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CNN News "Campbell Brown" - Transcript


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BROWN: Congresswoman, you're a certified teacher, I know. What role do you think that Spanish language should play in our educational system?

REP. ILEANA ROS-LEHTINEN (R), FLORIDA: Well, I have two kids. Now they are young adults, but when I raised them speaking Spanish, it was their native language. In fact, when they started kindergarten, I said "no habla ingles (ph)." But now, the hard part is getting them to speak Spanish, because as kids become part of the American culture, they really want to blend in.

And so I know there's a lot of controversy about bilingual education, and people resent it if you speak Spanish in front of them, but it's really a generational problem. Kids start out speaking Spanish; then they become English fluent; and then it's hard to get them to speak another word of Spanish again. And you have got to realize as a parent, am I going to be a linguistic teacher or do I want to communicate with my kids? I speak to my kids in Spanish, but I'll take any language in return.

BROWN: Cristina, why do you think it's so controversial?


BROWN: Bilingual education.


PEREZ: Well, I think because, listen, we're in America. And when you come to America, you know, I was taught, as my parents being immigrant, I was raised in Mexico. When I came here and I didn't know Spanish, say -- I mean, English, Spanish is my first language -- and I think it's hard, because when you're here, children really have to assimilate, and the success of our educational system is that. So we have to really have children, encourage them to really dedicate themselves. And I think they think it's -- a lot of people may think it's not fair that we offer bilingual education. At some point, depending on the age of the child, you have to offer it in order to make a transition. That's my opinion.

But at the same time, I don't think we give kids enough credit. I think that kids, when they are in school, they're immersed (ph) with their friends in school, they can do it. You know, I did it at an age where -- nothing happened to me. I don't have any problems because of it, but it's a hard situation. And I think that a lot of people feel that it's not fair to Americans that are here or children that are growing up here.

O'BRIEN: But the only thing that I see generationally is really interesting, which is when my mom came from Cuba in 1947, because my dad is Australian, she didn't speak Spanish at all because she didn't want my father to feel like he couldn't be part of the conversation. So I never grew up speaking Spanish, and now my Spanish is fair to poor.

Because of that and because I'm so frustrated by my lack of good Spanish -- I understand a lot, I don't speak it well -- my children all are learning Spanish. Every single one. Because I want to make sure -- and they are 5-year-old twins, and 8 and 7 years old -- and I want to make sure that they can speak Spanish, because frankly, the demographics of the nation are changing. And the idea of speaking Spanish should be a benefit, a boon. It should be something wonderful on your resume, not something that could possibly make people feel offended when you're having a conversation. I would love to see everybody being able to talk in multiple languages in America. That would be a great thing.

BROWN: Without question. Mayor, though, what about in the public education system, though? This is where it becomes really a challenge.

VILLARAIGOSA: Well, Soledad hit it on the head. First of all, we -- English is the language of commerce and success in America. We've got to learn English. But it shouldn't -- we should be learning two and three languages. I live in a city that is the most diverse city in the United States of America. I wish I could speak, in addition to Spanish, Mandarin and Korean, Armenian. We should be teaching in our schools. Every kid should be able to graduate from high school, learning English, of course, mastering English, but also being able to speak a second a third language. We've got to get with the fact that this is a global economy, that we're connected and we've got -- and language is a way to be able to successfully maneuver that.

BROWN: Let me just ask you, Cristina. I know a lot of Latino children here in the United States either emigrated at a very young age or have different immigration status in many cases than their parents. How does that affect them in terms of the education system and their opportunities?

PEREZ: Well, listen. One particular thing for me is very important, and I think that whether you believe in immigration reform, whether you believe in part immigration reform, I think that America is -- one of our -- the best things about America is that we believe in youth, we believe in our education, and we believe in giving youth a chance. And part of an immigration reform that is being proposed, or really -- it's called the Dream Act. It's been around in Congress for quite a long time, gives these children who came here at a very, very young age -- 2 or 3 or even younger, who -- they did not make the choice to move to the United States. For all intents and purposes, the U.S. is their home. This is the only country that they can associate with.

Because of lack of documentation, they cannot pursue college. They cannot pursue -- the doors are closed on them. And is that, you know, something that we believe in? Do we want to help some of these kids that are the best and brightest, to help them contribute to the United States.

