Los Angeles News Group / Daily Breeze Shifting Paradigms

California’s English language learners getting stuck in schools’ remedial programs

California’s English language learners getting stuck in schools’ remedial programs

Melanie Perez wishes she could have played the saxophone. Octavio Reyes would have liked to take a computer science class.

Both students at San Pedro High School say they can’t sign up for these electives because, at some point in their school careers, they were stuck having to take remedial classes for English learners – even though both speak English fluently and have performed reasonably well on English tests.

“I actually feel retarded when (the teacher) says, `What is this (word)?’ and it’s a carrot,” Octavio said. “It’s pointless. I already know it, and I don’t think it helps me.”

Their complaints highlight a wider problem that, although little known, could be among the state’s most pressing educational challenges: Students stuck for years in the state’s remedial programs for English learners are often denied the opportunity to take enriching electives or the more rigorous courses required for getting into college.

Related story: Trapped in ESL: Some students wind up in English-learner programs even though they only speak English

It’s a problem that has been attracting more attention of late, leading to a raft of reforms that some say could make California a leader in the field – which would be fitting, considering a third of the nation’s English learners attend California public schools.

But as is, the state is failing many of these students.

Low odds for success

Numbering 1.4 million, English learners make up nearly a quarter of all K-12 students in the state – and nearly 40 percent of all California’s kindergartners. One in four quits school – the worst dropout rate of any demographic group in California. Only 60 percent graduate high school within four years.

Several pieces of legislation addressing this mammoth bloc of at-risk students were signed in late September by Gov. Jerry Brown. All take effect Jan. 1.

One, authored by Assemblyman Ricardo Lara, D-Bell, seeks to prevent English learners from languishing in the system for years by compelling the state Department of Education to reveal the number of “long-term English learners” at each school district.

Another, by state Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Pacoima, will force the state to come up with more consistent guidelines for deeming kids fluent. The implication here is that many students are unnecessarily stuck in remedial classes when their command of the English language is sufficient.

A third bill, also by Padilla, takes school districts to task for banking state money earmarked for getting these students on track.

School officials chafe at some of these characterizations, in particular that last one, especially at a time when schools are suffering from historic shortages of state funding.

Meanwhile, advocates of English learners say large numbers of them – for whatever reason – get stuck in the system, and that, at some point, their very status as English learners seems to inhibit their chances for success.

“If kids haven’t been reclassified (as fluent) by fifth grade, they have pretty much been tracked, and are not going to be able to go to college,” said Oscar Cruz, the head of Families in Schools, a nonprofit advocate for parents of low-income and minority families. “They’re on a path where they’re just taking remedial classes.”

Lara’s AB 2193 would create a consistent definition for long-term English learners and force school districts to not only keep track of such students, but also students at risk of earning the distinction.

Studies show that some 60 percent of English learners in grades 6-12 are considered long term, meaning they’ve carried the label for at least six years.

Padilla’s SB 1108 – co-authored by Assemblyman Chris Norby, R-Fullerton – aims to create a more consistent set of requirements for deeming students academically fluent. As is, the state provides minimum guidelines, but allows school districts to tack on additional stipulations, arguably creating more barriers to reclassification.

“The criteria are just all over the map,” Padilla said, adding that he would prefer to see districts err on the side of removing the label.

Padilla’s other bill, SB 754, is a transparency measure that seeks to pressure individual school districts out of the practice of stashing the extra money they receive to provide services for English learners. Specifically, it would compel them to prominently post online their budgets and carryovers in these accounts, as well as explain why the money hasn’t been spent.

School districts generally receive $300 to $500 a year in state dollars for every English learner they designate, but they don’t spend it all. (This amount doesn’t include the additional funds they receive from the federal government.)

In 2010-11, the state gave California’s school districts a total of $915 million for helping English learners and low-income students. Known as the “Economic Impact Aid” fund, it lumps the two allocations together. By year’s end, the school districts’ combined ending balance from this fund amounted to $382 million – or 42 percent of the annual apportionment.

The 2011 carryover for LAUSD alone was $61.5 million, according to the California Legislative Analyst’s Office.

That money, Padilla said, “should be spent; it should not be hoarded.”

Octavio and Melanie

Octavio is a good example of a student who could be fluent by state standards, but isn’t due to an unique additional local requirement.

A senior at San Pedro High, Octavio still bears the “English learner” label even though he cleared the state-set hurdles for fluency. These include passage of an exam taken annually by English learners until they pass, and demonstrating a basic level of proficiency on standardized tests.

But the Los Angeles Unified School District also has another requirement for shedding the label: Students must maintain at least a C average in their English classes. That has been Octavio’s hang-up.

“It was mostly because I didn’t try,” said Octavio, who has been an English learner since emigrating from Mexico at age 10. “I would get bored.”

Other districts have their own tack-on requirements. The K-8 Hawthorne School District requires its English learners to pass a written exam. In Torrance, English learners must score higher on standardized English tests than what the state requires.

As for Melanie, who is a freshman at San Pedro High, she has been successfully reclassified as fluent but says the year and a half spent taking remedial English classes at Dana Middle School in San Pedro denied her the ability to take desired electives, such as band. While she was born in the United States, many other students were immigrants.

“There were times that I didn’t care to do my work,” she said. “I was like, `Why am I in this class if I know English?”‘

New master plan

Even as several pieces of English-learner legislation have become law statewide, LAUSD has its own new initiative.

The nation’s second-largest school system has more English learners than any other district – nearly 31 percent of its 650,000 students. Officials estimate that nearly 40 percent of those are considered long term, unable to attain proficiency after five years in a program.

LAUSD’s strategy for teaching English to these students is detailed in its 150-page master plan, which was overhauled last year after a federal civil rights investigation found that English learners weren’t getting the same quality education as other students in the district.

Under the new plan, the district is more closely monitoring the progress of its English learners, with tutoring and other forms of intervention available to those struggling with either language or academic lessons.

“The goal is to increase proficiency in elementary grades, before students get to middle and high school and get mired in the long-term category,” said Hilda Maldonado, director of LAUSD’s Multilingual and Multicultural Education Department.

“We’re using more of the district’s data system to be able to monitor the progress and achievement of our students.”

The district also wants to remove the roadblocks impeding students who can’t test out of the English-learner programs despite their obvious fluency. Beginning next year, Maldonado said, teachers will be assessing middle and high school students with the goal of getting students reclassified even if they can’t hit the academic benchmarks on report cards.

The disconnect

Statewide, there is an apparent disconnect between the number of English learners who demonstrate proficiency on standardized tests and the number of students who matriculate out of the English learner program.

In 2010-11, nearly 40 percent of California’s English learners made the grade in English on standardized tests, but only 11 percent were reclassified as fluent, according to the California Department of Education.

A South Bay district with a lower-than-average reclassification rate is the K-8 Hawthorne School District. Here, just 8 percent of English learners were deemed fluent in 2010-11, even though nearly 50 percent scored proficient or better on standardized English tests.

