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AROUND TOWN / BEVERLY BEYETTE

When ESL Meets DUI, the Message Is as Simple as ABC

September 02, 1993|BEVERLY BEYETTE

Students in Michael Javier's evening ESL class at Evans Adult School in downtown L.A. were learning some strange new words along with basic English. Words like zig zag and equilibrium , revocation and suspension .

Javier's was one of 33 English as a Second Language classes in a summer pilot program that, once revised and refined, will go statewide this month.

This first-in-the-nation program is taking the message--"Si Toma, No Maneje" (If You Drink, Don't Drive) to Latinos. The statistics show the need: According to the California Dept. of Justice, Latinos, about 26% of the population, account for 45% of DUI arrests. That adds up to more than 120,000 arrests.

Part of the problem is the machismo, says former U.S Ambassador to Mexico John Gavin, chairman of the Century Council, an L.A.-based, not-for-profit organization sponsoring the program.

Suggest to some Latinos that they've had too much to drink and should let their wives drive, Gavin says, and "You can only imagine the response."

Other factors that play a part, he adds, are "lack of familiarity with the laws (among immigrants) and the customs and how the laws are applied."

The ESL lesson plan was written by Javier and LAUSD teachers Sharon McMarr and Steve Ryan, with the goal of teaching Spanish-speaking students the legal, monetary and personal consequences of drunk driving.

The idea is to incorporate the message into the overall purpose of teaching English. Vocabulary words worked into the lessons include impairment and impound.

The textbook is a bilingual fotonovela , an illustrated pamphlet of a type very popular among the Spanish-speaking. The words come out of characters' mouths in comics-style bubbles. Their message is serious.

This particular story--also available as a video--is "La Pesadilla!" (The Nightmare!) It describes the plight of two brothers, Jose and Edgar, who, having had too many birthday drinks, crash their father's truck and injure an innocent motorist.

Jose, the driver, goes to jail. His family is humiliated. And they must raise bail. His girlfriend walks out. He has an arrest record now. He has screwed up in a big way.

The message is not lost on Javier's class. Most of his students are young Spanish-speaking males. And, it is obvious, more than one has had the experience of being ebrio (drunk).

Javier thinks the fotonovela hits home because it makes them see that, if they mix drinking and driving, "I'm going to be hurt financially and my family's going to suffer."

He expands the discussion around the fotonovela: What can you do if your friend who's driving has had too much to drink? They learn about designated drivers.

Finally, Javier asks the question: "Does anyone have some personal experience? A family member or friend?"

Jose stands. He tells a harrowing story of having accepted a ride with a fellow worker, not knowing he'd been drinking, of a wild 70-m.p.h. trip on the Hollywood Freeway. "That guy could have killed us. . . "

Machismo comes up when Javier asks the men what their friends would say if they drank only ice water at a party. There are a few giggles: "Chicken." "Don't be like a woman."

Javier uses the opening to explain that, in the United States, it is not socially acceptable to be drunk.

There are more giggles when Javier asks how police test drivers for blood alcohol and Reuben offers to demonstrate how a Breathalyzer works.

Later, Reuben will confess to having had three arrests and having spent four months in jail. He tells about losing his job, about big family problems. "Maybe some people lose their wife," he adds.

Then Maria shares a tragic personal story: Her aunt was killed the previous week by a drunk driver, leaving behind three daughters.

Javier wraps things up with a reminder that, while the fotonovela is only a story, "It's a very real situation, a very big problem."

*

"Si Toma, No Maneje," which also includes a designated-driver campaign and a campaign targeting underage buyers, originated in 1989 with the state Office of Traffic Safety. In 1991 it was taken over and expanded by the Century Council, an anti-alcohol-abuse group funded--$13 million a year--by members of the licensed beverage industry.

Critics say this is like the fox guarding the henhouse. "Who wouldn't be skeptical?" replies Gavin. But, he asks, "Judge us by what we're doing. I'm persuaded that those (in the industry) who've joined believe that good citizenship is good business."

"Si Toma, No Maneje" has been endorsed by Gov. Pete Wilson, Cardinal Roger Mahony, Jaime R. Corral, presiding judge of the Los Angeles Superior Court and Los Angeles County Supervisor Gloria Molina.

The advisory board includes Lt. Gregory Manuel of the California Highway Patrol, who says, "I don't see any conflict. It has been shown that this is not just another way of pushing their product."

Sgt. Roy Huerta, who heads the CHP's El Protector program, which teaches highway safety to the Spanish-speaking community, says he "can see the point" of those who object to funding the fight against drunk driving with money from vintners, brewers and distillers. Still, "I just think that it's great to have another entity out there trying to push the message."

As the immigrant population grows, he points out, so will the problem. It is partly cultural, he says. While Mexico does have laws against drinking and driving, "The payoff is an accepted way of life."

The ESL program is being refined and readied for statewide distribution this month. With the cooperation of the state Department of Education, the Century Council hopes to reach 500,000 students in ESL classes in 300 schools and 22 prisons.

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