Latino leaders hope bilingual ed referendum spurs voter drive
By Margaret Smith
Sentinel and Enterprise October 17, 2002
LEOMINSTER -- Thelma Alcala, 19, will vote Nov. 5 in her first election, because
"one vote could make a difference."
Alcala filled out a voter registration form Tuesday when Spanish American Center
staff brought it to the home of her
mother, Maria Flores, 58, a Guatemalan native.
Alcala said her opposition to Question 2 on this year's ballot -- a proposal to
overhaul bilingual education -- gave her
added incentive to register.
"It's something that hit home for me," said the California-born Alcala, who was
in two years of transitional bilingual
education after her family moved to the area when she was 6.
Going to an all-English classroom for the first time "was scary," but she said
bilingual education prepared her for the
change. Today, she speaks English with ease.
In their ongoing efforts to increase Latino voter participation, Latino
advocates hope that Question 2 will spur more of
them to go to the polls this year.
The question calls for a one-year English-language immersion program for
children up to age 10, but parents or
guardians can obtain waivers in some cases.
For children over 10, the proposal allows for alternatives to immersion,
including transitional classes.
The proposal is also called the Unz Initiative, after California businessman Ron
Unz, who spearheaded efforts to get
the question on the ballot this year in Massachusetts and Colorado.
Many agencies serving Latinos have criticized the proposal as inflexible.
But many Latinos have welcomed reforms recently passed by the Legislature.
"Whoever comes into that agency, we try to emphasize to them to vote 'no' on
Question 2," said Neddy Latimer,
director of the Spanish American Center, which conducts yearly voter
Latimer said no one in support of Question 2 has approached her about leaving
brochures or other materials at the
center. Despite her strong feelings, she said, "This is a choice that people
have to make. It's going to be up to the
people when they vote."
While Latino students constitute the majority of bilingual education students in
the state, Question 2 proponents have
made limited attempts to target Latino voters specifically.
"I can say firsthand for my experience in Chelsea that they do not vote. They
are not legally citizens," said Lincoln J.
Tamayo, state chairman of English for the Children, Unz's non-profit
Tamayo, the former principal of Chelsea High School and a native of Cuba, was a
finalist for Fitchburg school
superintendent post but bowed out to take another job offer.
Rather than distributing pamphlets or holding rallies, Tamayo said he finds it
more effective to spread their word
through the media and Republican gubernatorial candidate Mitt Romney.
Tamayo has written pieces for El Mundo, a Spanish-language newspaper, and
appeared on Revista Hispana, a
Spanish-language show on WHDH-TV Channel 7.
Asked if he is concerned about opponents' grass-roots efforts, he said, "That is
absolutely typical. They think that by
having their activists get together and work with 30, 40 and 50 people at once
and having nice, loud rallies, they will
get the vote."
Each year, the center gets Spanish-language voter-regisration forms from
Leominster City Hall to offer to clients who
come to the center. Center staff also go to families' homes, as they did
Tuesday, and have registration drives such as
the one held at this year's Johnny Appleseed Festival.
Over the years, they have registered about 1,500 people. But this year, despite
the ballot question, the number of
those registering has been modest.
As of Tuesday, about 11 had registered for this year's election. But the
center's Latimer remains optimistic. "We know
that the Spanish-speaking community is underrepresented," she said. "The lack of
leadership is a serious problem. Our
goal is to work with the unregistered voters and empower them."
Among the Latinos eligible to vote are 3.5 million Puerto Ricans living in the
United States. An initiative spurred by
Puerto Rico Gov. Sila M. Caldern is under way to get more of them to vote.
This year marked the start of Inscrbete y vota -- literally, "register and vote"
--a three-year, non-partisan
voter-registration campaign estimated to cost between $4 and $6 million.
"Only 40 percent of Puerto Ricans vote here, as opposed to 80 percent in Puerto
Rico," said Jos Mass, regional
director for the Puerto Rican Federal Affairs Administration in New England.
Between 60,000 and 70,000 Puerto Ricans have been registered through the
program, including 7,000 in
Massachusetts, Mass said.
While Question 2 may galvanize some voters, Mass said program participants are
instructed not to pressure registrants
in making their choices. If registrants ask for information, Mass said they
should be given unbiased material, such as
flyers on both sides of an issue or all the candidates running in a particular
Latimer, a Puerto Rican native, said the center hopes to work in partnership
with the program next year.
A federal law passed in 1917 gave all Puerto Ricans U.S. citizenship. However,
only those who are residents of a state
can participate in federal elections. Puerto Rico has one, non-voting member in
Congress. "Ultimately, those who
have the most influence come from the mainland," Mass said.
Alcala realizes that in voting, she will help fulfill the dreams of her parents.
Her mother's sunny home is decorated with photos of her children and artwork
reflecting their Guatemalan and
Mexican heritage. A picture in the kitchen, done in bright blue, pink, and
yellow yarn, depicts Mayan Indian women
with long black braids selling fruit, flowers and tortillas.
Alcala laments the poverty of her ancestral homelands. "My mom says I'm lucky,
being born here. She said, 'You don't
have to go through the whole naturalization process.' We've gone to Guatemala,
and we've gone to Mexico."
When her 12-year-old brother gets fussy about dinner, Alcala said, "My mother
reminds him about the kids in
Guatemala. Living here, I don't think we always know how it is in other