So I think that part of our immigration reform has to reflect our American values, and that is the strong belief in the youth in America.

BROWN: All right. Stand by, everybody. John Leguizamo has just joined us.

JOHN LEGUIZAMO, ACTOR/COMEDIAN: Hi, how are you. How is it going.

BROWN: Welcome.

LEGUIZAMO: Thanks for having me.

BROWN: We should say you're going to be on our blog right now, along with Soledad.

LEGUIZAMO: I'm trying to multitask, but it's -- I can't...


O'BRIEN: You can't talk and do it?


BROWN: We'll give you a commercial break to get geared up. Join the conversation, When we come back, we're going to talk about the assimilation question. At what point do Latinos stop being hyphenated Americans and simply become Americans? Stay with us.


BROWN: Welcome back, everybody. As we count down to the premiere of CNN's "Latino in America" at the top of the hour, here is something to think about. The Pew Hispanic Center predicts by the year 2025, close to 30 percent of all American kids will have some Latino ancestry. For this generation and the next, assimilation is one of the biggest issues that they are facing. And we want to talk about that right now with our special guests, Soledad O'Brien, John Leguizamo who's just joined us, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, Cristina Perez and Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen as well, all joining us now.

Soledad, the name Garcia now among the top 10 last names...

O'BRIEN: Number eight in America.

BROWN: It's number eight?

LEGUIZAMO: In America.

(CROSSTALK) O'BRIEN: A metaphor for what's happening in the country.

BROWN: Listen to Valentina Garcia. She's talking about trying to balance her two cultures. Listen to what she says.


VALENTINA GARCIA: I think I struggle with my identity. Here in the States, I sometimes feel like, you know, where do I fit in here in terms of trying to represent myself as a Latina? When I go back to Mexico or when I go back to Chile, I sometimes feel like I'm not Latina enough for them. I'm not enough for them, I'm not enough for them. Who -- who am I?



BROWN: John, listen, what do you think about when you hear what she says?

LEGUIZAMO: I mean, I know exactly how she feels. It's that being in between worlds...

BROWN: Navigating between...

LEGUIZAMO: I always felt like that. I always felt like when I'm here, you know, I wasn't really like everybody else. You know, we were the first Latin family on our block. We were like pioneers. And you know, it was rough going. I got beat up a lot and everything. And then when I go to Latin America, you know, I...

BROWN: You're too American.

LEGUIZAMO: I'm too gringo. (SPEAKING SPANISH), and everybody, you know, picking on you there. So you're like caught in between these two worlds, and the only people you really, really relate to are the people like her, that understand that you've got to navigate these two worlds, and you're never going to fit completely. And that's not a bad thing either, because it gives you this great perspective, this great -- a lot of artists have always been outsiders, and that's a good thing.

BROWN: You've heard this from a lot of people, the struggle.

O'BRIEN: Absolutely. And you know what's interesting to me, when I would go and report this story, people would come to me and say, ah, Soledad, I knew with that name, you're one of us and you're here to tell our stories. And it was so interesting, because, you know, my mother is Cuban. My Spanish is awful. I couldn't do interviews. I could understand, but I couldn't do the interviews in Spanish, a source of huge frustration to me. And yet at the same time, while you feel pulled by two cultures, you also feel very much embraced overall.

I don't think necessarily people want to lose the hyphen. LEGUIZAMO: No, you don't.

O'BRIEN: Latino American...

BROWN: Right.

O'BRIEN: I really don't think people are trying to shed that. I think it's kind of cool to embrace it.

LEGUIZAMO: I think we're a little different than all the previous immigration groups, that -- first of all, they were of a white persuasion, whether they were Jewish, Italian. I mean, at some point, you could the name and lie and everybody would believe you.

When you're a Latin person, you can see that we're all part Indian, part black, and we've got, you know, it's all a different variety, Starbucks coffee version, you know, whatever you want a little extra, Indian a little less, whatever. And so you can't blend. You can't really say I'm white. They are not really going to believe you. So you have to own that. And we (inaudible) all of America -- North America, so we're not going to just fade in and blend in. I think it's a beautiful marriage of the two that's going to have to happen.

