Immigrants Face Struggle to Live Without English


When Irais Flores came to Santa Ana from Mexico two years ago, she envisioned earning a decent living by cleaning other people’s homes or taking care of their children. But month after month, she found herself unable to find work because she does not speak English.

Now, she and her husband, Luis, carve their daily living from selling pumpkin seeds, hair ribbons and yo-yos to passersby in a grocery store parking lot. Flores, 35, the mother of two teen-agers, said she learned from others that non-English speakers fortunate enough to find work seem to get paid less for the same work than those who speak English.

“You want to learn English, but it is very difficult because you have to work hard to support the household,” said Flores, who sat on a milk carton under a tree as herhusband measured a cup of pumpkin seeds for a customer. “One has to work hard, long hours because life is so hard. I just don’t have the time.”


Getting through each day can be a struggle for immigrants who come to the United States with a This story was reported by Times staff writers Rose Kim, Thuan Le, Gebe Martinez and Catherine Gewertz. It was written by Gewertz.

limited command of English, like trying to tie a shoelace with one hand. But Flores’ story is hardly unique; the immigrant influx into Southern California makes such tales increasingly common.

In Orange County, a veritable symphony of languages is spoken. Newly compiled 1990 U.S. Census figures show that of the 2.2 million Orange County residents over 5 years old, nearly one in three speaks a language other than English at home. Of those, more than half say they speak English poorly. Among the non-English speakers, 61% speak Spanish, one in four speak an Asian or Pacific Island tongue and nearly 14% speak other languages. These patterns roughly parallel those for California as a whole.

Lack of English skills creates challenges for immigrants as well as the English-speakers who interact with them. It can spawn awkward divisions in families, as generations reach for a language both young and old can understand. It triggers a call for bilingual teachers in the schools--where thousands of non-English-speaking students enter each year--and for a tremendous multilingual overhaul of the English-speaking bureaucracy. Difficulty in speaking English can also create barriers between communities, with many immigrants remaining among those who understand them, and hostility in judgmental or impatient English-speakers.

While the census numbers frame the portrait of immigrant life here, the real texture of the immigrant experience, with its daily frustrations, rewards and absurdities, comes from the people who live it. People like Flores, and like Ji Yun Kim.

Kim, a Garden Grove homemaker who emigrated from Korea, said her limited English dashed her plans for a vacation to Mexico recently. Stopped by border police, Kim was unable to explain that the name on her green card was different from the name on her driver’s license because she was recently divorced. Frustrated and out of options, she drove home.


Speaking English is less of a worry in Garden Grove’s Koreatown, the commercial and residential center for the county’s Koreans. Here, Koreans can find many of the familiar sounds, sights and tastes of their homeland. A local market stocks raw, marinated oysters, Korean pancakes, an entire octopus wrapped in cellophane, and kimchi, a spicy, pickled cabbage. Even the local Ramada Inn coffee shop features Korean dishes.

“Days go by when I don’t speak any English,” said Seon D. Kim, Orange County bureau chief for the Korea Times. “Many of the first-generation Korean immigrants do the same things they do in Korea. They eat the same food and follow the same customs.”

About 700 Korean merchants have been drawn to the area, many relieved they do not have to worry about speaking English, Kim said.

Although the familiarity of a common language and customs are reassuring, many still go out of their way to learn English. Ji Yun Kim said she is enrolled in an English class so she can gain a measure of self-sufficiency.

“If something unjust happens, like a traffic ticket I’m not supposed to get, I want to be able to defend myself, not just spend a lot of money to hire an attorney to help me,” she said.

Those who do not speak English well can find themselves the target of hostility from English-speakers. Flores, for instance, said she is all too familiar with the angry looks of store clerks who seem to “look down” at those who do not speak English.


“Maybe they talk about you, but you don’t understand,” she said. “But you look at their face and you can tell you did not sit well with that person, as though they are saying, ‘Oh, those people,’ in a disrespectful tone.”

Rusty Kennedy, executive director of the county Human Relations Commission, said he has heard stories of such prejudice time and time again.

