A Green Big Bird? : 'Plaza Sesamo,' the Spanish-language version of 'Sesame Street,' is prospering in the U.S. amid debate over whether the program hurts or helps bilingualism.

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Southland children know that if they want to watch "Sesame Street" weekend mornings, all they must do is tune in to KCET-TV Channel 28 at 6:30 a.m. But if perchance they flick the TV on a little earlier, they might feel they're watching their favorite show through the looking glass.

Yes, there's a funky bird that looks like Big Bird, but he's a parrot and he's green. There are some Muppets that bear resemblance to the familiar Elmo and Oscar, but they have names like Pancho and Lola.

And there's a lot of talking and singing going on, but it's all in Spanish.

Welcome to the world of "Plaza Sesamo," where children learn how to count uno, dos, tres instead of "one, two, three," where colors are rojo, blanco y azul instead of "red, white and blue," and where the street is not a street at all, but a plaza--a colorful town square that is supposed to be around the corner from Sesame Street.

It has been almost a year since the Spanish-language version of "Sesame Street" made its debut in the United States. During that time, amid a climate of anti-immigrant sentiment and increasing calls of "English only" at school and work, "Plaza Sesamo" has thrived.

And while the producers initially had braced themselves for an onslaught of criticism against an educational children's show in Spanish, even some staunch opponents of bilingual education concede that "Plaza Sesamo" has its merits.

The program--a co-production of Children's Television Workshop, which produces "Sesame Street," and Televisa, the big Mexican network--was initially test-marketed last April on PBS and Univision stations in Los Angeles, Dallas and Miami. Univision is the country's leading Spanish-language TV network and is seen locally on KMEX-TV Channel 34.

The run was successful and, on Dec. 11, "Plaza Sesamo" went national. It is now seen on 25 PBS stations and 11 Univision-affiliated stations that reach 92% of the nation's Latino households. Univision says it is the only Spanish-language educational program specifically designed for preschoolers.

Perhaps more significant, "Plaza Sesamo" is the only foreign-language version of "Sesame Street" that has ever aired in the United States.

"Our mission is to educate all kids," says Gary Nell, senior vice president of corporate affairs for CTW, which co-produces "Sesame Street" in 15 languages around the world. "And the fact is, in the U.S., especially in cities like Los Angeles, there's an enormous number of Spanish-speaking households."

"Plaza Sesamo," which is produced in Mexico, has been airing in that country and in much of Latin America since 1970. Its arrival in the United States is not only a coup for Univision, but also an acknowledgment that Spanish is a prominent language in the United States and that more children are growing up bilingual.

"We support programs like 'Plaza Sesamo' because they promote literacy in the home and encourage students to become proficient readers," says Rosalia Salinas, president of the California Assn. for Bilingual Education. "The opportunity to have this show in a language that [Spanish speakers] understand will increase literacy in California. Those literacy skills acquired in Spanish will transfer to English and result in students literate in two languages, a critical skill in California now and in the future."

This transference of literacy skills is also touted by Univision officials as one of the show's strong points. In a prepared statement on the merits of "Plaza Sesamo," the network cites research indicating that non-English-speaking children will learn English faster if they are first given several years of instruction in their native language.

It is a claim some educators flatly reject.

"If the point of 'Plaza Sesamo' is to teach English, then it is not serving a purpose," says Gloria Matta Tuchman, a first-grade teacher with the Santa Ana Unified School District who has crusaded against bilingual education for the past 12 years.

Matta Tuchman argues that bilingual education--where students are initially taught in their native tongue and then transitioned into English--actually delays the learning of English.

However, adds Matta Tuchman, who is fluent in English and Spanish, "I have nothing against television programs in other languages. I think it's parental choice if parents want their children to watch [educational programs] in whatever language, whether for entertainment purposes or to learn another language.

"But as far as using 'Plaza Sesamo' in my classroom, I think it's entertainment and I'm not in the entertainment industry."

But kids do watch the show in both languages, according to CTW's Nell. On PBS stations, "Plaza Sesamo" leads into "Sesame Street," and, Nell says, "overwhelmingly, kids watch both versions. What we tested was whether ["Plaza"] was drawing kids away from the English version, and it wasn't doing that."

And as long as kids are learning English, people like Stanley Diamond are happy. Diamond is chairman of the California English Campaign, a San Francisco-based organization that advocates English as the official language of the state and also calls for bilingual education reform and the elimination of native language instruction.

"It is critical that all our immigrant children be able to function in English, for their own future and to be able to participate in this society," says Diamond, whose own children were raised speaking English and Spanish. "If 'Plaza Sesamo' fits the educational needs of Spanish-speaking children, that's fine. In a sense, more power to the kids. But those children should be able to function in English."

"We learn languages as a matter of predisposition, from being exposed to them and from having the need to communicate," says Reynaldo Macias, a professor of education at UC Santa Barbara and the director of the University of California Minority Research Institute.

"Mere exposure doesn't mean we'll learn a language," Macias adds. "With 'Plaza Sesamo,' the most important thing is that kids [who are viewing it] already speak Spanish. That's why they watch the program."

That more kids already speak Spanish only serves to make "Plaza Sesamo" more popular. According to the Nielsen Hispanic Stations Index, the series attracted viewers in about 66,000 Latino households a day in Los Angeles County in June 1995. By January that number had grown to nearly 100,000 households a day.

Does this all mean that in the future we might see other versions of "Sesame Street" airing in the United States?

Anything is possible, says CTW's Nell. "Our view is that if there's a demand to serve another language and we have it available and it's cost-effective, then we'll try to do it. But we're obviously not trying to replace 'Sesame Street.' We're trying to reach out and bring in other kids."

* "Plaza Sesamo" airs at 8 a.m. weekdays on KMEX-TV Channel 34 and at 6 a.m. Saturday and Sunday on KCET-TV Channel 28.

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