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Angry in any language

Wrath reigns in news conference on English only

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All it took was the commonly pleasant greeting "buenos dias" to bring a cultural melting pot of Utahns to a roiling boil over the initiative to make English the state's official language.

Those were the first words out of U.S. English chairman Mauro E. Mujica's mouth at a news conference at the state Capitol, called to announce that the proposed English as Official Language Act is certified to be on the November election ballot. A Spanish-speaking opponent of the measure shouted something back, and the verbal free-for-all was on. Two Utah Highway Patrol troopers were called in at one point to make sure things didn't get out of hand.

Mujica, a Chilean-born U.S. citizen, and his half dozen supporters didn't have a chance Thursday against more than 50 vociferous detractors, including Salt Lake Mayor Rocky Anderson. Somewhere lost in the 45-minute confrontation was the fact that this was supposed to be a session for reporters to ask questions.

Proponents said they won't be deterred by the gate-crashing opposition because they have 74,000 names on a petition and public opinion polls show overwhelming support for the initiative. "Because Utahns for a Common Language is just getting organized, we didn't have people on the ground to bring," said Eric Stone, a former U.S. English worker who now runs an Internet firm in Utah County.

Thursday's skirmish was just the beginning of what will undoubtedly be an emotionally charged battle right up to Election Day. Both sides promise to "educate" voters about the issue via television, radio and newspaper ads over the coming months.

"I don't think 'crashing' is the right term," said Mata Finau, who heads Utah Common Voices, which opposes the initiative. "We're just welcoming Mr. Mujica and letting our presence be known."

Opponents rallied on the Capitol steps Thursday morning, and then the crowd comprised of Hispanics, whites, Asians and Pacific Islanders marched to the room U.S. English had scheduled for its announcement. They encircled the lectern from which Mujica would speak to ensure their "I don't speak English (only)" and "wilkomen" signs would be seen on the 6 p.m. news. They wouldn't budge when U.S. English only representatives tried to get them to move.

"This is about maintaining our common language. This is not against other languages," Mujica calmly said.

And then the catcalls began. Some in English, some in Spanish. Why, some yelled. Why does U.S. English, based in Washington, D.C., want this law in Utah?

"Because you're part of the United States," Mujica said. "Nothing specific about Utah, except that it's part of this national movement."

Anderson, standing with the reporters, eventually jumped in. Identifying himself as the mayor of Salt Lake City, he said, "I think you can see how it takes more than forcing one language on all of us to create unity."

"I guess you're making this a political event for you," Mujica shot back. "Are you up for re-election?"

Former Box Elder County Commissioner Frank Nishiguchi, a member of the newly created Utahns for a Common Language, took Mujica's place in an attempt to restore order. It didn't last long. Someone yelled, "Don't communicate with hate."

"What do you know about hate?" Nishiguchi said, glaring into the crowd for the heckler. "If you think you've seen hate, be of my extraction in World War II."

Brigham Young University linguist Bill Eggington shouted a question of his own. He wanted Mujica to address why experts such as the American Association of Applied Linguists would oppose so-called "English-only" legislation.

"Unfortunately, your group is dominated by leftists," Mujica replied. The response left the Australian-born professor scratching his head, saying linguists are, by and large, a conservative lot.

The "news conference" eventually crumbled to an end with opponents chanting, "English only is baloney." But the heated debate continued in small groups throughout the Capitol rotunda for some time.

Community activist and initiative opponent Linda Hilton walked away wondering why people couldn't be more civil.

"We respect opinion and we respect diversity. That's why America works," she said. "And that's why this didn't."

E-MAIL: romboy@desnews.com