Hawthorne schools Superintendent Helen Morgan – whose schools are generally strong performers given their high rates of low-income families – makes no apologies for setting the bar high for reclassification.

“In our instance, the writing component is more of a hurdle, but we want to make sure they are good writers before we drop all the support,” she said.

Torrance schools

Torrance Unified seems to do a better-than-average job of getting students out of the program in a timely fashion.

For instance, in 2010-11, the latest data available, while just 11 percent of English learners in California were reclassified as fluent, in Torrance the figure was 14.4 percent.

Kati Krumpe, the district’s director of state and federal programs, says reclassified students in Torrance tend to outperform many of their peers who were never in the English learner program.

“I think that shows that the program is working,” she said.

As for the 39-year-old Padilla, he himself was an English learner as an elementary school student in the Los Angeles Unified School District. That was before California voters passed Proposition 227 in 1998, thereby ending mandatory bilingual education.

“My textbooks in first grade were 100 percent in Spanish,” he said.

He is the rare example of an English learner who thrived, eventually earning a mechanical engineering degree from MIT.

Taking a step back, Padilla says the crux of the problem is a lack of urgency on this topic.

“English learners are a segment of the population that continues to grow,” he said. “If the trend is on the way up, and the educational attainment level of English learners continues to stagnate, I think we have a perfect storm for a crisis. And many would say the crisis is already here.”

Los Angeles News Group / Daily Breeze Shifting Paradigms

Dream Act could affect hundreds of undocumented students at South Bay colleges

Dream Act could affect hundreds of students at South Bay colleges



Gov. Jerry Brown’s recent signing of the Dream Act allowing illegal immigrants to receive state grants for college could affect hundreds of students in the South Bay – a sizable chunk of all the undocumented college students across California.

Officials estimate there are 200 undocumented students at California State University, Dominguez Hills, and another 600 at El Camino College near Torrance. (Harbor College couldn’t provide an estimate Thursday.) They are among the roughly 10,200 across California who, beginning in January 2013, can apply for Cal Grants or other forms of aid.

Among them is Maria Garcia, a communications major at CSU Dominguez Hills who remembers sleeping on the ground in the desert with her father and sister on the way over the border at age 12.

“My dad had to stay up to take care of me and my sister because there were snakes,” said Garcia, who went on to become a top student – and a graduation speaker – at Camino Nuevo High in Los Angeles. “We didn’t have sleeping bags.”

The legislation comes at a time when the topic of illegal immigration is particularly heated. In the absence of a comprehensive federal immigration policy, states have been filling the void, passing a bevy of policies ranging from the hard-line approach taken in Alabama and Arizona to the relatively more progressive policies in Texas and California.

Signed Saturday by Brown, Assembly Bill 131 has triggered a firestorm of protest and praise across the nation, so much so that the author of the bill, Assemblyman Gil Cedillo, D-Los Angeles, said the intensity of the buzz has taken him by surprise.

“I’ve been working on these issues for a long time, and I’m not unfamiliar with the attention that comes with it,” he told the Daily Breeze on Thursday. “But we went five days in a row, getting calls from the New York Times, Time Magazine, USA Today, Christian Science Monitor. It was like `bam, bam, bam.’ It has been nonstop since Saturday.”

The new law’s fiercest critic is Assemblyman Tim Donnelly, R-San Bernardino, who is spearheading an effort to overturn it. Donnelly argues that the bill is unfair because it grants tax dollars to families that have broken the law when many U.S. citizens are struggling to make ends meet.

“We have just created a massive new entitlement that specifically goes to people who are going to break our laws by coming here,” he told the Breeze.

He added that the argument stating that the students in question were whisked over the border at a young age is “specious.”

“Take a person who stole somebody’s identity or forged a check,” he said. “Then they get arrested. What about their 1-year-old? There you go – exact same argument. It doesn’t play. It is not the purpose of the government to save children from the consequences of a parent’s choice.”

AB 131 is the second half of the Dream Act, the first of which was signed by Brown in July. The first portion, AB 130, allows undocumented students to compete for financial aid from private sources.

The Dream Act isn’t the first piece of California legislation making it easier for undocumented students to attain a college degree. Back in 2001, AB 540 allowed such students to pay in-state tuition at California’s public colleges so long as they met the criteria, which includes having attended a California high school for at least three years and possession of a high school diploma or GED.

Officials estimate that AB 131 will cost $14.5 million a year. This amounts to about 1 percent of the annual Cal Grant outlay.

Diana Fuentes-Michel, executive director of the California Student Aid Commission, estimates that about 5,500 undocumented students will be eligible for a Cal Grant. That’s a little more than half of the roughly 10,200 enrolled in California’s community colleges and state universities. (The bulk of them – 9,000 – attend community colleges.)

Fuentes-Michel said the average recipient of a Cal Grant has maintained a grade point average of 3.2 or better.

“These are good students who are getting the grants,” she said.

Fuentes-Michel said it has been widely reported – incorrectly – that illegal immigrants will receive grants only if there is money left over after all legal citizens have received them. She said that stipulation applies only to the competitive grants that typically go to older students who are returning to school after leaving the work force.

But the bulk of the Cal Grants program doles out money to younger students right out of high school. Undocumented students who meet the qualifications for these “entitlement grants” will be eligible for funds, she said.

Earlier this summer, AB 131 passed along party lines in both the state Senate and the Assembly.

State Sen. Ted Lieu, D-Redondo Beach, said he supported both halves of the Dream Act because he believes children should not be punished for the actions of their parents.

“The Bible says the son will not bear the punishment for the sins of the father,” he said. “That’s also a founding principle in America. We don’t punish people based on what their parents may have done. This country judges each individual based on their own accomplishments.”

At Cal State Dominguez Hills, a campus club called Espiritu de Nuestro Futuro serves as a support group for undocumented students, who are often referred to as “AB 540” students after the 2001 law.

But it includes only 20 members, or about 10 percent of the campus’ estimated undocumented population.

The group’s president, Celina Ixta, attributes the discrepancy to students’ fears of calling attention to their immigration status. Ixta, who was taken over the border by her parents as a 1-year-old, said she understands this fear, adding that she drives to the Carson campus from her home in Wilmington at her own risk. (California doesn’t issue driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants.)

“Always I try to be careful, so I don’t get stopped by a policeman,” she said. “I try not to put my scared face on while driving.”

An environmental science major at Dominguez Hills, Ixta said she first learned of the Dream Act’s passage by smartphone when shopping at a hardware store with her parents.

“I literally got goose bumps on my arms,” she said.

Los Angeles News Group / Daily Breeze Shifting Paradigms

State’s Dream Act doesn’t help students near graduation

State’s Dream Act doesn’t help students near graduation

By Rob Kuznia Staff Writer
Posted: 10/13/2011 07:43:33 PM PDT
Updated: 10/13/2011 07:55:08 PM PDT

From coast to coast, the passage of the California Dream Act has prompted loud cheers from supporters and bitter outrage from critics.

