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Jewish World Review / May 28, 1998 / 3 Iyar, 5758

Linda Chavez

Linda Chavez Why Univision's Perenchio is out to hurt his fellow Hispanics

DID YOU EVER WONDER who benefits when schools delay teaching English to Hispanic children, forcing them to learn most of their lessons in Spanish, instead?

Certainly not the children, who often spend six or seven years languishing in so-called bilingual-education programs that, according to recent studies by Dr. Mark Lopez of the University of Maryland, increase their likelihood of dropping out, make it less likely they will go on to college and depress their wages over their lifetime.

Nonetheless, state and local governments spend an estimated $8 billion a year on these programs. That may change when California voters go to the polls on June 2 to approve Proposition 227, an initiative to replace bilingual education in the state with intensive English instruction for children who don't yet speak it. But one man stands in the way: billionaire Spanish-language TV executive A. Jerrold Perenchio.

Last week, campaign disclosure forms revealed that Perenchio gave $1.5 million to a group fighting to maintain Spanish as the primary language of instruction for California's 1.4 million non-English-speaking Hispanic students. That's twice as much as the proponents of Proposition 227, "English for the Children," have spent for the entire campaign.

Why is Perenchio so desperate to keep Hispanic kids ignorant of English? Simple. He doesn't want to lose them as customers. You see, Perenchio heads Univision Communications, the largest Spanish-language media company in the United States.

Univision controls about 80 percent of the Spanish-language market. Its revenues and cash flow have doubled since 1993, and its stock value has been rising rapidly in recent years because of projections that the Spanish-speaking population will continue to expand in the coming decades.

But recently, Univision has started to lose an important share of that market: young, English-speaking Hispanics, who prefer to receive their news and entertainment in English. Nielson Media Research recently reported that Univision lost 6 percent of its younger female audience and 26 percent of its younger male viewers this last season. Without these youthful, more affluent viewers, Univision won't have much to sell to potential advertisers.

According to a recent Forbes article, Hispanic buying power in the United States is $356 billion -- what's more, Hispanics maintain brand-loyalty and have larger families than other groups, making them especially attractive potential customers. Studies -- often funded by Spanish-language media -- claim that Spanish advertising works better than English with Latinos. But that will change as Hispanics learn English, which is why the stakes are so high for Univision and Perenchio.

"If Univision loses 1 point of ratings, Perenchio's personal net worth falls by hundreds of millions of dollars. This might be the first political campaign that became a ratings war," says Ron Unz, the Silicon Valley entrepreneur who drafted and has largely funded Proposition 227.

Perenchio is already one of the 400 richest people in America, with a net worth estimated at $1.5 billion. He bought Univision in 1992, along with partners from Mexico and Venezuela, who are forbidden by U.S. law from holding a majority interest in an American television station. Perenchio is also the single largest contributor to candidates in California's gubernatorial election this year -- having given $207,000 to Republican Dan Lungren, $100,000 to Democrat Gray Davis and $50,000 to Democrat Jane Harman. All three candidates -- surprise, surprise -- have come out against Proposition 227.

In addition to the $1.5 million Perenchio has personally put into the anti-English initiative, Univision has begun airing hourly "public service announcements" that declare, "The dreams of millions of Hispanic families are being destroyed." According to the ads, Proposition 227 "threaten(s) the education of our children" and is a law "against education and jobs for Hispanics." Nothing could be farther from the truth.

But the campaign to defeat Proposition 227 is not about truth, it's about money -- millions for Spanish-language TV executives and investors and a few thousand dollars apiece for bilingual teachers, who now receive a special bonus for teaching in Spanish. The other major contributor to the anti-English initiative is the California Teachers Association, which has spent $1 million to defeat Proposition 227.

With days to go before the election, California voters are standing firm to support English for the Children, with 63 percent still telling pollsters they favor Proposition 227, despite a flurry of anti-227 ads financed by Perenchio and his allies.

Maybe California voters are just too smart to let anyone convince them it's right to deprive Hispanic youngsters from learning English.


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©1998, Creators Syndicate, Inc.