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Can you read the signs? Language issues resurface
Los Angeles Times
A dispute in one California city illustrates what is shaping up to be a national political issue as immigrants press their rights and opponents stand up for English as the national tongue.
A recent proposal in Hawthorne, Calif., to require English on most business signs has highlighted growing clashes over language use in workplaces and the public square.
Although such ordinances are no longer a central issue — a 1989 federal court ruling sharply curtailed language restrictions — charges of language discrimination on the job and elsewhere are on the rise, said Anna Park, an attorney with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's Los Angeles office.
Nationally, complaints involving English-only restrictions or language discrimination increased from 74 in 1996 to 336 last year, commission data show. In the Los Angeles district, which covers Southern California, Nevada and Hawaii, 10 charges were filed in the past year, Park said.
One case involves a Spanish-speaking janitor who was fired from a Torrance, Calif., senior care home with English-only rules, Park said. The home is arguing that the language rules are appropriate under the state's patient bill of rights, which guarantees "comfortable" care, she said. But the commission believes the rules do not apply to workers such as janitors, who don't directly deal with patients, Park said. The commission is suing the home in civil court.
"Particularly in Southern California, minority populations are growing and there's almost like a backlash," Park said. "It's only going to get worse and worse ... because of the change in population."
Federal law allows English-only rules solely when needed to promote the "safe or efficient" operation of an employer's business, according to commission guidelines. Employers may not discriminate against a person's foreign accent unless it "materially interferes with job performance."
Rob Toonkel, spokesman for U.S. English Inc., said his organization has been concerned about growing reports of other languages supplanting English. Arizona had established a Spanish-only court, he said, and a Florida county commissioners' meeting was held only in Spanish.
"We're starting to see a de facto second language crop up, which is never how the U.S. developed," said Toonkel, whose group advocates restrictions on foreign languages in the public square as well as more funding for classes in English as a second language.
Keeping the law is one of the top legislative priorities of groups such as the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund.
Most efforts to restrict foreign languages mask "the real intention, which is to deal with resentment toward non-English-speaking newcomers," said John Trasvina, a senior vice president for law and policy for the fund.
He said the U.S. Supreme Court guaranteed constitutional protections to speakers of all languages in a 1923 case striking down local laws banning German lessons in the classroom — rules adopted during rabid anti-German sentiment stemming from World War I.
As for business signs, Monterey Park, Calif., which Asian immigrants transformed into the country's first suburban Chinatown more than two decades ago, made headlines in 1986 when the city passed an ordinance that required all merchants to post signs in English describing the nature of their businesses.
Three years later, a federal court decision struck down a similar Pomona, Calif., ordinance requiring that business signs with foreign characters devote at least 50 percent of the space to English characters. The court said the ordinance was an unconstitutional restriction of free speech and a violation of equal protection laws.
The ruling required public agencies to show a "compelling government interest" before imposing language requirements and then ordered that they be narrowly drawn to address the problem, according to Bonnie Tang, an attorney with the Asian Pacific American Legal Center in Los Angeles.
Several cities today argue that some English on business signs is necessary for public safety. What if there were a fire or shooting and bystanders couldn't read the signs to report the trouble? Such arguments helped Monterey Park and Temple City, Calif., reach a compromise with their business communities to render establishments' names and addresses in the Roman alphabet and Arabic numerals used in English.
Hawthorne Councilwoman Ginny Lambert has a similar goal for her city. It was conceived last month when she drove down the street from her home and saw storefront lettering she couldn't understand.
"Migun. Camas Terapeuticas. Terapia Gratis," read the storefront signage on Hawthorne Boulevard and 130th Street.
Migun is the name of a Korean massage-bed business. The rest of the words tout, in Spanish, free treatment with therapeutic beds. The business uses mostly Spanish because 95 percent of the store's customers are Hispanic, owner Joy Lee explained in perfectly understandable English.
"If you don't speak Spanish, you can't sell anything," said Lee, a native of Korea. She cheerfully added: "Whoever speaks English, we can still help you, no problem."
Where she stands
That's not good enough for Lambert, however, who made the recent proposal for an ordinance to require that all commercial signs — with the exception of restaurants' — include English. The proposal has been referred to the city Planning Commission for a recommendation.
The veteran councilwoman, who says she doesn't have a biased bone in her 73-year-old body, said her Italian immigrant grandfather and father prospered here by reaching out to all customers in English — cutting hair and repairing shoes for a celebrity clientele that included Mickey Rooney and Shirley Temple. Why shouldn't all immigrants have similar opportunities, she asks.
"I'm trying to reach out to all nationalities and help them and help the city," Lambert said.
In the community of 88,000 mostly white, black and Hispanic residents, Hawthorne City Manager Rick Prentice seemed decidedly unenthusiastic about Lambert's proposal. He said that only a handful of the city's 5,000-plus businesses appeared to display foreign-language-only signs and that he did not believe it was government's job to dictate content.
"This is an issue for the business owner," he said. "I think it offends people to be told we're trying to interfere with whatever business plan they have."
Merchants weigh in
But Lambert's proposal seemed to win backing from at least some of the multicultural mix of merchants on Hawthorne Boulevard: Paramjit Singh, a clerk at his brother's Fiji Indian Market who wore the turban of his Sikh faith; Ruth Overton, a Belize native and owner of Heavenly Body Skincare; and Gerald White, an African American barber at Coast Barber Shop.
"If there's something people need, how are they going to know what's in the store if the sign's not in English?" Singh said.
Said White, "You come here, you've got to speak our language."
Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company