But for Vilma Nerio, a senior at California State University, Dominguez Hills, in Carson – and an undocumented student – last weekend’s signing by Gov. Jerry Brown felt almost inconsequential.

Nerio’s problems pertain more to the near future: though she is within striking distance of earning her teaching degree, she will have no way to land a job once she graduates.

“There are no undocumented teachers out there,” she said.

For Nerio, the more important Dream Act is the federal version, which would provide permanent residency to qualified undocumented students. In December, it came before the U.S. Senate, and fell five votes short of being considered for final passage.

Nerio is far from alone. In August, a study by the American Sociological Review found that undocumented students with college degrees often must settle for the same low-wage jobs that their parents perform. In fact, of the 31 graduates of four-year universities interviewed, none was working in their chosen professions.

“I know many who have been out three, four, five, six years and there is really nothing for them,” said Roberto Gonzales, author of the study and an assistant professor at the University of Chicago.

“They speak English much more fluently than their parents and have an education level that far surpasses their parents’, but find themselves stuck in the same narrowly circumscribed set of options.”

He added that the phenomenon is relatively new, because the first generation of college-educated undocumented students is only beginning to graduate en masse.

Titled “Learning to be Illegal,” the study found that attending college has been a way for many undocumented students to delay the stress of living in a manner that feels impermissible.

Nerio, a Gardena resident, didn’t know she was an illegal immigrant until she was 17.

Her friends were getting their driver’s licenses and she told her mother she’d like to do the same. That’s when her mom dropped the bomb: Nerio was shuttled over the border from her native El Salvador when she was 1.

“It was a big shock to me,” she said. “I thought I was just like everyone else. I was a typical teenager, hanging with friends, going to school, going to football games.”

Nerio said the news had a profound effect on some of her friendships.

“About half of them were fine, but the other half took it as `You broke the law, go back,”‘ she said. “We’d had sleepovers together.”

Now 25, Nerio said she may have to return to El Salvador for up to a year to qualify to obtain her visa.

“The problem with me is I don’t have any family back there,” she said. “I’ve been in California for 24 years, I consider this my home. Going back to a place I’ve never been to is quite scary.”

Nerio, who has maintained a 3.2 GPA at CSU Dominguez Hills, said doesn’t blame her mother for bringing her over, or for waiting so long to tell her.

“Her main reason to bring me here was to give me a better life,” she said. “She only went to fifth grade and then stopped. After fifth grade you had to pay for your school. Our family is not wealthy, so they said, `Well, this is it for you.’ She didn’t want that for me.”

Hispanic Business Magazine Shifting Paradigms

NBA stars Carmelo Anthony, Charlie Villanueva a part of league’s growing Latino demographic

NBA stars Carmelo Anthony, Charlie Villanueva a part of league’s growing Latino demographic — Hispanic Business Magazine

Originally published on April 13, 2009

Believe it or not, basketball wasn’t the first love of Denver Nuggets star Carmelo Anthony, now one of the best players in the NBA.

Nor was it for Charlie Villanueva, a starting forward for the Milwaukee Bucks.

Milwaukee Bucks v Dallas Mavericks

For both players, that distinction belonged to baseball.

But it makes a little more sense when you learn about their heritage. Anthony’s father was Puerto Rican, and Villanueva’s parents emigrated from the Dominican Republic.

In fact, Anthony, whose mother is black, started playing basketball only when he no longer had the option to play baseball.

“Once I got to high school, the school I went to didn’t have a baseball team,” he told

Now, they are two of just six U.S.-born Hispanics in the NBA.

If the NBA has anything to say about it, Hispanic kids participating in athletics will rank basketball first. Perhaps more importantly, the league hopes, so will Hispanic sports fans.

Of course, the league isn’t simply crossing its fingers. It’s throwing resources at the problem — flooding the zone, so to speak. And it appears to be working.

The Hispanic viewership of this year’s All-Star Game in February surged by 13 percent over last year, with 472,000 Hispanic households tuning in, according to Nielsen ratings. Particularly pronounced was the one-year jump in male Hispanic viewers between 18 and 34: from 166,000 last year to 249,000 this year — a rise of nearly 40 percent.

The NBA isn’t the first American mega-business to recently gain full appreciation of the golden opportunity presented by the burgeoning Hispanic market.

This year, Wal-Mart announced that it will open two stores that cater expressly to Hispanic customers, and Coca-Cola released a new nationwide ad in Spanish.

According to the U.S. Census, from 2000 to 2007, the Hispanic share of the U.S. population grew from 12.5 percent to 15 percent. In raw numbers, that translates into 10 million more people.

The NBA has been working hard to reach them.

From inviting Hispanic entertainers to sing the National Anthem to broadcasting more and more radio and TV games in Spanish, to trotting out its small-but-growing number of Hispanic players at public-outreach events, the campaign officially launched in 2000, but has ramped up recently.

Three years ago, the NBA launched Noche Latina, a kind of “Hispanic awareness month” for the NBA that occurs every March.

As part of the program — which doubled in size this year to include eight major Hispanic markets — the players don uniforms emblazoned with the Spanish version of their team names.

“The Miami Heat” becomes “El Heat;” the San Antonio Spurs, “Los Spurs.”

The league is also tapping more international Latin players.

Since 2000, the number of Spanish, Hispanic or Latino players from outside the United States has grown to 17 from five. (One player — Eduardo Nájera of the Denver Nuggets — is from Mexico.)

To get Latin American countries stoked on basketball, the league stages pre-season games in those countries. Thus far, it has played 25 such games since 1992.

The league also enlists the Hispanic players themselves to spread the word.

Villanueva last summer personally delivered 10,000 pairs of shoes to indigent kids in the Dominican Republic, from where his parents emigrated. Some were so poor they couldn’t afford shoes, he told

“Seeing people out there walking barefoot; that’s unacceptable to me,” he said. But the reception, he said, was fantastic. “People are just so excited to see one of their own doing something positive for the Dominican Republic.”

Of course, in the high-profile world of professional sports, a star can be a liability as well as an asset.

Anthony, for all his talent, has had his share of PR troubles, not least of which included a 15-game suspension for cold-cocking Knicks player Mardy Collins in the face as a brawl between the two teams was winding down.

To his credit, Anthony — who recently tied the league’s record for points scored in a single quarter (that’s 33) — also has donated millions of dollars to charities, including an education center for inner-city children and a new practice gym at Syracuse, his alma mater.

Like Anthony, Villanueva got started on baseball, due, he said, to being raised by Domincan Republican parents. Villanueva said he started playing basketball only because he idolized his older brother, whom he described as a rebel.

“My brother always wanted to be different, and I always wanted to be like my brother,” he told on Friday.

