Lucia Russet of Little Sisters of the Assumption Family Health Service in East Harlem.
Dispatches, United States

Latin American Indigenous Language Speakers Face Communication Obstacles In New York City

November 11, 2010 By Roque Planas

Lucia Russet of Little Sisters of the Assumption Family Health Service in East Harlem.

NEW YORK – When she was six years old, Reina Carranza traveled to the city of Tlapa, in the Mexican state of Guerrero, from her home on the urban periphery. In Tlapa, she learned Spanish. Twelve years later, she continued on to New  York City, where she’s been ever since.

Carranza is part of a growing wave of Latin American immigrants to the city whose first language is not Spanish, but rather an indigenous language – in Carranza’s case, Mixteco. Her fluency in Spanish and Mixteco has allowed her to contribute her services as an intepreter for the Little Sisters of the Assumption Family Health Service (LSAFHS) in East Harlem.

While the majority of Mixteco speakers also speak fluent Spanish, some do not. According to Carranza, language confusion often leads to problems when such people make use of public services.

“There’s no way to express yourself clearly,” Carranza said in Spanish in an interview. “They ask you ‘what’s your name,’ they don’t know. They ask, ‘when were you born,’ they don’t know.”

When Mixteco speakers go to the hospital, they may not understand instructions explaining how to use prescription medicine, Carranza said. First and last names get switched on birth certificates. “They ask ‘last name’ and ‘segundo apellido,’ and everything gets confused. They do everything backwards,” says Carranza.

The City doesn’t keep statistics measuring the number of Latin American residents in New York who speak indigenous languages. Carranza says that sometimes it’s difficult to explain to government workers that Mixteco is not a Spanish dialect.

Lucia Russett, a program director at LSAFS, says that the growing presence of Latin American indigenous language speakers, some of whom are monolingual, is creating a widening breach that makes it more difficult to guarantee that immigrants have access to public services.

The indigenous language most common among clients of LSAFHS is Mixteco, followed by Nahuatl and Tlapaneco, all of which come from Mexico, Russett said. At least 194 families that work with LSAFHS’s support program speak Mixteco.

“I think it’s very invisible,” Russett said of the problems faced by Mixteco speakers. “With the City offices, it’s all we can do to get services in Spanish, let alone some language they might not even know exists.”

Commissioner Fatima Shama of the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs said in a telephone interview that in New York about 200 different languages are spoken and communicating with all these people presents a constant challenge.

The City uses three principal methods to solve the problem, Shama said. They keep a corp of volunteer interpreters, they work with grassroots organizations and they use a telephonic translation service, available by calling 311, for people who don’t speak English or Spanish.

Nick Sbordone, a spokesman for 311, said that “if someone calls in Mixteco, they will be attended.” To use the service, the caller should just begin speaking their native language and an interpreter will join the line, Sbordone added.

The interpretation service, provided by a company called Language Line Services, is available at 30 government agencies as well, but Sbordone said the most common way people use it is by calling 311.

The Mexican Consulate said that it does not have the resources necessary to maintain a permanent team of interpreters. “We’ve established relationships with community organizations in the city,” a spokesperson for the Consulate said. He added that the Consulate maintains contacts with informal interpreters “who offer the service to help the Consulate communicate with indigenous people,” but who only are employed “in extreme cases, when someone really urgently needs to make use of consular services.”

But for many, the problem of translation and interpretation is usually solved informally, by using bilingual family members or friends like Carranza to interpret.

This practice can lead to communication problems, however, said Martha Andrade-Dousdebes, of LSAFHS. “Sometimes they bring children, but that’s an adult skill,” said Andrade-Dousdebes, who used to work as a teacher and holds a degree in linguistics. “The brain is doing the work of two minds, and that’s very stressful,” she added.

For Russett, the language problem has become one more obstacle for the immigrants her organization serves, many of whom have erroneous ideas about what they are allowed to ask for from the government.

“There are millions of hurdles for people to deal with just to get things that they are theoretically entitled to,” Russett said.

“The most important thing is awareness. This issue is really off the radar,” Russett added. “Even if we don’t have the resources to address it, we need to at least be aware of it.”

An earlier version of this article appeared in Spanish at El Diario/La Prensa.

1 Comment

Victor Norberg says:

Looking for resources to learn and to teach Guerrero Mixteco to people who speak mixteco

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