Community must bridge language divide
In Washington city, it’s English or Spanish
Nearly everyone in this small farming community in eastern Washington speaks Spanish – nearly everyone except those in city government and the police department, where English is spoken.
And almost everyone who speaks one language does not speak the other. It is a language barrier that has engulfed the community, which has grown over the last 20 years from 300 to about 3,200 year-round residents. Nine out of 10 Mattawa residents speak Spanish at home and 8 out of 10 adults speak English “less than very well,” according to the 2000 Census.The Columbia River basin community, surrounded by miles of fruit orchards and vineyards, has tried to deal with its language barrier informally. Signs advertise goods and services in Spanish and English. The tiny library offers bilingual story time for families. For years, police often relied on bystanders to translate at crime scenes. City administrators grabbed bilingual speakers as ad hoc interpreters.
But the gap between an English-speaking city government and an overwhelmingly Spanish-speaking population has grown so wide that the federal government has stepped in to mandate that the city bridge the divide. Following a Civil Rights Act complaint filed by a legal aid group, the US Department of Justice worked with the city and its police department to develop a language assistance plan.
Adopted in March, the plan is unique in Washington and is seen as a bellwether for cities with similar demographics. It requires Mattawa to employ at least one bilingual employee during regular business hours and to make vital information available in Spanish as well as English. It also requires the police to have qualified interpreters on call at all times. For a long time, the Northwest Justice Project knew that Mattawa Police did not speak Spanish and did not use interpreters, said Judith Lurie, senior attorney for the group that launched the federal complaint. Then a call for help in a domestic violence case focused the issue.
Mattawa police allowed the suspect in the case to leave the scene to go and find someone to interpret, Lurie said. The man never returned. The police had tried to use the couple’s children as interpreters, but they were too traumatized by the fighting. Their terrified mother drove them some 60 miles to a safe house. Mayor Judy Esser categorized the domestic violence case as unusual. Prior to the language agreement, police and city officials usually had someone around who could translate.”We thought that was enough,” she said.
The Justice Department said the city had to provide interpretation and translation for people who aren’t English-proficient. In places that have a high percentage of monolingual Spanish speakers, that means all city services, including law enforcement, have to be available in Spanish. Hiring bilingual police officers and city staff costs money the town doesn’t have, the mayor said. Mattawa employs one provisional and three full-time officers.
Mattawa, about 150 miles east of Seattle, is not a wealthy place. The town is wedged between the Yakima Training Center Military Reservation and the US Department of Energy Hanford Site. During harvest season, the town’s population nearly doubles with migrant farm workers. The local government struggles with growing pains and has a limited tax base. More than half of the property owners don’t pay taxes because they are subsidized or nonprofits. Esser called the growth of farm worker housing “much needed” but a strain on other systems and services. The Catholic Diocese of Yakima Housing Services operates low-income housing in Mattawa. The state’s migrant council runs a child development center that has a long waiting list. Residents point with pride to the new high school and community clinic. Jose Fernandez manages an unusual migrant housing project: the Esperanza, a village of 40 reconstructed cargo containers. Six people squeeze into each unit. Families pay $10 per day; singles, $3. Fernandez sees Mattawa police on patrol regularly and gives them credit. “They relate. They work with the people,” he said. “They do their job.”
Maria Belen Ledezma, a 35-year resident who works in agricultural services for the state’s employment office in Mattawa, said the police should work harder to resolve the language barrier. “How would [Spanish-only speakers] understand what law enforcement is requesting? If they are stopped, how would they know what their rights are?” she asked.