It was the emotional and divisive issue of bilingual education that seemed to draw many Santa Ana voters to the polls Tuesday for a special election to recall school trustee Nativo V. Lopez.
Recall organizers have accused the immigrants' rights activist of, among other things, improperly promoting bilingual education despite passage of Proposition 227, which called for most California students to be taught exclusively in English. Lopez insists he is simply ensuring that parents know they can request that their child be taught in their native tongue under provisions of the 1998 measure.
The arguments -- pro and con -- resonated with many voters interviewed Tuesday at polling places around the heavily Latino city, which has the nation's highest concentration of Spanish-speaking residents of any city its size.
Evelio Tirado, whose two sons attended bilingual classes in Santa Ana elementary schools and went on to graduate from Pomona College and the University of San Diego, vouches for bilingual education.
"Enrolling my children in bilingual education was the best decision I made for them," said Tirado, 60, a native of Nayarit, Mexico, who became a U.S. citizen in 1995.
"Bilingual classes are good for our community and our country. Anglo people don't understand the issue. They don't understand that bilingual classes help many children. Without them, you'd have a lot more kids dropping out of school," she added after voting for Lopez at the Canaan Presbyterian Church polling place in southeast Santa Ana.
Steve Baur, who accused Lopez's critics of being on "a witch hunt," said immigrant children need bilingual education.
"It makes sense to begin teaching them in Spanish until they gradually improve and become proficient in English," said Baur, 47, who voted against Lopez's recall at a polling place in a downtown senior citizens center.
Louis Shanks, born in Spain, says he knows firsthand that English immersion works.
Now 50, Shanks said he spoke only Spanish when he was plunked into an English-only first-grade classroom by his adoptive American parents.
Bilingual education "holds children back if they don't have the same opportunities as other children who are learning English from the start," said Shanks, who voted to recall Lopez at the district's Greenville Fundamental School near the city's border with Costa Mesa.
Manuel Carino, 60, also voted to recall Lopez, whom he described as an opportunist who appeals to a small constituency and is not representative of the larger Latino community.
Bilingual education, Carino charged, is part of "a formula for Latino politicians [that includes] corruption and oppression of their constituents."
Lopez supporter Berta Hernandez doesn't believe in Spanish-only classes. In fact, she rejected them for her daughters, now 23, 19 and 13. "I said, 'No, we live in the U.S. and everyone has to learn English.' "
After two or three years of classes in both English and Spanish, they were ready to be taught solely in English. And now, said the 43-year-old native of Michoacan, "They read, write and speak Spanish and English equally well."
Several voters said they were confused by the Spanish-language ballot.
One Lopez supporter walked out of the polling place and told a waiting friend he had voted "yes." But a look of incredulity spread across his face when the friend explained he'd actually voted to oust Lopez from office.