“There is a real misperception that they immigrate and that for generations they resist learning English,” he said. “There isn’t an immigrant I know who doesn’t have at the top of their list a desire to speak English.”

Many Americans, when they hear a foreign tongue spoken, conclude that those immigrants “do not want to fit in,” that they are here illegally, and that they will take resources from their children or displace them from jobs, Kennedy said. Such fears and resentment are unfounded and based on ignorance, he said.

The acquisition of English comes much harder to those who come to the United States as adults, Kennedy said. And yet, many immigrants plunk down their scarce dollars and stand in long lines to enroll in English classes, often taken at night after a long day’s work.

Their children--second-generation Americans--typically grow up bilingual, speaking their parents’ native tongue as well as the English they learn in school and often acting as translators for their parents. Third-generation children most often are English-only speakers, finding their grandparents’ language awkward or incomprehensible, he said.


Toan Van Vu, who came from Vietnam a dozen years ago, said he has learned enough English to converse with the few non-Vietnamese customers in his Vietnamese restaurant on 1st Street in Santa Ana. He said his biggest remaining language difficulties are within his own family, where his five children range in age from 13 to 27.

“My children speak a lot of English at home,” Vu said. “Sometimes I tell them something in Vietnamese, and they can’t understand, so I have to mix in English words. And sometimes they try so hard to describe something to my wife and me in Vietnamese, and they just give up and shake their heads.”

Hopefully, that gap will be narrowed as two of his children learn more Vietnamese in a language class they are taking at a local community center, Vu said.

Ginger Lee, 39, who immigrated to Arkansas in 1968, said she has not been fluent in Vietnamese for 20 years. She said she forgot the language after years of “living with blond hair and blue eyes only.” Arriving in Orange County five years ago, she said, she was wordless when relatives who recognized her on the street spoke to her in Vietnamese.

“I just stared at them,” Lee said. “I didn’t know what to say.”

Even as they attempt to make their way in a predominantly English-speaking world, immigrants find their battle to master English a daily struggle.

“I get tired of carrying a dictionary around with me all the time,” said Tuan Nguyen, 18, a student at Orange Coast College. “I’m trying to learn computers. The words are so hard.”


Nguyen and his friends, sipping French coffee and smoking cigarettes at a Vietnamese coffeehouse in Westminster, agreed that everyday chores that are simple for English-speakers, such as obtaining a driver’s license or reading a map, can become monumental undertakings for them and their families.

“It takes so long for me to find words in English still,” said Tien Tran, 28, who immigrated to the United States in 1983.

Flores says her inability to learn English means that she has to search for a translator to accomplish everyday tasks such as enrolling her children in school or calling a utility repairman. Judith Garcia, a four-year resident of Anaheim, said she speaks enough English to get by but relies a lot on her English-speaking husband.

Limited English skills can also handicap an immigrant in times of emergency because many law enforcement and medical personnel do not speak Spanish.

John Palacio, Orange County director for the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said his agency often finds itself providing translation services in such situations, even though that is not the organization’s chief function.

Difficulty in speaking English can sometimes circumscribe an immigrant’s world, making him uncomfortable in parts of town dominated by native English-speakers. Tran works in a tailor shop in Little Saigon and does not venture into the foreign world--mainstream American society--unless absolutely necessary, he said.


“I don’t even like to go to American restaurants so much because I’d have to order. But Denny’s is OK. I’m familiar with the menus of the late-night restaurants,” he said with a smile.

Day to day, month to month, those who are less than fluent in English somehow find a way to get along, by mingling in English-speaking society, or keeping well within their native communities, or some combination.

English as a Second Language Among Orange County residents at least 5 years old, about one in five (17%) does not speak English “very well”. Most of those who do not speak English at home are Spanish speakers: Language Used at Home if Not English: Spanish: 61.1% Asian / Pacific Island: 25.1% Other: 13.8% Nearly one-quarter of Orange County residents surveyed sasy they were born outside the United States, a substantial increase since 1980. Fifty-six percent of the county’s foreign-born population arrived here during the 1980s. Born Outside the United States: 1980: 13.3% 1990: 23.9% Source: U.S. Census Bureau