Villanueva, too, is something of a rebel. Not unlike Shaquille O’Neill or Dennis Rodman, he openly talks about someday pursuing interests outside of basketball.

For instance, Villanueva has always wanted to become a detective, and said may one day pursue that dream.

“One thing about me is I love solving things,” he said. “I think I’ve got a good feel for people — interrogating them and whatnot.”

Another thing about Villanueva is he is technologically savvy — so much so that it recently landed him in some hot water. His crime: Twittering to his fans from the locker-room during halftime.

(Twitter, too, was introduced to Villanueva by his brother, who works as a highlights editor for ESPN.)

After the half-time Twitter, the 24-year-old was chewed out by Bucks coach Scott Skiles, who said the hi-tech shout-out — which took Villanueva 10 seconds to perform from his cell phone — made him seem unfocused. But when it comes to reaching out to fans, Villanueva might also be ahead of the curve.

A day or so after Twitter-gate hit the papers, the number of subscribers exploded, from about 900 to 7,300. Now, just three weeks later, his virtual audience has swelled to more than 19,000, which could very well make him the most Twittered-up player in the league. (Click here to see his Twitter page.)

With recent studies showing that Hispanic youth take to Internet technologies faster than non-Hispanics, there’s a good chance that Villanueva is unwittingly doing double-duty in his efforts to help the NBA’s reach out to Hispanics.

As for the coach’s order, Villanueva demurred, but also openly pondered the difference between signing autographs at halftime – which is allowed — and Twittering.

In any case, Villanueva said his halftime Twitter was an innocent occurrence, not a calculated attempt to market himself.

“It was all over the TV; everybody was talking about it,” he said. “The reason why is it was something new that nobody had done before.” He added, with good-natured resignation: “I will always be remembered as the guy who Twittered during halftime.”

It might not be the same as setting the NBA record for points scored in a single quarter. But when it comes to the business of basketball, it might be just as valuable.

Maybe instead of detective work, Villanueva’s second calling is marketing. In 10 or 15 years, the NBA might do well to recruit him a second time.

Hispanic Business Magazine Shifting Paradigms

Healthcare Reform May Leave Illegal Immigrants Worse Off

Healthcare Reform May Leave Illegal Immigrants Worse Off
May 13, 2010
By Rob Kuznia, Staff Writer

Weeks after passage of a historic health bill, Hispanic advocacy groups say the sweeping new law will generally bring much-needed benefits to Hispanics and businesses across America.

Those same groups, however, are raising concerns about how the health care reform bill will affect illegal immigrants who currently have coverage.

While it’s been widely reported that illegal immigrants are left out of the newly signed health law, less talked about is how the new law could actually make things worse for insured illegal immigrants — as opposed to merely maintaining the status quo.

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act will bring coverage to 32 million of the current 45 million uninsured Americans and cost roughly $850 billion over 10 years. But it could also cause many illegal immigrants to lose the coverage they have. And the number of illegal immigrants with coverage is surprisingly large.

The Pew Hispanic Center estimates that roughly 40 percent of the 11 million or so illegal immigrants residing in this country are insured, either because they purchased health coverage themselves or received it through their employers. The U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce puts the estimate even higher.

“I don’t think many people know that approximately 50 percent purchase coverage,” Javier Palomarez, president and CEO of the chamber, told Hispanic Business magazine. “These folks are in jeopardy of losing what little coverage they have.”

The bill that was signed into law March 30 not only prohibits illegal immigrants from receiving federal subsidies, it also — to the chagrin of immigration-rights advocates — bars them from purchasing insurance with their own money on the soon-to-be created statewide exchanges that will pool ratepayers to lower premiums.

To be sure, under the new law, illegal immigrants still will be able to purchase coverage out of pocket. It’s just that, because their plans will be excluded from the exchanges, they could see the cost of their premiums skyrocket out of reach.

This is because the creation of the new exchanges could have the effect of draining current risk pools of almost everyone except the illegal immigrants, said Jennifer Ng’andu, deputy director for health policy project with the National Council of La Raza.

“I think you could say on some level that undocumented immigrants (with coverage) are the ones who will be worse off than before,” she told Hispanic Business magazine.

Thus far, nobody knows exactly how the market is going to react, as the exchanges won’t take effect until 2014.

“But many people are starting to anticipate drastic increases in health insurance costs,” Ms. Ng’andu said.

Ultimately, fewer illegal immigrants getting coverage would translate into more people using emergency rooms or community health clinics for their health-care needs. These costs tend to ultimately be borne by ratepayers and taxpayers.

Elena Rios, M.D., president and CEO of the National Hispanic Medical Association, said the issue underscores the need for comprehensive immigration reform.

“I think this country needs immigration reform to allow unauthorized immigrants who live here and work here and pay taxes to be able to have certain services,” she told Hispanic Business magazine.
Broadly Many Benefit

On a broad scale, though, many Hispanic groups are generally pleased with the new law.

With one in three of all U.S. Hispanics uninsured — and at least 20 percent of Hispanic-American citizens and legal residents uninsured — the population has more to gain than any other, Dr. Rios said. (About 15 percent of the entire U.S. population is uninsured.)
“It’s a phenomenal step forward for the Hispanic community,” she said.

Small Business Fares Well

Hispanic-owned businesses also stand to benefit.

With 98 percent of Hispanic-owned businesses employing fewer than 50 people, the legislation’s effect on small business is of primary importance to many Hispanics.

Over the past decade, the meteoric rise of health care costs has significantly hampered the ability of small businesses to offer health benefits to their employees.

Since 2000, the proportion of small businesses offering health benefits has dropped more than 20 percent, from two-thirds to less than half. The bulk of that drop has occurred over the past three years.

The new law benefits small businesses in several ways, Mr. Palomarez of the chamber said. First, it allows them to purchase insurance through the exchange. Also, small businesses that opt out still stand to benefit, as most of their employees will qualify to purchase individual plans on the exchange, improving the ability of those businesses to stay competitive with larger companies.

Finally, and most immediately, all small businesses offering health benefits to their employees will qualify for tax breaks.

“They can avail themselves this year of essentially free money,” David Ferreira, the chamber’s vice president for government affairs, told Hispanic Business magazine.

Mr. Ferreira said one disappointment to the chamber is how the law requires businesses with more than 50 employees to provide coverage. The chamber had hoped that the threshold would be set at 100 employees — or, better yet, dropped altogether.

But in terms of how the bill affects Hispanic-owned businesses, the difference between 50 employees and 100 employees is relatively slight, he added. While about 99 percent of all Hispanic-owned companies employ fewer than 100 people, about 98 percent employ fewer than 50.

“We’re fighting over inches at this point,” he said.

Other Benefits

The new law stands to benefit U.S. Hispanics in many ways, advocacy groups said. It comes with a huge prevention component, meaning, for instance, that doctors will have financial incentives to discuss healthy lifestyles with patients.

