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More English Classes, \o7 Por Favor

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November 25, 2001|FRANK del OLMO | Frank del Olmo is an associate editor of The Times

So the Census Bureau confirms it: Santa Ana has the highest concentration of Spanish-speaking residents of any major city in the nation. An estimated 74% of residents speak Spanish, and 15% of adults--four times the California average--speak no English at all.

Depending on where you stand, that's bad news or good news. But if you live in Orange County, it's old news.

Orange County and its seat, Santa Ana, always have had immigrants, mostly from Mexico. They help keep the county's big tourism industry going. Their low-cost labor helps build the new homes that sprawl across its former ranch lands. Then there are the gardeners and housekeepers to help keep those new homes looking nice and nannies to care for kids while two-income couples work.

Unfortunately, many political activists in Orange County don't see all that immigrants do for the community.

These conservative activists were the prime movers behind Proposition 187, the 1994 California initiative barring illegal immigrants from public schools, hospitals and other government services. The initiative passed but was nullified by the courts because immigration is a federal, not a state, matter.

But before it faded away, Proposition 187 spawned a backlash of its own as thousands of Latino immigrants decided that they had to protect themselves by becoming citizens and voting against politicians who support measures like Proposition 187.

That is part of my good-news scenario. People who had been living quietly, sometimes even fearfully, in our midst decided they had a stake in local affairs and began to participate. And they did so to an extent never seen, not just in Orange County but throughout California.

Of course, that will not keep alarmists of the bad-news perspective from using the new census findings to propagate a canard about Latino immigrants: They don't learn English.

Where does this wrongheaded notion come from? Perhaps the proliferation of Spanish-language broadcast media is partly responsible.

When I was growing up, there were two rather weak radio stations in the Los Angeles area that broadcast in Spanish.

Now we have affiliates of two Spanish-language networks, Univision and Telemundo, two local channels that broadcast in Spanish, several cable outlets and a dozen radio stations.

This makes life easier for those Latinos who can't speak English--mostly the elderly and single young workers who share living quarters with other unmarried immigrants.

But all that Spanish on the airwaves can create a misapprehension among non-Latinos that Spanish is on an equal footing with English.

Tell that to the thousands of Latino immigrants waiting for a chance to take English-as-a-second-language classes at adult schools. The Santa Ana Community College District's ESL classes are so oversubscribed--14,000 people at 95 sites--that it must borrow classroom space in the evenings at high schools.

Or tell it to the Latino parents pushing their kids to learn English as rapidly as possible.

Linda Kaminski, the chief academic officer for the Santa Ana school district, can quickly enumerate ways her district is pushing to help Latino children learn English, from extended school days to summer school for ESL students. A plan for two years of kindergarten for kids from homes where English isn't spoken is under review by the state.

Sadly, Kaminski also has a wish list of things Santa Ana needs to meet the demand for English classes, from more classroom space to increased state funding for experimental programs.

"The demand for English is huge," says Santa Ana school board member John Palacios. "Especially among adults, I'm not sure we can ever meet it all."

So the problem with Latinos learning English is not that they won't. Too often, it's that they can't get the chance. The sooner they do, the quicker the changes reshaping Orange County will be seen not as a threat but as just the latest wrinkle in the American Dream.

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