It's Monday afternoon at City Hall, and Councilwoman Jan Perry is sneaking an hour between meetings to read a novel by Isabel Allende, the prolific Chilean writer. In the original Spanish.
"¿Almohada?" she asks her tutor in the middle of a sentence.
"Pillow," Oscar Szmuch responds.
Perry hired Szmuch a year ago. He has helped her learn Spanish well enough to converse with native speakers.
Nearly 40% of Los Angeles County residents older than age 5 speak Spanish at home -- about 3.7 million people, according to 2006 estimates by the U.S. Census Bureau. Until recently, however, only a handful of City Council members were bilingual.
Now, council President Eric Garcetti gives almost all of his news conferences bilingually. City Controller Laura Chick and City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo, who is Latino, have participated in Spanish-language immersion programs in Mexico. Perry started holding her news conferences in Spanish and English a few years ago. Her office issues most of its public documents in both languages.
Although far from fluent, Councilwoman Wendy Greuel, who represents parts of the Westside and the San Fernando Valley, increasingly uses Spanish in official business.
"I think people appreciate that you try," Greuel said. "My staff always reminds me to slow down. You do get nervous, particularly wanting to know that your pronunciation is correct."
The city's Spanish-speakers fully appreciate the significance of their native language's penetrating the top levels of city government. But that doesn't stop them from wincing as officials stammer over rolled double r's -- erres -- and struggle with pronunciations.
When she speaks, Perry fearlessly stumbles around, saying lo siento -- "I'm sorry" -- whenever she gets something wrong. She said she can comprehend what someone is saying but sometimes trips up in her eagerness to respond.
A few years ago, she learned one lesson the hard way in front of the television cameras.
"I remember at a press conference saying '¡Estoy muy excitada! '" Excitada, which sounds like "excited" in English, means "sexually aroused."
"Oh, my God!" Perry recalled saying afterward. "I just said that on TV!"
That was a lesson in "false friends," the term linguists use to describe words that sound the same in different languages but have different meanings. For example, the word embarazada, which sounds like "embarrassed" in English, means "pregnant."
"It only took me once to make that mistake," said Perry, 52. "If I was embarazada at my age, it would be a miracle."
On the day of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, then-City Council President Alex Padilla was in charge while Mayor James K. Hahn was in Washington, D.C.
With each police update, Padilla would call a news conference. Hoping to reach as many people as possible, he spoke in English and Spanish.
"That was one of the watershed moments," said Councilman Jose Huizar, whose district includes Boyle Heights and parts of East Los Angeles.
"I think from that point on it was even more accepted for elected officials to speak in Spanish."
A year later, the City Council hired translators for all public meetings. Latino council members increasingly held bilingual news conferences, and a greater emphasis was placed on providing council literature in multiple languages.
Padilla, now a state senator, said using Spanish is politically good for the council members, "but it's great for their constituents."
"It's not just East L.A.," Padilla said of the spread of Spanish. "It's not just California anymore. It's the rest of the nation."
But English-only proponents contend that the increasing use of Spanish in the public sphere undermines the goal of building a unified people.
"It's not healthy for a society to be divided in which a big segment does not speak the language of the majority," said K.C. McAlpin, executive director of the national language organization ProEnglish. "What has worked for this country, and what has made it the most successful multi-ethnic country in the world, has been the melting-pot idea: That you can be a full participant in American citizenship by learning our national language and assimilating."
McAlpin said cities should better fund English as a Second Language programs and praised the 30 states that have adopted "Official English" amendments to their constitutions, including California. A number of cities have also declared English as their official language, including Fillmore, Calif., Pahrump, Nev., Hazelton, Pa., Taneytown, Md., and Oak Point, Texas.
Resolutions or not, many California politicians see votes piling up among Spanish-speakers. According to the Pew Hispanic Research Center, the state's 5 million voting Latinos make up one-fourth of the nation's total Latino vote.
Thus it's no surprise that non-Latino politicians are trying to learn Spanish, said Otto Santa Ana, who researches the sociology of language at UCLA.