This is particularly beneficial for Hispanics, who suffer disproportionately from obesity, diabetes and heart disease, Dr. Rios said.

The new law also means doctors and nurses in many areas of the country will have to undergo cultural competency training, which could include taking Spanish classes or hiring translators.

“It exists now, but not like with the court system,” Dr. Rios said. “The health care system has been light years behind. This is going to bring the system into the 21st Century.”

As it is, she added, just 5 percent of the nation’s doctors and nurses are Hispanic — a percentage that the National Hispanic Medical Association would like to see grow.

The new law also increases to 26 the age in which young people can stay on their parents’ plans. The current age varies from state to state, but in general coincides with the college years of middle-class families, which generally end around age 22, Dr. Rios said.

Also experiencing some improvements are the citizens of the U.S. commonwealth of Puerto Rico, which received about $1 billion to establish an exchange and provide more affordable care.

“In the end, we think there are key gains that give us a foundation to be able to extend affordable insurance to many Latinos and immigrants across the country,” Ms. Ng’andu said. “The bill was by no means what we hoped to have, but it’s something we believe sort of lays the foundation for a better health care system

Hispanic Business Magazine Shifting Paradigms

For Hilda Solis, a Chance Encounter with Former Teacher Changed Everything

For Hilda Solis, a Chance Encounter with Former Teacher Changed Everything

When Hilda Solis was a senior in high school, just a few weeks away from graduation, she wasn’t thinking about college.

Instead, the daughter of immigrant parents who met in citizenship class wanted to be a receptionist, or — if she was really lucky — a county clerk, like her older sister.


But one day, a chance encounter changed everything. Walking through the halls at La Puente High School in her native Los Angeles County, the teenage Solis bumped into her former seventh-grade history teacher.

The teacher, whom she remembers as Mr. Sanchez, had since become a high school guidance counselor. He asked about her future plans.

When she answered that she hoped to work for the county, Mr. Sanchez surprised her by responding in the negative.

“He said, ‘Oh no, you’ve got to go to college,'” she said, speaking to during a recent sit-down interview. “I said, ‘What are you talking about? I can’t afford college.'”

It turns out Mr. Sanchez knew what he was talking about. He helped Solis navigate the paperwork maze of applying to Cal-Poly Pomona, where she was not only accepted, but also received a full Cal-grant scholarship and financial aid. She went on to earn a master’s in public administration from USC. This led to an internship in the White House Office of Hispanic Affairs in the Carter administration.

Today, Solis, 52, is the nation’s Secretary of Labor, making her the first Hispanic woman to serve as a regular U.S. cabinet secretary.

Hilda Solis’s story is surprisingly common, and shows how the booming U.S. Hispanic population, while making steady gains over the years in education and the workplace, remains a sea of untapped potential.

It also offers a telling illustration of how razor-thin the line between ordinary and extraordinary can be. Especially for the Hispanic population, which still suffers from disproportionately low high school and college graduation rates.

Many prominent Hispanics have stories that are eerily similar.

One of them is Thelma Melendez de Santa Ana, now one of the nation’s highest-ranking public education officials and this magazine’s recently named Woman of the Year.

But in Melendez’s version, the high school counselor told her she wouldn’t be able to hack it at the four-year college of her dreams, UCLA. It wasn’t until one of her instructors at a community college encouraged her to apply to UCLA that she did. For there on out, she thrived. Today she’s the U.S. Assistant Secretary for Elementary and Secondary Education.

Another trailblazer with a similar story is Millie Garcia, president of California State Univerity’s Dominguez Hills campus, and California’s first female Hispanic president of a CSU school. Garcia grew up in a Brooklyn tenement neighborhood surrounded by factories, where her parents worked. Newly drawn boundary lines seeking to de-segregate the students meant she would attend an upper-middle-class public elementary school. Her five older siblings didn’t benefit from these boundary lines. To this day, Garcia, who holds a doctorate in higher education from Columbia University, is the only member of her family with a college degree.

“I’m not smarter than them; I just had more opportunities,” she told HispanicBusiness Magazine. “Anyone can do this if they work hard and have a good support network.”

Unfortunately, success stories like theirs are still the exception.

A education/18hispanic.html” target=”_blank”>study several years ago by the Pew Hispanic Center found that just 16 percent of Hispanic high school graduates earned a bachelor’s degree by age 29, compared to 37 percent of whites and 21 percent of African Americans. Also, in 2007, the dropout rate among Hispanic high school students was an alarming 21.4 percent, compared to 5.3 percent among whites and 8.4 percent among blacks, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

With low graduation numbers comes low expectations from teachers and career counselors. Such expectations can have a permanent effect on a person’s potential.

Conversely, the stories of Solis, Melendez and Garcia illustrate not only how student performance often rises to the level of heightened expectations, but also the profound difference one good educator can make.

In Solis’s case, the effect of the counselor’s encouraging words spread to the rest of her family.

Solis was the middle of seven children. After seeing Solis thrive in college, all three of her younger sisters followed suit. Today, one of her sisters has a doctorate in public health from UCLA. Two more have engineering degrees from the same school. In addition, her older sister — the county clerk on whom Solis modeled her own early ambitions — went back to school. She’s now in the process of earning her Bachelor of Science degree in business.

It could even be said that Mr. Sanchez’s intervention had a tangible effect on all Californians — whether they like it or not.

In 1994, Solis became the first Hispanic woman elected to the California State Senate. She served aggressively.

During her four terms, she successfully spearheaded legislation to raise the California’s minimum wage and protect poor neighborhoods from being the default locations for landfills. In 2000, her commitment to “environmental justice” made her the first woman ever to win the Profile in Courage Award by the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation.

The ripple effects of Ms. Melendez’s scholastic success also spread far and wide.

Before getting to where she is, Melendez was superintendent of the struggling Pomona Unified School District near Los Angeles. Under her tenure, the students’ test scores skyrocketed, so much so that Pomona witnessed record improvements for three consecutive years, and achieved the second-highest jump in California. In 2009, Melendez was named California’s Superintendent of the Year.

“It really is all about expectation,” she told HispanicBusiness Magazine in April. “I firmly believe that the interaction between the student and teacher is the most important that occurs on the school ground.”

Solis says there are many, many more who could thrive if they had someone encouraging them to excel — like how Mr. Sanchez encouraged her.

“He motivated me, he believed in me,” she said. “And I think about if he didn’t do that, and how many other kids didn’t run into him, who could be doing the same thing I’m doing. There’s no magic to it; I wasn’t a 4.0 student. I was a decent student, but I also worked very hard.”

Hispanic Business Magazine Shifting Paradigms

Mark Sanchez: Behind this Successful NY Jets Quarterback is a Hard-Working Family

Mark Sanchez: Behind this Successful NY Jets Quarterback is a Hard-Working Family

As New York Jets rookie quarterback Mark Sanchez gears up to play the biggest game of his life against the Colts on Sunday, you can bet his two older brothers are doing their best to minimize his myriad distractions — like an offensive line warding off a sack.


