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Means to an Unz

[whitespace] Fernando Vega
Lauren Barack

One Language Under God: Fernando Vega, honorary chairman of Ron Unz's English-only initiative, claims responsibility for introducing bilingual education to Redwood City.

Fernando Vega, the 73-year-old honorary chairman of the campaign to end bilingual education, has his own version of history

By Lauren Barack

AT 11:15AM, Fernando Vega is on the phone rescheduling another appointment. "It's Univision," the Spanish-language cable channel, he says. "We had to change them because of the Chronicle tomorrow." Vega is meeting with the San Francisco daily's editorial board to talk about the "English for the Children" initiative to end bilingual education, bound for voters on June 2. As its honorary chairman, Vega has made numerous speeches to schools and appeared on local radio, on TV and in newspapers as far afield as the Dallas Morning News. ("The way we go, Texas is going to go," he predicts.)

Six months ago Vega could handle his own appointments. Now he needs the help he gets from Sheri Annis, an English for the Children spokesperson who calls him twice a week from Los Angeles to assist him with scheduling conflicts.

"He's been crucial for the campaign," says Annis of the 73-year-old grandfather who has become the ethnically correct mascot for Proposition 227. Ron Unz, the Palo Alto businessman who wrote the initiative, has personally asked Vega to leave the next two weeks open. Unz is flying him to Los Angeles to shoot television and radio ads in Spanish and English for the campaign. "You can call me a one-man warrior," Vega says.

For a man in his 70s, Vega is still a powerhouse. For a moment he may be sitting calmly on his living room couch, legs crossed, wearing neat khakis and black leather shoes. And then he's off--jumping up to find a survey, answering the phone, grabbing photographs off the wall with such zeal that he knocks others over, and all the while making his case.

His fight is against bilingual education--a program even its supporters say needs revamping, and one Vega claims to have brought single-handedly to Redwood City 30 years ago.

Vega served on the Redwood City school board from 1973 to 1976. But he says bilingual education came earlier--in 1968--because of pressure he placed on the district. "I did bring in bilingual education," he says. "You can check the records."

But according to Barbara Banin, director of bilingual education in the Redwood City school district, the first school in the district to add bilingual classes was Garfield Elementary, which received federal funding for its program in 1969. It wasn't until 1979 that a full-time director was hired and the program was expanded--three years after Vega had left the board.

"I don't think this was one person's individual effort," Banin says.

But Vega continues to claim ownership. "The schools don't want to come out and admit the history of Redwood City," he says angrily. And now Vega is campaigning to end what he says he struggled to start 30 years ago. "We made a mistake," he says. "Now it's OK to try something new."

The "English for the Children" initiative, also dubbed the Unz Initiative, or Prop. 227, was drafted to end bilingual education in California. Students who speak English as a second language will get just one year of English immersion classes, and after that they are expected to matriculate into regular classrooms. Other bills similar to Unz's, but less restrictive, have died in the state legislature. Unz's has caught on with a fury. The most recent Field Poll, conducted in March, shows 70 percent of California voters supporting the initiative, 20 percent opposed and only 10 percent undecided. And the numbers have barely changed since last November. "It was the first petition I've ever circulated in my town that people were standing in line for," Vega says. "People want this."

His town is Redwood City, 20 minutes north of San Jose, a mix of industrial businesses and wooden-clapboard homes where living room furniture can often be seen on cement porches. It's a town where signs for shops are sometimes in Spanish, and where Vega himself owned a grocery store 14 years ago and held court with teachers, parents and school board members who were telling him something was wrong with the bilingual programs. "And now I have retired teachers come up to me and say finally they can tell the truth--bilingual education doesn't work."

Banin sighs. "I saw Mr. Vega recently and asked him when was the last time he visited a bilingual classroom," she says. "He said it had been several years. I really wish he was informed about how much English is being taught now. It's not the same as it used to be."

When asked if the initiative might be too extreme--some parents want bilingual education to continue--Vega gets up off his couch and starts pulling papers from a blue binder. Newspaper articles, letters and copies of the initiative fly across the table, covered in pink and yellow highlighter. He starts to quote from them: the number of students that matriculate into English-speaking classes from bilingual programs, how many students drop out of school. And he speaks from personal experience--something Annis and "English for the Children" love because "he's been able to bring it down to an understandable level."

Yet Vega's story is never exactly clear. He told the Sacramento Bee that his grandson Jason was in first grade when his father pulled him from a bilingual program in Redwood City. But according to the boy's father, it was actually kindergarten. He told the Boston Globe that the elementary school offered only bilingual classes, where as the school district says there were other options. Lately, when pressed for details, Vega says, "I'm not going to lie to you because I don't know for certain."

Vega recalls that his son, Oscar Vega, was furious about the bilingual program in place at Hoover Elementary in 1986. "Jason was lost," says Oscar, who enrolled his son in another district school within a week. Vega says he encouraged his son to run for the school board to fight bilingual education and undo what Vega had supported two decades earlier. "My father did what he thought was good for his children," Oscar says. "I did what I thought was good for mine." Oscar won a seat on the board in 1988 and served until he moved his family to Oregon in May 1992.

A recent photo of Jason as a smiling teenager hangs on Vega's wall, along with dozens of pictures of the rest of his family. An American flag sits in one corner, next to an upright piano covered with more photos of his family. One of his grandsons, 7-year-old Emiliano, is in the other room studying with Vega's wife, Tina. And although Emiliano doesn't speak Spanish, Vega says he isn't concerned. "There's a tremendous myth that we should not forget our culture and our language," he says. "I think that's nuts. The culture I have is the one in my community, which is Redwood City. Sure, I still have tamales. My wife still makes tacos--but that's no business of the schools."

And Vega is trying to make sure it stays that way. His calendar for April is crammed with speaking invitations: Hatch Elementary School, the Palo Alto YWCA, the Asian-American Bar Association, an interview with KPIX on Thursday--all want to hear Vega explain why bilingual education's time is up. "Maybe," he says, "you'll want to call me a leader."

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From the April 23-29, 1998 issue of Metro.

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