In L.A., a second language at city hall
Los Angeles Times
April 17, 2008
LOS ANGELES -
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.
Szmuch a year ago. He has helped her learn Spanish well enough to converse with
Nearly 40 percent 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
Now, council President Eric Garcetti gives almost all of his news conferences
bilingually. City Controller Laura Chick and City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo, who
is Hispanic, 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 increasingly uses Spanish in
"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
"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,
"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, 2001, terrorist attacks, then-City Council President
Alex Padilla was in charge while then-Mayor Jim 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. "I think
from that point on it was even more accepted for elected officials to speak in
A year later, the City Council hired translators for all public meetings.
Hispanic council members increasingly held bilingual news conferences, and a
greater emphasis was placed on providing council literature in multiple
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 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 Hispanics make up one-fourth of the nation's total Hispanic vote.
Thus it's no surprise that non-Hispanic politicians are trying to learn Spanish,
said Otto Santa Ana, who researches the sociology of language at UCLA.
"There's now a real recognition," Santa Ana said, "that there's a whole other
language and civilization at your doorstep."
The real challenge for politicians, said Christina Rodriguez, a professor
studying immigration law and policy at New York University's School of Law, is
to follow up their new language skills with substantive policies that serve
their Spanish-speaking constituents.
"Once voters reach a certain point, they expect much more than just a cultural
nod," Rodriguez said. "They would expect it to be backed up in an expression of
interest in what the population's concerns actually are."
Greuel said her linguistic ambition is modest: to converse more freely in
Spanish with native speakers. But her real concern, she said, is her 4½-year-old
son Thomas, whom she is trying to raise bilingually with help from her Hispanic
Each night, Greuel and Thomas learn a new Spanish word. One night it was 'ojos'
(eyes); another it was 'puerta' (door).
On a rainy morning early this year at Nevin Elementary School just south of
downtown Los Angeles, Perry swung by a parent-council meeting to congratulate
the school for raising its state standardized test score by 28 points.
The school has 800 students, about 90 percent of whom are Hispanic, and the
parent-council meetings are held in Spanish, with English translation. Perry
spoke in English and Spanish, with some prepared talking points.
But the moment of truth came during a 10-minute question-and-answer session,
when the councilwoman was subjected to native Spanish-speakers' fast and easy
command of the language.
Felicina Villanueva, whose son and daughter attend Nevin, complained to Perry
that cars parked overnight on the street in front of the school create morning
traffic headaches when parents try to drop off their kids.
"¿Adonde?" Where? Perry said.
"Alrededor de la escuela." Around the school, Villanueva said.
"¿En que dia?" On what days? Perry said.
"En la mañana, todos los dias." In the morning, every day, Villanueva said.
"¿Oeste o norte de la escuela? ¿A la derecha o izquierda?" West or north of the
school's entrance? To the right or left of it? Perry said.
"Es enfrente." It's in front, Villanueva said.
"OK, I'll look into it," Perry said.
Villanueva later said she was surprised by Perry's Spanish skills.
"I think she did pretty well," Villanueva said. "It's not perfect, but it
Perry said she doesn't know when she'll stop her tutoring lessons, but she
shakes off the idea of traveling to Latin America as her colleagues did to
participate in a Spanish immersion program.
"I don't need to," she said. "I just walk into my district."