Posted on August 15, 2006

Non-English Speakers Face Added Challenges

J. N. Sbranti, Modesto Bee, August 15, 2006

Luis Bañuelos didn’t speak a word of English five years ago when he moved to Modesto from Nayarit, a state on Mexico’s west coast.

He still doesn’t speak English, and he’s not trying to learn.

“I haven’t really needed to learn English since there are so many (Spanish-speaking) Latinos already here in this country,” Bañuelos, 25, said in Spanish. “I mostly stay in my own neighborhood so I won’t get stuck in a situation where they only speak English.”

Whenever that happens, Bañuelos runs “to find someone who can translate for me.”

He’s not alone. Nearly one in five Stanislaus County residents do not speak English very well or at all. And about two in five residents speak a foreign language in their homes.

The percent of non-English speakers is even higher in Merced and San Joaquin counties, according to justreleased data from the Census Bureau’s 2005 American Community Survey.

And their ranks are growing throughout the Northern San Joaquin Valley.

Finding good jobs and making ends meet in the valley is tricky enough for those who speak English. But non-English speakers face many added challenges.

Still, many make do.

Bañuelos usually turns to his wife, Carmen, who speaks English well enough to get through obstacles such as filling out job applications or health insurance forms.

While at work at a Byron plumbing company, he said there’s always a foreman who speaks some Spanish.

“Even when they can’t talk to me in Spanish, I follow their gestures and body movement to understand what they are asking me to do,” Bañuelos explained. “But the other workers there are also Latino, so we all get through it, helping each other out.”

Many adults also rely on their bilingual children to translate for them.

That’s what Gabriel Rodríguez of Manteca does. He came to the United States 19 years ago from Guadalajara, Mexico, but he hasn’t learned his new country’s primary language.

“I wish I’d speak English, but I never made the time to go to school and take any classes,” Rodríguez, 59, said in Spanish. “If I need to have a paper read for me or make a phone call, I’ll ask one of my children to do it for me. They went to school here, so they can interpret for me, and I just have to trust that they are telling the right things.”

Bilingual workers in demand

But sometimes a child’s translation isn’t good enough. That’s why many government and health care agencies — and increasing numbers of private businesses — hire professional translators or bilingual staff members.

In Stanislaus County Superior Court, for instance, it’s common to see a translator leaning over the shoulder of a defendant or sitting nearby as a witness testifies.

Translators repeat every question, objection and ruling from the judge. They are required in criminal cases and often are used in juvenile cases for the parents’ benefit.

Those interpreters don’t come cheap.

Last year, the Stanislaus court spent $643,000 for five full-time translators, two freelancers who get steady work and several others who are called as needed.

“We have pretty standard, steady use for Vietnamese, Hmong, Laotian, Assyrian, Portuguese and American Sign Language, but our major increases have been in Spanish,” said Don Lundy, the court’s executive officer.


Many obstacles to learning

Learning English is key to higher-paying jobs, Garcia agreed, but he said it is hard to persuade new immigrants to spend what little spare time they have in class.

“There are a lot of obstacles. A lot of these folks work two or three jobs,” said Garcia. “It isn’t the American dream they come here to follow. They come here to work and feed their families.”

Garcia said some U.S. residents resent those who speak foreign languages in public. “Anytime anyone is speaking another language, they see it a threat and unpatriotic.”

But giving up their native tongue is not easy.

“Spanish is part of our culture and always will be,” Garcia said. “It’s part of a long, long tradition.”

The good news, Garcia said, is that second-generation Latinos almost all speak English and are bilingual.

Claudia Martínez of Modesto also wants to be bilingual. That’s why the recent immigrant from Michoacán is taking English classes.

“I know that if you want to have a better future in this country, you have to learn the language,” said Martínez, 40. “I have a hard time when I want to take care of my errands, and the company doesn’t have anybody that speaks Spanish. It is very frustrating. I don’t want to be here and have to depend on someone else to interpret for me.”