bilingual backlash," said Mayor Peralta, adding that the problem began with complaints about business signs in Chinese and now involves the whole relationship between immigrants and other residents. A large influx of immigrants inevitably poses difficulties, he said, "whether it's Cubans in Miami, Vietnamese in Orange County or Chinese in Monterey Park."
Peralta said the human relations issue will head the agenda when the council meets for an informal workshop session at 5 p.m. Tuesday at the Best Western Park hotel.
Peralta said he has no simple solution but "I suppose our course will be to bring people together."
Frank Arcuri, a photographer who has been one of the principal promoters of the English-language initiative in Monterey Park, said he would welcome a human relations discussion, but not at the price of dropping the English-language initiative. "That's not negotiable," he said.