BROWN: Congresswoman, talk about the numbers a little bit, because what -- a majority, Latinos will become -- if the numbers hold -- the majority in this country by the middle of this century.

ROS-LEHTINEN: And that may be a frightening statistic for some. It may be a startling one, but for us, I think that it -- (inaudible) -- but I think that it shows the great diversity of America. And I agree with John and Soledad. And, by the way, I can give you Spanish lessons if you'd like.

O'BRIEN: Call me later.




ROS-LEHTINEN: But the thing is that we're all so proud, even whether you got off the boat yesterday, or you've been here five generations, 10 generations, we're proud of our ancestry and our roots and our culture, and even if your Spanish is lousy, we just feel a great sense of pride. And it doesn't mean that we're standoffish or we're exclusive or we want to be with our own, but I think it has a lot to do with pride.

And I know that folks get scared with these -- with these numbers rising, but don't worry. We're not out to get you. We want to be part of the group, but we're still proud of who we are.


LEGUIZAMO: If we wanted to get you, we would have already got you.


BROWN: Mr. Mayor, is it important...


BROWN: ... is it necessary to assimilate any more as many of the previous generations, not just Latino but across the board, felt it was?

VILLARAIGOSA: I think everybody can relate to a lot of what you just heard, feeling like you're in two different worlds. And I think that was, for me that was particularly true when I was younger. Over time, I got comfortable in both worlds. I feel like I can transcend, and I think a lot of us feel that way, frankly.

My mother raised us to always be thankful what a great country we lived in, but to be proud of where we came from, and we always carried that gratitude but also that pride. And there's nothing wrong with that. People are proud to be Americans and proud of their Italian, Greek ancestry. That is something that is not endemic to any one community, and it's one that I think we all share in the Latino community as well.

O'BRIEN: One of the stories we do in the documentary is to focus on Pico Rivera, California, a community with an interesting history that has now really become this, you know, a place that people aspire to go. And as I'm driving through Pico Rivera with a guy who is like the PR person in the town, 92 percent Latino, American flags up and down, like you cannot imagine. And I mean, it almost looked like everybody that morning had run out and...


LEGUIZAMO: They saw you coming.

O'BRIEN: And you say, you know, so for people who have this sense that somehow being Latino means that you're pushing away your American culture, my mother...


O'BRIEN: Where did I get these Americans from? Meaning her kids, you know? And I'm like, you moved here from Cuba and you had us. I think Latinos very easily embrace both.

VILLARAIGOSA: That's a great point.

PEREZ: It's a cultural balancing act.

BROWN: Go ahead, Cristina.

VILLARAIGOSA: That's a great...

PEREZ: It's the cultural -- I'm sorry, it's the cultural balancing act. My parents are from Colombia. I was born in the United States. I was raised in the Mexico. Now I'm married to a crazy Nuyorican. So I'm confused at home all the time. But for me, it's the cultural balancing act, the identity act. I think we can't deny who we are because it is our core identity. When people ask me, what are you? I'm a -- you can call me whatever you want. Well, not whatever you want, but I'm an American. I'm a Latina. I was born in the United States as a Latina. It is part of who I am. And I live in the greatest country in the world that lets me live in both cultures simultaneously and comfortably. So it's something that you learn, how to be when you're a working parent and take care of kids.

BROWN: All right. Everybody, stand by if you can. We want to talk about whether this country is making progress overcoming stereotypes and discrimination. That's next. And John, Soledad, and CNN producer Rose (ph) are saying -- are online. Right, you're blogging? You're blogging.

LEGUIZAMO: I'm trying to blog.

O'BRIEN: We're working on it.


LEGUIZAMO: We're multitasking.

BROWN: Right now at Check it out. We'll be right back.


BROWN: We are less than 10 minutes away from the world premiere of a CNN prime-time event, "Latino in America," and we continue with CNN special correspondent Soledad O'Brien. Also with us right now, actor John Leguizamo, who's busy blogging away over there. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, TV Judge Cristina Perez, and Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida joining us as well.

To all of you, we have here an actor, two politicians, two television hosts. Let's take a look at some of the other people we talked to for "Latino in America." Look.


