Perplexed and tongue-tied, California's cities and counties join dumbfounded merchants in court today to try to stop enforcement of an obscure clause of Proposition 227, the initiative curtailing bilingual education, which passed in a voter stampede last Tuesday.
That rule, evidently unnoticed by millions of voters, requires that virtually every aspect of public life also be translated into English within one year--the same amount of time the more publicized aspect of Proposition 227 gives schoolchildren for English immersion.
Observers predict language pandemonium across California, on everything from city names to restaurant menus.
"I'd say these people are loco, but they'd make me translate it," said one mayor.
As word of the fine-print rule spreads, reaction has already ranged from pique to outright panic:
* A high school football team from Mariposa County showed up at the state Capitol in shoulder pads and helmets, carrying placards reading, "We won't play ball for Butterfly"--English for Mariposa.
* Costa Mesa--whose name, meaning "coastal tableland," was chosen in a 1915 contest--said it would not translate back but would rename itself "North Newport." That sent Newport Beach's lawyers scurrying to court for their own restraining order.
* Asian American groups protested that renaming the dairy-farm town of Chino "Chinaman" was offensive.
* Chualar in Monterey County, "Place of White Pigweed," has begun an emergency planting of colorful annuals so it can change its name to "Petuniana."
* The San Joaquin County town of Manteca protests that translating its name literally, to "Lard," will not convey the essence of the old Californio ranching term. To preserve its history, the town will become "Delicate, Tasty Layer of Fat Just Beneath the Cow's Skin."
* One place that won't challenge the rule is the Kern County town of Caliente. "You been here?" said one unperturbed local. "Heck, we are Hot."
Supervisors in many of the state's 58 counties argue that the initiative is not only costly, but plunders California's past.
"Imagine," reads their brief, "after decades of living in Amador or Calaveras County, places and names rich with history and lore, our constituents wake up a year from now and find they live in Lover County or Skulls County."
Cities were particularly vehement, contending that businesses will depart in droves if, for example, "Bodega" becomes "Wine Cellar" and "Laguna Beach" is re-christened as "Lagoon Beach."
Chico officials hint that if the city is forced to become "Little," and its university has to issue degrees from "Little State," it will mount what it called "a Viagra vote" to make itself "Big." And while the Roman Catholic Church last week won a permanent injunction allowing the state's chain of fabled missions to retain their Spanish names, the ACLU argues passionately that the initiative would "convert the state, literally, into a religious Rand McNally." The state's capitol would become Sacrament, a religious ritual; its biggest city would be The Angels; and its biggest natural disaster waiting to happen would be St. Andrew's Fault.
Merchants and restaurateurs along flossy streets like La Cienega and La Brea are appalled. "How," asks one, "can we entice well-heeled shoppers and diners to addresses on Swamp Boulevard and Tar Avenue?"
The private sector impact is not yet certain, but businesses are bracing for the worst. Developers wail that housing values will plummet in subdivisions when lyrical Spanish names are replaced by less romantic English: Rio Loma Vista Acres becomes River Hill View Acres, sans river, sans hill, sans view. Equity in Arroyo Seco Estates would plunge when the sign out front is changed to Dry Gulch Estates.
As one South Bay real estate agent with clients in Rancho Palos Verdes put it plaintively, "How can you ask a million-five for a two-bedroom fixer-upper in Green Sticks Ranch?"
Owners of Mexican restaurants, including several national chains, filed separately for injunctive relief, arguing that diners will be confused and annoyed by menu items such as "mashed avocado flavored with cilantro, garnished with tomatoes and served with crisp triangles of fried corn patties" instead of just "guacamole and tortilla chips."
Signatures are already being gathered for Proposition 228, a November ballot initiative to counter these rules, tentatively entitled Revoking the Law of Unintended Consequences.
Patt Morrison's column appears Wednesdays. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org