After all, it’s what they’ve been doing all year.

Sanchez, 23, was drafted in April, putting him in the tiny pool of Hispanic NFL players that currently makes up just 1 percent of the league’s entire roster. It was a major triumph in itself, meaning Sanchez had gone from being a middle class son of a Southern California firefighter to an instant millionaire.

To ease the jarring transition, the two older brothers who used to knock him around in the backyard sprung into action to help manage what had suddenly become the Sanchez corporation.

“While he might not have to punch a clock or put a tie on like most of us, he still has a ton of work to do,” Sanchez’s eldest brother, Nick, told this week. “We wanted to maximize Mark’s potential to succeed.”

Nick, 37 — and himself a former quarterback for Yale — is a business litigator by trade, and now serves as his little brother’s agent. He worked long and hard, for example, on Mark’s $50.5 million, five-year contract.

The middle brother, 31-year-old Brandon, took time off from his job as a finance specialist in the precious metals industry in Southern California and moved into Mark’s new home in New York. There, Brandon helps his brother manage the surprising amount of day-to-day tasks that come with the high-profile job.

That can mean everything from handling charity calls, media interview requests and business queries to the more mundane duties of making sure bills get paid on time and the car’s oil gets changed.

And then, of course, there’s the 800-pound gorilla: how to deal with the sudden geyser of money.

“I liken somebody in Mark’s position to more of a lottery winner than a traditional business person,” Nick said.

Like a lottery winner — and unlike most people — Mark’s earning power will most likely taper off in his older adult years. And like lottery winners, pro athletes often find themselves unprepared for the onslaught of financial suitors angling for investments and partnerships. The brothers help Mark navigate that minefield, as well.

“If this is the only time he works to take care of himself, we want to make sure he’s not investing in speculative businesses,” Nick said. “Instead of trying to grow, it’s more trying to protect.”

If victory is a fair gauge, it’s safe to say Mark’s support network hasn’t hurt. This Sunday, on the heels of a roller-coaster season that began with three wins out of the chute and then endured a rocky middle, Sanchez’s Jets will face Peyton Manning, the league’s MVP, and the Indianapolis Colts for the NFC championship.

The brothers’ heavy involvement during Mark’s rookie year embodies the closeness that the Sanchez family has long held dear. To be sure, there have been rough patches: their father, Nick Sr., and mother, Olga Macias, divorced.

Yet, through football, the family has been able to reunite. Olga and Nick Sr., along with sons Nick and Brandon, have attended several games together this year.

So have scores of other relatives. Last Sunday, when the Jets upset the San Diego Chargers, 127 of Sanchez’s relatives sat in the stands. Many most likely had to break off old team alliances: Sanchez grew up in Orange County, about an hour north of San Diego.

If it isn’t common for most Mexican-American boys to get involved with football, it sure was for the Sanchez sons.

Nick Sr. was a quarterback for an inner-city school in Los Angeles, and then for East Los Angeles Junior College.

He passed his knowledge of the game first onto Nick, (who does not go by “junior”) and then Brandon. Nick Sr. also volunteered as a trainer for the football team at Mission Viejo High School. So by the time Mark came around, football was everywhere.

“Ever since he could walk, he was at our practices,” his brother Nick said. “Running around, chasing us, putting on pads, falling over because they were too heavy.”

During his elementary and junior high school years, Mark played in junior leagues — usually as a center or lineman, never as a quarterback. (He didn’t play QB until high school.) As a kid he served as the high school team’s ball boy. He and his father often worked long into the night on his passing game at a local park, with the aid of their pickup truck’s headlights.

Despite all the training, Mark’s father says he never expected that one of his young boys would make the NFL.

“Never in a million years,” Nick Sr. told

To him, sports are largely about character.

“I’ve always felt there’s more to be gained from athletics than running and jumping,” he said. “I was a big proponent of the mental strength it provided.”

Nick Sr. added that even though Mark is in the NFL, nobody in the family has forgotten that he’s still the little brother.

“His two older brothers have done a tremendous job of keeping him humble,” he said, with a laugh, adding, “he’s still the one they harass.”

It might be tough to remember when watching Mark on television, all suited up and revered. But at the end of the day, Nick Sr. said, he’s still 23.

“You take those guys playing on Sundays out of their helmets and out of that environment, and put them home on the couch, you see they’re the same as any other youngster that age,” he said. “He still likes to eat pizza and chicken wings, watch TV and play video games. I feel really good about that.”

Hispanic Business Magazine Shifting Paradigms

The Hispanic Paradox: U.S. Hispanics Live Longer, Despite Socio-Economic Hurdles

The Hispanic Paradox: U.S. Hispanics Live Longer, Despite Socio-Economic Hurdles

When it comes to Hispanics and health care, the horror stories are well known. Less so is the mysterious phenomenon known as the “Hispanic Paradox.”

Again and again, we hear that the Hispanic population is disproportionately beset by the bugbears of poverty, obesity, Type 2 diabetes and lack of access to quality health coverage and insurance.

These unfortunate facts are indisputable. But what many people don’t realize is that, when it comes to the bottom line — that is, mortality — the news for Hispanics is good. Very good.

In the United States, Hispanics, despite their socio-economic hurdles, on average live longer than blacks by seven years, and whites by five years, says Dr. David Hayes-Bautista, a professor of medicine at UCLA.

“There’s something about being Latino that is good for their health,” Hayes-Bautista told, adding wryly: “Just think if we had access to health care.”

Widely known as the “Hispanic Paradox,” the phenomenon was discovered and coined by researchers decades ago.

At the time, many scientists were skeptical, speculating that the data must have been skewed. They hypothesized that immigrants who came to the United States were simply younger and healthier than the average American, or that a large share of older immigrants returned home to die.

But recent studies have refuted the doubting theories, and the science community today generally accepts the Hispanic Paradox as real.

Now, Hayes-Bautista is on the front lines trying to figure out why this is so.

“There’s something going on here,” he said. “Is it diet, is it family, is it spiritual, is it the Latino mind-body balance? I don’t know.”

Hopefully, Hayes-Bautista said, his extensive research on the topic will eventually shed some light.

The longer lifespan of Hispanics has been described in several ways by different studies, and to varying degrees.

In 2007, the Public Policy Institute of California found that the average lifespan of a Hispanic man in that state is 77.5 years, compared to 75.5 among white males and 68.6 among black males. The lifespan of Hispanic men was topped only by Asian men, whose average lifespan came in at 80.4.

In 2008, the National Center for Health Statistics released a study showing that the overall mortality rate for Hispanics in 2006 was 550 deaths per 100,000 people, compared to 778 for whites, and 1,001 for blacks.

Hayes-Bautista said that Hispanics in the United States are 35 percent less likely than whites to die of heart disease, and 40 percent less likely to develop cancer.