LUPE ONTIVEROS, ACTOR: I'm Lupe Ontiveros, and I'm an actor.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm a full-time student.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm a magician.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm a TV producer here in Los Angeles. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm a project manager at an architectural firm.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm a city council member from the great city of Long Beach.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I've washed dishes, I've cleaned bathrooms. Musician now. Sticking to that.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm a Lay Ecclesial minister.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I'm a songwriter, I'm a record producer.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm studying to be a doctor.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I'm a writer. I'm a mommy.



BROWN: Mr. Mayor, answer this for me. Is this what we are seeing right now? Is this the new normal? Have stereotypes -- has that been put to rest?

VILLARAIGOSA: I don't know if stereotypes have been put to rest. There are still many people with stereotypes. But I think more and more, people are accepting of the diversity in America, the diversity in the Latino community. Not all of us are from the same country, not all of us speak Spanish, not all of us are recently arrived. Some of us, as in my case, grandpa got here 100 years ago. We all have different political ideologies. There is no one stereotype, if you will, of the Latino or Latina.

BROWN: Let me throw a poll up, Congresswoman, and get your take on this. We asked people in a poll recently, when they see a Latino, are they likely to think this person was born in the U.S. or an immigrant. And only 38 percent still say born in the U.S. 49 percent say they think that this person is an immigrant. Do you think that that plays into discrimination...

O'BRIEN: The real numbers are 70 percent. Seven out of 10 Latinos are born in this nation. So that number is just so completely off. Yeah.

BROWN: What do you think?

ROS-LEHTINEN: Well, there's still discrimination, there's no doubt. There is still a lot of prejudice. But the truth is, that when you look at the classes that are being offered to become U.S. citizens, they are chock full, there's a waiting list. When you look at classes for people to sign up to learn English, there is also a long waiting list. So Hispanics are proud of their roots, but yet they understand that they need to learn English. They want to get ahead. They want to be patriotic Americans. So you're going to get a lot of discrimination. That's difficult to overcome. But education is the key. That's why I'm so glad you started the program talking about the alarming high school dropout rates, and that we really need to fix that. Education is the great equalizer in this great country.

BROWN: John, where are you on this?

LEGUIZAMO: Well, I think the stereotypes, I mean, are prevalent. I think Hollywood maintains a lot of stereotypes and continues to -- I don't know, doesn't really embrace what we all -- all that Latin people have to give and really doesn't change. I think when I go to L.A. -- I'm sorry, Mayor -- I feel like a little bit I'm in South Africa a little bit. I mean, all the people that I hang out with who are successful are white, and all the people that are serving them are Latin. And then I don't see a lot of executives who are of color, or minority or Latin. And it's very weird to me. And then I come back to New York City, and I go, ah, my people are everywhere, in different positions, different economic groups, all over the place, and people -- black people and Latin, they are all in different, mixed together with white people and we're having a great time. And when I go to L.A., it's much more apartheid. I don't know, Mayor, how do you feel about -- yes.

BROWN: Let me ask the mayor to respond to that.

VILLARAIGOSA: Yes, actually, John, we have the largest black middle class and the largest Latino middle class in the United States of America, on both counts. No city in America, not New York, not Chicago, has a larger Latino or black middle class than the city of Los Angeles or...

LEGUIZAMO: Where are they?

VILLARAIGOSA: Well, they are all over the county. But look, having said that, that doesn't mean that there still isn't a lot of work to do. It doesn't mean that -- we started out earlier talking about the need to educate our kids, to give them the tools that they need to be successful. We need to grow -- continue to grow that middle class, without question. But on both counts, we actually have the largest middle class in the United States of America, both groups.

LEGUIZAMO: I mean, the reason I brought it up is because Hollywood is the one that puts out images, and images are what kids take in. Images from movies, from television.


LEGUIZAMO: That's how we -- kids confuse with (ph) your (ph) dreamscape. And when I was growing up and there was lack of Latin role models and idols, it was really hard. You felt unconnected to the future in this country.

BROWN: All right. Stay with us. So much to talk about. We're going to be right back. "Latino in America" starts in just about two minutes. Stay with us.


BROWN: I want to thank all our guests tonight. Mr. Mayor, Congresswoman, Cristina, John, of course, and Soledad. "Latino in America" starts right now.

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