Residents began circulating a petition this week for a citywide vote to declare English Monterey Park’s official language--an action that both opponents and supporters agree is without practical effect but carries a message.
Frank J. Arcuri, who drew up the petitions, said the measure “won’t require anybody to do anything,” but could stimulate a dialogue on human relations, encourage newcomers to learn English and ultimately unify the community. But Councilwoman Lily Lee Chen said the measure offends Asians and Latinos and is “very divisive.” Of Monterey Park’s 60,000 residents, about 40% are Asian and 30% are Latino, according to city estimates.
English has been declared the official language by two other California cities and by five states. The California Legislature has rejected such a proposal, but there is a movement under way to put the issue to voters as a state constitutional amendment next year.
In Monterey Park, 10% of the city’s 22,657 registered voters must sign petitions to put the measure on the ballot in next April’s municipal election. The petition says:
“English is the language that we use in Monterey Park when we want everyone to understand our ideas. This is what unites us as Americans, even though some of our citizens speak other languages. Let us make English our official language as a symbol of unity.”
Arcuri said, “We don’t propose to make it a requirement that only English be spoken on the streets.” Nor would the proposal force businesses to take down signs in Chinese, although Arcuri said such signs are resented and are one reason for declaring English the official language.
Councilwoman Chen said the proposal goes against all the efforts the city has made to build harmonious relations amid racial and ethnic diversity. She said she can see no reason to vote on the language issue.
“It’s totally unnecessary,” she said. “The council meetings are in English. Every (city) document is in English. How would this proposal benefit anyone?”
Arcuri, a 44-year-old photographer and sculptor who has lived in Monterey Park for 15 years, said that although he has been accused of racism, his goal is to unify, rather than divide the community.
Only by sharing a common language can all segments of the community talk directly to each other, he said.
Mayor Rudy Peralta said the proposal exploits a resentment against business signs in Chinese characters.
“I understand that some persons feel threatened when they see a heavy influx of non-English signage” Peralta said. But, he said, “In time, the sign problem will correct itself. To suddenly proclaim that English is the official language is preposterous. I don’t think it will accomplish anything.”
Peralta said the city’s task is to move Asians into the mainstream, and that can be done “not through confrontation, but by approaching it in a more subtle way.”
Peralta said Monterey Park has been changing through an influx of Asian immigrants but “I don’t think we’re heading toward (becoming) a new Chinatown or Little Taipei.” Monterey Park is likely to remain racially and ethnically mixed, Peralta said, and harmony can be promoted by working together.
The mayor said the city addressed the problem of Chinese signs earlier this year by adopting an ordinance requiring businesses to use English in their signs or to list their address or trade name in Arabic numbers and the Roman alphabet. It was, the mayor said, a “soft ordinance,” carefully drawn to protect free speech of business owners while responding to the objections of those who felt excluded by signs in Chinese.
Arcuri said the sign ordinance is an example of the way the council majority has ducked problems rather than faced them, settling for an inoffensive ordinance rather than tough legislation.
Businesses that put all or most of their signs in Chinese are intentionally discouraging patronage by persons who cannot read Chinese, he said. “This is discrimination,” he said, adding that he believes that “If anyone wants to do business in America, they should use English in all advertising to the general public.”
Chen said Arcuri is mistaken if he believes that Chinese businessmen are deliberately discouraging patronage by non-Asians. “They want to do business,” she said. “They would be foolish to keep non-Asians out.”
Councilman David Almada said he thinks the city should go further in requiring English on signs, but Chen said the city went as far as it legally could without curbing free speech.
Almada said that English is a unifying language for what has always been a nation of immigrants, but that declaring it the official language would just create controversy and accomplish nothing. Almada added that foreign languages can enrich the community, noting that the “Monterey” in Monterey Park is a Spanish word meaning the king’s mountain.
Sponsoring the petition campaign with Arcuri is Barry Hatch, a 48-year-old teacher who has lived in Monterey Park nearly all his life. Hatch said that he learned Chinese while living in Hong Kong for three years and teaches in a school that is predominantly Latino, and that his support for English as the official language “is not a racist thing.”
“Number one, I’m a patriot,” Hatch said. “I feel that for our country to survive we need a common denominator. The ability to communicate in English is vital.”
Hatch said he regards Chinese signs on businesses as “a real slap in the face for those who cannot read Chinese. We feel like we’re living in a foreign country.”
Arcuri and Hatch have been working with national and state organizations that were started by former Sen. S. I. Hayakawa.
Steve Workings, a government relations associate for Hayakawa’s national organization, U.S. English, said five states--Indiana, Kentucky, Nebraska, Virginia and Illinois--have declared English the official language. Similar action has been taken by Dade County and St. Petersburg Beach in Florida and by the cities of Alameda and Fillmore in California, Workings said.
The California English Campaign, based in San Francisco, will begin circulating petitions in January to put a constitutional amendment on the November, 1986, ballot to declare English the official language. Hayakawa is honorary chairman of the California English Campaign and two of his former aides, Stanley Diamond and Assemblyman Frank Hill (R-Whittier), are leading the effort.
Hill said, “The people who feel strongest about it are those who have an immigrant background.” People who were immigrants themselves or are the children of immigrants realize that learning English is a key to moving ahead in this country, Hill said.
Meanwhile, Hill said, there is concern that English is losing its primacy because people can apply for driver’s licenses in Chinese and seek welfare in Spanish.
Diamond said many of those who support English as an official language have been motivated by their objection to bilingual education in schools with large Latino enrollments. He said the goal should be to teach youngsters English and to move them into the mainstream, not create a bilingual, bicultural state.
More than 633,000 signatures of registered voters will be needed to put a constitutional amendment on the state ballot.
In Monterey Park, petitioners have 180 days to gather signatures, but the city clerk’s office has advised them to file by early November in order to allow time for the city to verify signatures before the deadline for printing next April’s ballot. If 10% of the voters sign the petition, the City Council must either adopt the measure or put it on the next regular election ballot.