Wednesday, February 17, 1999
Section: Front
Edition: Morning Final
Page: 1A
BY HALLYE JORDAN, Mercury News Sacramento Bureau

Elected to state office in historic numbers, pursued by Spanish-language media and exalted as they accompanied Gov. Gray Davis on his fence-mending trip to Mexico, Latino lawmakers have been thrust into a spotlight that leaves some a little uneasy about shortcomings in their Spanish-speaking skills. The products of public school systems that emphasized English, and immigrant parents who wanted their children to assimilate, many of these legislators grew up speaking Spanish as preschoolers but now find themselves wrestling with rusty phrases and verb conjugations. As a result, some Latino lawmakers are scrambling to brush up on their espanol by immersing themselves in Spanish courses in Mexico or surrounding themselves with aides fluent in the language.

"It's part of your culture, your ethnicity," said Assembly Republican leader Rod Pacheco of Riverside, the first Latino GOP leader in the Legislature -- and one who does not speak Spanish. "The fact you speak it, or don't, doesn't define you, but I think the pressure to know it is stronger with the growing number of Latinos in California."

Harry Pachon, president of the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute in Claremont, calls the language of Latinos educated in the United States "espanol de casa," or "house Spanish."

"It's what people like myself and some of the elected officials spoke," Pachon said. "We spoke Spanish at home. But it's the Spanish of 'Pass the salad' or 'Mom, I don't want to go to bed.'"

Now, all grown up and sitting in positions of power, some of these Latino lawmakers are struggling to discuss complicated policy issues such as health care.

Immersion course

Assemblyman Gil Cedillo, D-Los Angeles, headed to the border shortly after the November elections to immerse himself in an intensive, two-week Spanish course at the Center for Bilingual Multicultural Studies in Cuernavaca. Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, California's first Latino elected to a statewide office since 1871, will head to the same school for a one-week course later this month. Neither lawmaker is using state funds to pay for the trips.

In between courses and time spent poring over Spanish-language publications or listening to Latino radio and TV stations, several lawmakers have surrounded themselves with Spanish-speaking aides who help them perfect pat phrases when speaking to Latino audiences.

"There is a concerted effort," said one longtime Democratic Latina aide. "All of the members are looking around and seeing they need to have a bilingual staff person, whether it is here in the Capitol or in their district office. That person takes on the role of providing some translations, tidbits and insight into the Spanish-speaking audience." The Assembly Republican Caucus has a full-time translator on staff and a Spanish-language Web site.

Michael Bustamante, Davis' spokesman, says the governor relies on staffers for key Spanish phrases -- although Bustamante concedes he himself is rusty.

Skills run the gamut

Xochitl Arellano, a reporter for the Univision Spanish-language television network's Sacramento affiliate, said Spanish skills among Latino lawmakers run the gamut, just as they did in 1988, when there were only five.

"It was the same story then: Some could speak, some couldn't,'' she said. "But now that there are 24 of them, there is an array of them that want to and need to, especially if they are in a high-profile position."

Armando Botello, a reporter for the Los Angeles-based La Opinion newspaper, said he prefers interviewing Latino legislators in English because they are more at ease and more eloquent. But he said the Spanish skills of most lawmakers have noticeably improved during the two years the newspaper's Capitol bureau has been open. Both reporters said they doubt Spanish-speaking audiences are offended that some Latino lawmakers cannot speak Spanish.

"Of course they expect you to speak Spanish if you have a Latino surname," Arellano said. But (they understand) . . . you can't just all of a sudden speak it just because it's something you need today."

Several Latino lawmakers have consciously worked to retain their Spanish: Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa, a former Los Angeles labor organizer, "never fully let it go back when he was a kid," said spokeswoman Elena Stern. Some, such as Assemblywoman Denise Moreno Ducheny, D-National City, took Spanish immersion courses in college to retain the language of their grandparents. Others, such as Sen. Hilda Solis, D-El Monte, kept her Spanish skills current by constantly conversing with her family in their primary language.

"The advantage was my parents still speak Spanish to me," Solis said.

The importance of speaking Spanish isn't lost on non-Latino lawmakers, either. Assemblymen Peter Frusetta, the folksy Republican rancher who represents Hollister, and Mike Honda, a San Jose Democrat, speak fluent Spanish.

"It has served me well," said Frusetta, who learned Spanish from his rancher father. In a district in which half the voters have Spanish surnames, "I probably wouldn't be in this office today if not for that."

Honda learned Spanish when he joined the Peace Corps in El Salvador in 1965, and stuck with it. But he understands too well why many Latino lawmakers may not have Spanish skills: He regrets that he cannot speak fluent Japanese, the language he spoke as a child.

"Each language is a world," Honda said. "So if you know more than one, you walk in more than one world."

Luis Arteaga, associate director of the Latino Issues Forum in San Francisco, said Latino lawmakers are trying to improve their Spanish because Spanish-speaking voters are flocking to the polls in record-breaking numbers.

In the past four years, 1 million new Latino voters have registered to vote. In the November general election, Latinos made up 13 percent of the voter turnout.

"I think, pragmatically and politically, many Latino legislators are having to reach into non-English-speaking voting bases that traditionally they did not have to reach out to," Arteaga said. "That's true for all candidates, but I think Latino legislators are under an intense scrutiny.

Pressure mounting

The pressure to perfect Spanish skills has been mounting since 1996, when Cruz Bustamante became the first Latino Assembly speaker in California. The rise of a Latino to such an important post sparked a drive by Spanish-language media to cover the Capitol, set up Sacramento bureaus and assign full-time reporters to the beat.

The emergence of Latinos as a major voting bloc was most apparent last November. Not only did candidates for governor hold the first-ever bilingual debate, but also non-Spanish-speaking candidates turned to bilingual family members to convey their message to an important segment of voters. GOP candidate Dan Lungren's daughter did a campaign ad in Spanish, as did the wife of Democratic primary candidate Al Checchi. "In the precious scramble for votes, if you have two legislators you kind of like and one speaks forcefully in Spanish, that may separate you from the other candidate," Arteaga said. And politicians know that. The Spanish-speaking skills of Texas Gov.George W. Bush, a likely candidate for president in 2000, are not lost on other politicians who know they need to court California's growing Latino population if they want to win in this key state. Predicted Arteaga: "Al Gore is probably practicing on his Spanish right now, too."

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