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Santa Ana sees an English impatience

Times Staff Writer

In a city where about 80% of residents do not speak English at home, the Santa Ana Chamber of Commerce has initiated a $4.5-million campaign to get 50,000 residents to learn the language over the next four years.

As part of its project, the chamber last month launched an aggressive advertising campaign, with messages urging residents to learn English plastered on buses and at bus shelters, the train station, supermarkets and self-service laundries.

Census statistics show that at least 51% of city residents “speak English less than very well.” More than half the city’s employees speak Spanish, most Asian merchants have learned the language, and nearly every retail business has Spanish-speaking employees.

Business owners need employees who speak English, chamber officials said.

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“Business owners are screaming for workers, but they need them to speak English,” said Mike Weisman, a chamber board member and partner of DGWB Advertising and Communications in Santa Ana, which created the advertising campaign.

Weisman said English proficiency could boost a resident’s income.

“If you can’t speak English, you might not find a good job,” he said. “You might not buy a home. You might not do many things. It’s a problem affecting all of central Orange County.”

In addition to the advertising, teams of people hired by DGWB have been dispatched to the streets to promote the free English classes, which are offered by the Rancho Santiago Community College District.

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Officials with state and national chamber of commerce organizations said they were unaware of another chamber promoting English proficiency in California. Even so, the role of the Santa Ana chamber does not surprise them.

Chambers “solve the riddles of their communities,” said Mick Fleming, president of the American Chamber of Commerce. In Santa Ana, “they are looking at the workforce and seeing that if we don’t do this, our future prosperity is at risk.”

Each year during the four-year campaign, the chamber will spend about $350,000 on marketing and $650,000 on computers that will help students and workers learn English. Other money will be allocated to chamber employees who will administer the campaign.

At Northgate Supermarket, Jimmy Isais, a team leader with the chamber’s program, recently flagged down immigrant shoppers with carts loaded with pork rinds, salsas, tortillas, steaks and diapers.

“Would you like to learn English?” he asked.

Many of the shoppers stopped to get his brochure, which is part of a culturally sensitive campaign designed by DGWB.

Advertisements for the program include photographs of Santa Ana workers, including a farmhand, construction worker and a hotel maid.

The ads suggest learning English can help residents get ahead with messages in Spanish such as “Two Jobs?,” “Does It Take You More Than Two Hours to Get to Work?” and “You Work and Work but You Still Can’t Make It.”

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They are followed by the Spanish-language slogan “Saber Para Subir,” which means “Know to Progress.”

Sheyla Arias, 26, said she had seen the advertisements on the bus and talked with team members at Northgate Supermarket. She works in an auto parts factory where she earns $8.50 an hour. Her sister, who took English and computer classes, now earns $11.

“I know that I need English to make more money, but I don’t know how I can take the classes,” said Arias, the mother of a 3-year-old boy. “It’s so hard because I’m a single parent.”

Javier Hernandez, 21, said he had been in the United States three years. A native of Acapulco, he finished high school in Mexico and then came to Santa Ana.

He works as an office janitor from 3 p.m. to 1 a.m., earning $8.10 an hour. He has looked at supervisorial positions with $13-an-hour salaries but lacks the language skill for the job.

“I know I need English to make more money, but it seems really hard when I work so many hours a day,” he said.

Others, however, say they don’t want to learn English. Some are illegal immigrants who come from small towns in Mexico and did not finish elementary school. “I can’t do it,” said one man who refused to give his name. Even to make more money? “I just can’t.”

Isais said he was surprised at first that some didn’t want to learn English. “I thought everyone would be very excited,” he said.

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But many people were responding to the chamber’s appeal. Eddie Hernandez, chancellor of the Rancho Santiago district, said a hotline highlighted in advertising “is ringing off the hook.”

The college district took more than 350 calls in the month since the campaign began, he said.

The college district, which offers English in 70 classes in various locations, will offer more if demand increases, he said.

Meanwhile, the city of Santa Ana has applied for $1 million in federal funds with the idea of using $250,000 for English classes in its Federal Empowerment Zone, an impoverished area designated by the federal government for extra attention.

Hernandez said that the city’s newest immigrants “need to learn English. The chamber has taken this to a different level by bringing in everyone to help.”

jennifer.delson@latimes.com


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