Polk County, Florida: 14.4% Not Fluent In English

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at ccat.sas.upenn.edu
Mon May 29 13:14:56 UTC 2006

>>From the Lakeland (Florida) Ledger, Sunday, May 28, 2006

14.4% in Polk Not Fluent In English

By Iza Montalvo & Dana Willhoit The Ledger

LAKELAND -- After losing all they had to Fidel Castro's communist
government, Roberto and Ena Franco Cantillo immigrated to the United
States from their native Cuba in 1970. In their adopted land, the couple
worked hard, raised a family and became American citizens. Yet after 36
years in this country, neither can speak English. Spanish was the language
they spoke when they arrived and it's their language today. "I know we
were supposed to learn English," Franco Cantillo said in an interview last
week. But she said she and her husband were too busy rebuilding their
lives and earning a living to take the time to learn a new language. "We
worked very hard in the cold winters of Chicago wishing and worrying only
about having a roof to call our own again," she said.

Now retired and living in South Lakeland, the Cantillos are concerned
about a U.S. Senate bill that would make English the national language of
the United States. By a vote of 64-34, the Senate recently included a
national language amendment in the immigration reform bill. The
immigration bill was approved by the Senate on Thursday. Florida Sen. Bill
Nelson voted for the national language amendment. Sen.  Mel Martinez, a
native of Cuba, was at his son's wedding that day, but an aide said he
would have voted for the national language proposal had he been there. The
language proposal could have implications for millions of people. The 2000
Census counted 47 million people over the age of 5 in the United States
who spoke a language other than English at home.

In Polk County, an estimated 68,500 people, 14.4 percent of the county's
population, didn't speak English at home in 2004, according to the Census
Bureau. About 54,000 of them spoke Spanish. The Senate language measure
declares that no one has the right to federal communications or services
in a language other than English, except for those guaranteed by law.
Critics and immigrant rights advocates say it would destroy executive
orders issued by President Bill Clinton that required multilingual
services and communications in many different federal agencies. The
national language law could also undermine court orders, agency
regulations, civil service guidances, and state and local ordinances that
call for multilingual services, critics say.

In other words, people would not have the right to ask the government to
provide services like a court translator or access to electoral
information in any other language than English. Tirso Moreno, president of
the Farmworker Association of Florida, said the language issue is part of
broad anti-immigrant sentiment in Congress. "This bill shows it is not
only about stopping the flow of illegal immigration into this country,"
Moreno said. "This measure is not going to affect the undocumented
immigrant only, but every person who is not fluent in English."


Three weeks ago, Enrique Martinez, 53, put his limited English skills to
the test. He drove to Haines City alone without a family member to
interpret to renew his driver license. Using a kind of sign language,
Martinez struggled for a while to communicate at the local office of the
Department of Motor Vehicles, but left that afternoon with his license
renewed. "I had to do everything I could to tell them what I needed," said
Martinez, who is originally from Guanajuato, Mexico. "I used my hands to
communicate. I understood the questions, but could not answer back." He
and his wife, Josefina Martinez, also 53, have worked in the United States
since 1978 and raised six daughters, and all are legal residents.  Their
daughters or grandchildren serve as interpreters for the Winter Haven

Like other legal immigrants interviewed by The Ledger, Enrique Martinez
said time restraints, long hours of work and being able to speak his
native language at work and at home took a toll when it came to learning
English. Martinez said he needs to make a double effort to become
bilingual at his age. "I know this is not our country of origin and we
have to learn the language," Martinez said. "Me and my wife can't depend
on our daughters' help forever." Their oldest daughter, Gloria Camacho,
35, said the English language bill is unfair. "My parents never ask the
government for help. They still work very hard and pay taxes," Camacho
said. "Even though they understand a little, they still need help to get
access to certain social and health services."


Roena Garcia of Davenport came from the Dominican Republic to the United
States in 1982, but she still prefers speaking Spanish. The mother of two
sons, who both went to college and have stable careers, she has held
different jobs from housekeeping to clerical work at a local Hispanic
grocery store. "But I can't speak English very well," Garcia, 57, said in
Spanish. "I say to myself, God have mercy, when I see all the changes
happening in this country: first a very high fence across the Mexican
border and now this, I can't imagine what's next." Garcia called the
language measure "racist."