Immigration plays a factor, he said, albeit a small one.

For instance, the mortality rates of first-generation immigrants are consistently better than that of U.S.-born Hispanics. But he said the difference between these groups is seldom statistically significant.

More noteworthy, he said, are the behavioral differences between immigrants and the U.S.-born.

Immigrants, he said, are far less likely than U.S. born Hispanics to smoke, drink, do drugs and contract sexually transmitted diseases. Similarly, he said, U.S.-born Hispanics with high levels of education also tend to avoid these high-risk behaviors and their consequences.

Perhaps more surprisingly, another stark contrast between immigrant and the U.S.-born Hispanics is tied to infant mortality. Hayes-Bautista said that although both groups rate “extremely good” on this measure, the U.S.-born Hispanics have a 20 percent higher infant-mortality rate than that of the immigrants.

“U.S.-born Hispanics have higher income, higher education, are far more likely to have health insurance, yet their outcome (on infant mortality) isn’t quite a good as immigrant parents.”

This might lead one to ask whether this means that Mexicans live healthier than Americans. Not so, according to the CIA World Factbook of 2008.

On that index, the life expectancy of Americans in 2008 reached 78 (a national record). For Mexicans, it was about 76.

However, Hayes-Bautista said the lifestyle in rural Mexico is much healthier than that of urban Mexico. What’s more, he says, the bulk of Hispanic immigrants in America hail from the rural pockets of Mexico.

Elena Rios, President and CEO of the National Hispanic Medical Association, said overall, the immigrant Hispanics are younger, and abide by healthier habits, than U.S. born Hispanics.

“With the immigrants, the first generation has healthier habits: less driving, less smoking, less fast foods, more walking,” she told “As the second-generation Hispanic families happen, they pick up the Western — the American — lifestyle.”

As a result, Rios said she wants any healthcare reform package to include an educational component urging Hispanics to get back to their basics, such as traditional foods.

“It is important to have more prevention and education when they are younger, before they get into bad habits,” she said.

Hispanic Business Magazine Shifting Paradigms

Hispanics Praise Selection of Sotomayor for Supreme Court; Republicans Wary

Hispanics Praise Selection of Sotomayor for Supreme Court; Republicans Wary

Originally published on May 26, 2009
Rob Kuznia–

President Barack Obama today nominated Sonia Sotomayor to fill a vacancy on the Supreme Court, drawing praise from Hispanic lawmakers and advocacy groups, and rebukes from some Republican leaders.

Official White House photo by Pete Souza, courtesy White House
Official White House photo by Pete Souza, courtesy White House

If confirmed, Sotomayor, who has served on the federal bench for 17 years, would be the first Hispanic justice to serve on the nation’s high court. If approved by Senate, she would bring more federal judicial experience to the Supreme Court than any justice confirmed since 1932, when Justice Benjamin Cardozo was appointed after 18 years on the federal bench.

The nomination comes four months before the start of the Supreme Court’s fall term, and President Obama said he hopes the Senate will confirm her appointment by August. But Republicans warn that it might take longer than that to thoroughly vet her record.

“Our Democratic colleagues have often remarked that the Senate is not a ‘rubber stamp,'” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said in a statement today. “Accordingly, we trust they will ensure there is adequate time to prepare for this nomination, and a full and fair opportunity to question the nominee and debate her qualifications.”

The Congressional Hispanic Caucus today released a statement praising the selection of Sotomayor, a 54-year-old woman of Puerto Rican descent who rose to prominence despite being raised poor in the Bronx.

“The nomination of such an overwhelmingly qualified judge to serve on the Supreme Court should be celebrated by all Americans,” said Congressman Charles A. Gonzalez (D-TX), and the CHC’s first Vice Chair. “The additional fact that the President Obama’s nominee will be the first Hispanic on our nation’s highest court is significant and is tangible proof of the strength derived by the diversity represented in American society.”

But in a sign of a potential fight to come, some Republicans have already launched an assault.

Former presidential candidate Mike Huckabee blasted her as a “far left” candidate, but got her first name wrong in the process.

“The appointment of Maria Sotomayor for the Supreme Court is the clearest indication yet that President Obama’s campaign promises to be a centrist and think in a bipartisan way were mere rhetoric,” he said today in a statement. “Sotomayor comes from the far left and will likely leave us with something akin to the ‘Extreme Court’ that could mark a major shift. … If she is confirmed, then we need to take the blindfold off Lady Justice.”

Republicans have tapped a former Justice Department lawyer who worked under President George W. Bush to help the GOP pore over Sotomayor’s record. Elisebeth Cook served as Bush’s assistant attorney general for legal policy.

Meanwhile, not everyone on the left is sold. The New Republic, a left-of-center American Magazine, published a piece in early May called “The Case Against Sotomayor.” The story quoted legal professionals who were critical of her abilities. One unnamed former Second Circuit clerk for another judge said Sotomayor is “not that smart and was a bully on the bench.” The article, written by Jeffrey Rosen, maintained that her decisions sometimes missed the forest for the trees. But it also quoted unnamed sources who praised her. One former clerk for a judge said, “She’s an incredibly impressive person, she’s not shy or apologetic about who she is.”

For his part, President Obama said he selected Sotomayor largely for her “rigorous intellect” and “mastery of the law.”

In a presidential video released this morning, Obama also praised her ability to make decisions “without any particular ideology or agenda, but rather, a fidelity to the Constitution.”

“A judge’s job is to interpret, not make law,” he said.

Sotomayor is a graduate of Yale Law School. Described as a centrist by some and a liberal by others, Sotomayor’s high-profile decisions include the go-ahead for The Wall Street Journal to publish the suicide note of White House attorney Vince Foster. She also sided with labor in the Major League Baseball strike of 1995.

Although widely supported by Democrats, she has enjoyed broad bipartisan support in the past.

In 1992, President George H.W. Bush appointed her to a seat on the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. In 1998, she was elevated by President Clinton to the seat she currently holds on the U. S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.

On Tuesday morning, the Hispanic Bar Association of DC called Sotomayor “one of the most accomplished jurors of her generation.”

“Sotomayor does not shy away from tough decisions,” association officials said in a statement today, citing her 1995 decision that ended the 232-day Major League Baseball players’ strike.

The association also credited her for being “tough on crime.”

“Judge Sotomayor has consistently given police wide leeway to conduct searches and effect arrests … particularly where there are terrorism or public safety concerns involved,” the statement said.

Republicans, meanwhile, are expected to scrutinize her recent decision in an affirmative action case. In Ricci v. DeStefano, Sotomayor sided with two other judges in a ruling against white firefighters in New Haven, Conn. who were denied a promotion after the city tossed the results of an exam that failed to boost the standing of any black candidates. The firefighters appealed, and case will be heard by the Supreme Court.

