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Bilingual Issue Drives Recall Battle

September 15, 2002|DANIEL YI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Francisco Gonzalez was angry. All he wants, the Santa Ana father said, is for his two kids to be taught in English. And he wants to kick out of office a school board member accused of improperly supporting bilingual education.

So the burly 25-year-old got up to speak last week at a raucous board meeting of the Santa Ana Unified School District after listening to a score of fellow Latino parents call his views racist.

"I went through bilingual education and it got me nowhere," the delivery man said. Gonzalez then switched to Spanish, his voice quivering, jaw clenched.

"Don't think I'm a racist; my parents are from [the Mexican state of] Jalisco," he said, turning to a group of Latino parents. Many had come to support trustee Nativo Lopez, target of a vituperative recall campaign for his alleged defiance of a state law restricting bilingual education.

"I can speak in your language," Gonzalez said. But "I want parents to have the right to have their children learn in the language they choose."

Lopez, an immigrants rights activist, and his supporters say they want that too. If parents want their children to learn in Spanish, that also should be their right.

Four years after passage of Proposition 227, which greatly curtailed bilingual education, the choice of which language is spoken in classrooms still evokes strong emotions in a city where three-fourths of the population speaks Spanish.

In Lopez, an outspoken critic of the 1998 ballot measure, the opponents of bilingual education have found a target.

Recall backers accuse him of encouraging parents to apply for waivers to Proposition 227 regulations, thereby keeping bilingual education alive in the district. Lopez denies the charges, and notes that just 10% of the district's 62,000 students have waivers, a percentage that has changed little in the last four years.

Backers of the recall against Lopez submitted nearly 15,000 signatures to the county Registrar of Voters on Thursday, setting the stage for a likely showdown at the polls early next year. If at least 8,624 signatures are verified, the school board must place a recall vote on the ballot, probably early next year.

The Santa Ana battle has even brought in the familiar face of Ron Unz, the businessman behind Proposition 227, whose group has donated money and equipment to the recall campaign.

The campaign against Lopez "may have enormous national implications," Unz said in the newsletter of his Palo Alto-based group, English for the Children. "If it is opposition to 'English' that finally ends [Lopez's career] in one of America's most Latino, Democratic, and non-English-speaking cities, then perhaps that issue is indeed a magic political bullet."

Unz's group is backing anti-bilingual education measures on the ballot in Colorado and Massachusetts.

In Santa Ana, the conflict is as much about bilingual education as it is about Lopez. The 50-year-old is the longtime head of Hermandad Mexicana Nacional in Santa Ana, a nonprofit group that lobbies for and provides services to thousands of immigrants.

Few public figures in Orange County spark such extremes of hatred and admiration.

Many immigrants see Lopez, elected to the board in 1996, as their sole voice because they cannot vote. Critics, however, say he pits Latinos against whites and uses immigrants to advance his political career.

Lopez dismisses recall proponents as a coalition of few disgruntled parents backed by residents who oppose building an elementary school near their affluent area.

Recall supporters also campaign for defeat in November of John Palacio and Nadia Davis, who are seeking reelection. The two board members supported the elementary school project. Lopez's term expires in 2004.

"It is not this innocent-sounding thing that they want their children to learn English," he said. What his opponents really want is to kill the school construction project, Lopez said. Bilingual education is just a "knee-jerk, visceral issue" to that end.

Visceral it is.

Since the recall campaign began with a petition filed in March, the two camps have traded insults and accusations on streets and in parking lots.

Recall proponents accused Lopez supporters of trying to intimidate them as they sought to gather signatures. Lopez backers say the other side has made racist remarks denigrating immigrants. Both sides deny acting improperly.

Santa Ana police have responded to at least a half-dozen disturbance calls in the last month related to the recall effort. On Wednesday, Lopez and Palacio skirmished with recall signature gatherers at Santa Ana College.

According to police, a Los Angeles man was cited for misdemeanor assault after he allegedly spat toward Palacio, who was videotaping the signature-gatherers.

The recall campaign began with a small group of parents from Edison Elementary School. They complained that their children are floundering academically in a sea of Spanish-speaking children and complacent school administrators.

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