Maria Cody, assistant professor of ESOL (English as a Second Language) and
Bilingual Education at the University of Florida, said languages are meant
to create unity among communities. "There is no country in the world that
is totally monolingual," Cody said.  "It is a fallacy to believe the
country could become wholly monolingual by creating a symbolic national
language policy." Most important, Cody said, is how the federal bill would
be handled at the state level. "It would be very irresponsible not to
provide emergency forms related to education or medical care in any other
languages," Cody said. "Especially if it could impact the welfare of

At the Migrant and Seasonal Farmworker Program in Winter Haven, immigrants
can learn basic English. Wanda Morales, the program coordinator and
interim manager, said the federally funded program's focus is to teach
immigrant workers English skills in about six months to a year. About 100
adults participate in each session. "It's an absolute necessity to learn
English, especially for your safety,"  Morales said. "It's not an easy
process, it's a very difficult process, but it depends on how motivated to
learn the person is. "I would say that 60 percent of the people we served
are Spanish literate, others can't even read or write in any language,"
Morales said.


The extent of language diversity in Polk County can be found in the Polk
School District. Martha Santiago, director of the Polk County School
District's English for Speakers of Other Languages program, said more than
6,000 students -- nearly 7 percent of the district's enrollment -- are in
the ESOL program. The majority of students are Spanish speaking, but 73
different languages are represented. In 2006-07, five schools in Polk
County are piloting a dual language program, in which half the curriculum
will be taught in Spanish and half in English. When Gloria Fouts, 80, went
to elementary school in Polk County in the 1930s, she and her family were
recent emigrees from Spain and she didn't speak a word of English.

Fouts, a Lakeland resident who taught elementary school in Auburndale and
Lakeland from 1953 to 1981, said she and her brothers were all put in
first grade at the Lake Morton Elementary School. It benefited them that
there were no other Spanish speakers at the time, she said. "We learned
fast. Nobody here at the time spoke Spanish. It only took us about three
months," she said. As for making English the national language, Fouts said
that's the way it should be. "I still think that as long as we're in the
good old USA, that's the way we ought to be. We should speak English."


Before settling in the U.S., the Cantillos lived in deplorable conditions
in Maisi, Cuba, and waited five years before finally being allowed to
leave for the U.S., Franco Cantillo said. Like many Cuban exiles, the
couple fled with just the clothes they were wearing. "We lost everything
in Cuba. We had a business, a house, a car, a farm with cows, and we had
to give it all up to the government," Ena Franco Cantillo said in Spanish.
"We were fortunate to come here." They settled in Lakeland for three years
before moving to Chicago.

There, Franco Cantillo, now 75, worked 12 hours a day at two different
factories, while her husband, Roberto, now 84, worked six to seven days a
week as a meat-cutter for seven years. "English wasn't necessary where we
worked back then," Franco Cantillo said. "We worked with our hands and
mostly everyone at the factories spoke Spanish." The couple back moved to
Florida in the late 1970s. The couple's 47-year-old son, Roberto Cantillo
Jr., is fluent in both Spanish and English. The Cantillos said older
generations of immigrants seeking health or other public services who
didn't learn English are at risk because of the national language

"This bill is going against the welfare of senior citizens, who like us,
can't speak the language," Franco Cantillo said. "My son is barely here
with us and trying to find a translator to help, it's going to affect our
lives very much." Roena Garcia agrees with the Cantillos' observation. "I
am devastated to hear people could encounter problems if they visit a
clinic or a hospital requesting services in other languages, or at least a
translator," Garcia said. "I don't see that happening; it's divisive and
extreme." Staff writer Yesenia Mojarro contributed to this report. Dana
Willhoit can be reached at dana.willhoit at theledger.com or 863-802-7550.
Iza Montalvo can be reached at iza.montalvo at theledger or 863401-6967.


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