Speaking out against `English' comments

Response: Immigrants who speak limited English are frustrated and angry about remarks recently made by Comptroller Schaefer and Governor Ehrlich.

May 11, 2004|By Jason Song | Jason Song,SUN STAFF

Norma Saenz struggles with English.

"Sometimes, I talk to people, and I can tell they're not understanding me," she says.

But Saenz, a Mexico native, had no trouble reading between the lines of statements by Comptroller William Donald Schaefer, who unleashed a tirade last week against Marylanders who don't speak English and Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s pronouncement the next day that multiculturalism is "bunk."

"It's like [Ehrlich's] saying: `What are you doing over here? Why did you come to this country?'" said Saenz, the co-owner of Angelica's Party Accessories on Broadway in Fells Point. "It's like he thinks we're from another planet."

The controversy began Wednesday when Schaefer opened a meeting of the state Board of Public Works with a diatribe about his trouble placing an order at a fast-food restaurant because of the counter staff's limited knowledge of English. "This is the United States. I think they ought to adjust to us," Schaefer said.

The next day, Ehrlich, in a radio interview, said he agreed with the comptroller. Ehrlich called multiculturalism "bunk" and "crap."

The officials' comments have stung many immigrants.

"It hurts," said Mario Diaz, a native of El Salvador who lives in Patterson Park. "A lot of us work very hard to contribute to society, even if we don't speak English. I thought [Ehrlich] would respect that."

Few immigrants dispute that people living in America need to speak English. But it's a skill that takes time to develop.

"We emphasize that to Koreans. This is a new country, and they should try to learn the language and the customs," said David Kim, president of the Korean-American Grocers and Licensed Beverage Association, a nonprofit group based in Baltimore.

Giovanni Ercole, co-owner of Giovanni's Tutti Gusti in Highlandtown, said: "To be successful here and to sell your product, you need to speak English."

Ercole said he studied English during his youth in Naples, Italy. But other immigrants say they didn't have that opportunity.

Saenz and her husband, Ramiro Medina, for example, immigrated to the United States nearly 20 years ago speaking little English. Saenz attended American schools while Medina picked up English while working.

"School would have been nice, but when you're working 12 to 13 hours a day, you don't have the time," Medina said. "They need to understand it takes time to learn."

Many immigrants were struggling to understand Ehrlich's statements, especially when he referred to multiculturalism as "crap." "What does `crap' mean?" Diaz asked. After being told, Diaz whistled. "Wow, that's bad," he said.

But many immigrants suspect that all of their English troubles aren't their fault. Medina remembers when a customer came in to ask for a "size eight dress, hon."

"There's no word for `hon' in Spanish," he said.

Many immigrants also complain that they are often stereotyped by Americans who assume that anyone with an accent doesn't speak English.

"They look at your skin or hear your accent and they ... just assume," said Claret Vega, a Bolivian native who works as a translator in the Annapolis area.

Ricardo Flores, the president of the Maryland Latino Coalition for Justice, was born in Germantown and grew up speaking English. But he said people still occasionally tell him he speaks with an accent. "I don't have one, but people think they hear one for whatever reason," he said.

Immigrant advocates say that Schaefer's and Ehrlich's comments are bound to have repercussions.

"It's almost like an act of aggression," Flores said. "I can't doubt that when Latinos get together and they start talking about political leadership in Maryland, they're going to look to these types of actions and vote accordingly."

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