Sotomayor was diagnosed with diabetes at age 8. Her father, a tool-and-die worker with a third-grade education, died a year later. She and her younger brother were raised by her single mother, who worked as a nurse and sent her children to Catholic school.

Sotomayor was the class valedictorian of Cardinal Spellman High School in the Bronx, and was awarded a full scholarship to Princeton University. There, she graduated summa cum laude. She attended Yale Law School, and served as editor or the Yale Law Journal. She obtained her law degree in 1979.

After graduation Sotomayor joined the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office as a criminal prosecutor, and worked on murder, police brutality and child pornography cases. She worked under District Attorney Robert Morgenthau, who still holds the office, and who described her as a “fearless and effective prosecutor.”

She served the District Attorneys office for four-and-a-half years before entering private practice, where she focused on intellectual property, international law and arbitration.

Other Freelance Shifting Paradigms

Another Relic Bites the Dust: A Gritty Day Drinker’s Bar is the Latest Santa Barbara Fixture to Be Priced Out of a Gentrified Market

This article was published on the website of The Ink Online, an experimental project launched by a group of Santa Barbara journalists.

In the crisp early hours of any given morning, those who decide to begin their day with a muffin and a steaming cup of coffee in the Paseo Nuevo mall may notice the sounds of a clinking glass or hacking cough from a nearby dark open door.

That’s the sound of a loyal group of regulars at Mel’s bar, starting the day off in their own way: with a glass of beer and a cigarette. Or, perhaps, just a cup of coffee.

Although daytime drinking might not be a tradition to aspire to, the patrons and tenders of the pub at 6 De la Guerra Street wryly maintain that Santa Barbarans should lament – at least a little bit — the impending loss of a historical fixture.

Regardless of whether Mel’s is a local treasure, an unhealthy enabler, or both, one thing is certain: It is the latest ma-and-pa-shop victim of the State Street rental bonanza.

Skyrocketing monthly rents – reportedly from $3,500 to $10,000 — are forcing the 66-year-old watering hole to either move out of its longtime digs or close up shop for good. The bar is currently looking for a vacant space with reasonable rent.

“It sucks — I’ll be honest with you,” said bartender Doug Hedger. “They’re bent on getting rid of small businesses. State Street is going to look like Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, where it’s nothing but corporations.”

In the meantime, the Mel’s folks will continue to stop in for a drink and reminisce about what they believe to be the good old days for as long as they can.

Their favorite tales include the one of a lawyer named Bruce who used to show up every day at 7 a.m. for a glass of beer. When Bruce died, his relatives called the bar just to let everybody know.

“And to make sure he didn’t leave open a tab,” quipped Hedger, while fixing a $7 “Cadillac Margarita” for a customer on a recent summer day around noon.

Then there’s the lore about how the place used to be a speakeasy back in the days of prohibition.

“There were two sets of stairways from the basement to the bar,” said Richard Blake, a former bartender, of the bar’s first location just across the street, from which it moved 44 years ago. “There was only one reason for that – to hide the liquor in the basement, is my guess.”

In the ensuing years, Mel’s has had a way of attracting a clientele with more than a bit of grit. Take Hedger, for example.

Like many a Mel’s enthusiast, Hedger is a Vietnam war vet who drifted into Santa Barbara almost accidentally. A 56-year-old Wyoming native with a few missing teeth and a large tattoo on both forearms, Hedger spent his first few post-war years as a horse-riding ranch-hand in Arroyo Grande.

His career path changed in the blink of an eye, the day a stubborn Texas Longhorn-bramah mix– which he said translates loosely into “big cow with long horns” – fatally gored his horse in the heart, and then him in the stomach on his way to the ground.

Several weeks and seven surgeries later, Hedger decided to hop on his motorcycle and ride as far away from the ranch as possible. He ended up in Santa Barbara.

Hedger met some other bikers who introduced him to Mel’s, where he became a regular customer. That was 1981. Nearly 20 years later, he was promoted to bartender – where he has been ever since.

“I went from an imbiber to an enabler,” he mused.

But now he’s worried about his livelihood.

“I’m a little too old to get a job at some other bar,” he said.

The owner of Mel’s, Michael Knapp, said the bar has until Feb. 1 to find a new location. If it doesn’t happen by then, it’ll be closing time.

“There’s a lot of history here,” said the 44-year-old Mesa resident, who also works as a defensive coach for the Santa Barbara City College football team.

“We’ve got locals that go way back – three or four generations. A lot of people come in here and say, ‘My dad used to come in here,’ or ‘My grandfather used to come in here.’ You hear that all the time.”

One such patron is a 60-year-old man known as Mace. As a child, Mace would amble into Mel’s to get some loose change from his uncle.

But unlike some other regulars, Mace – who describes himself as a retired employee of the “shipping and receiving” industry – doesn’t get too sentimental about the potential demise of the drinking den he has been patronizing for some 40 years.

“Obviously people here drink, so it doesn’t really fit in with this mall,” he conceded, pointing to the nearby clothing stores, coffee shops, faux cobblestone pathways and the signature water fountain of the open-air shopping plaza. “I would like it to stay, but I understand. I’m a realist.”

If the rent hike – imposed by Santa Barbara Real Estate and Investment – left the Mel’s crowd jaded, the police department’s springtime recommendation to a state agency to deny the bar’s request to move into an empty lot in the 400 block of State Street only compounded the bitterness. The bar is still awaiting a final answer, but the state usually defers to the expertise of the local police force.

Further stirring the dander of the Mel’s crowd is an unconfirmed rumor that the Cheesecake Factory – which also sells liquor – will soon grace the lower State Street area.

“If you sell cheesecake you can move in – it doesn’t matter how much liquor you sell,” said Louie Giglio, another Vietnam vet. “It’s just the little guys getting the short end of the stick once again in Santa Barbara.”

Paul Casey, the city’s community development director, said he hadn’t heard the rumor about the Cheesecake Factory, although he added that the chain restaurant would not need the city’s permission to move in.

As for the police recommendation, Lt. Paul McCaffrey, the spokesman for the Santa Barbara Police Department, said it’s not that the city has anything against Mel’s, per se.

McCaffrey said the zone that includes the 400-to-600-block areas of State Street boasts the highest number of alcohol businesses anywhere in the state. The last thing the area needs, he said, is another bar that serves only drinks and no food.

Also, he said, the volume of criminal police calls in the lower State Street area – more than 2,000 in two years – is excessive. (In comparison, Mel’s has seen just eight criminal calls in three years, he said.)

“We’re not opposed to them moving, we just don’t want them to go there,” he said.

For their part, the Mel’s crowd will do their best to enjoy the last days in their den. What other choice do they have? And they’ll continue to do it with a slight sense of fatalistic irony.

Summing up the soul of Mel’s, Giglio put it this way:

“It’s a sunny spot for shady people.”

With that, he slapped the bar, gave out a self-satisfied hoot and stepped out into the afternoon sun for a smoke.