Chatham’s government needs to offer Spanish-language services. Here’s why.

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Even three years after my time abroad in Spain ended, I can still remember sitting inside a Pamplona brewery feeling like I’d been served a Molotov cocktail. 

It was Sept. 10, 2018, and the brewery was a Spanish chain called 100 Montaditos. I’d arrived in Pamplona, Spain, only a couple of weeks earlier, and classes at my host university, the University of Navarra, had just begun — along with my legal problems.

To study in Spain for a year, I had to apply for a permanent residency card called a T.I.E., but I didn’t have all the documents I needed, nor did I know how to get them. That’s why I was at the brewery — not to drink my sorrows away, but to meet a law student who had agreed to help me obtain the sublease agreement I needed to receive my T.I.E.

At that point, I spoke Spanish. I’d taken six years of it in school, and after a few weeks in Pamplona, I knew how to handle myself. I’d even reached out to that law student in Spanish. But sitting there in 100 Montaditos, I couldn’t even begin to understand the legalese she threw at me in breakneck Spanish. 

Last week, my colleague Hannah McClellan and I wrote an article examining the county’s efforts to expand Spanish-language services and hire more bilingual staff. Immediately thereafter, people began to ask us: Why don’t these people learn English? Are the county’s efforts really necessary?

Yes, they are. Under Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, any  entity that receives federal funds must take reasonable steps to ensure those with limited English proficiency have meaningful access to their services. 

But more than necessary, Chatham County’s efforts to expand Spanish-language services are indispensable. Immigrants should learn English, but it can take years for adult learners to reach native-level fluency. Even for those proficient in English, conversational fluency often doesn’t cut it when you’re trying to file immigration paperwork or apply for county building permits.

Take it from someone who knows.

I entered Spain with what the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages called “upper intermediate” Spanish fluency — so, essentially conversational fluency. I could tell you about my day, order food and complain about my homework in Spanish, no problem. But I couldn’t negotiate a complex sublease. 

I knew what a contrato was. I even knew what arrendamiento and subarrendamiento were. I didn’t, however, have any idea what a DNI was. At that point, I didn’t even know how to say “real estate agency,” much less how to negotiate a sublease contract with one.

That day in 100 Montaditos, as that law student began referencing all of these terms and processes I’d never heard in my life, all I could do was sit there, stare and inwardly implode.

Thankfully, she noticed pretty quickly, and switched to English for my benefit. But if she hadn’t, I don’t know what I would have done. I accompanied her to the real estate agency in charge of the apartment — or piso — to write the agreement, and to this day, I’m not entirely sure what they said. 

Noe Briones Licona, a Ramseur resident I spoke to two weeks ago, summed it up perfectly:

“There are words in English that I’ve never heard in my life,” he told me in Spanish. “Perhaps they’re objects or things I’ve never seen. … There are things that you just don’t understand or know. Perhaps you understand more or less where the conversation’s going, but if you don’t know something, you’re not going to know what it’s called.” 

But I was a student who began learning Spanish — both everyday and academic — at age 14. The younger you are, generally the easier it is to learn a new language. The same goes for education: If you start from a higher literacy baseline with ingrained study habits, it’ll likely be easier for you to learn a second or third language.  

Now consider this: Many Latin Americans who immigrate to Chatham County are older adults. According to 2019 U.S. Census data, the median age of foreign-born citizens in Chatham County was 43. Many, too, come from areas of severe social and economic inequities where education may have been a privilege, not a right.

A couple of months ago, I was speaking to Jazmin Mendoza Sosa of Communities In Schools of Chatham County about school equity for Spanish-speaking parents. Today, she’s a program director, but she used to be a student support specialist at Virginia Cross Elementary, where she supported 45 families who primarily spoke Spanish.

“We know that the key stakeholders are parents who are working many hours, who might not have formal education,” she told me. “Some of them might not even be able to read.” 

During remote learning, Jazmin told me about one mother in particular with a 2nd grader and a 3rd grader who often sat in on her tutoring sessions to support her children’s education in the few ways she could. 

“We were doing something on the whiteboard,” she told me last year. “Mom would erase the stuff that we did on the whiteboard, and then the little girl would continue working. I know erasing the whiteboard might not seem a lot to people, but that’s a lot for a mother who doesn’t know how to read and write ... in English or Spanish.”

Last year, I also spoke with a wonderful lady in her mid-70s who overcame all obstacles to gain U.S. citizenship. She’s originally from Mexico, where she told me she didn’t have the opportunity to go through much schooling.

“I don’t know how to read,” she told me in Spanish. “I can hardly write my name. I don’t know how to read letters.”

Imagine how hard it might be to learn to read, speak and write another language fluently — much less discuss esoteric topics like building permits — when you’re not fully literate in your own language.

But that's not to say that immigrants aren't trying to learn English. Many want to and are learning. In fact, a Mexican immigrant in her 40s told me last year she began attending an English class at Central Carolina Community College the day after she’d first arrived in Chatham seven or eight years ago. 

“I didn’t understand a word in English,” she told me in Spanish, “so for me, my challenge was ‘I have to learn’ because I don’t want to be asking people all the time, ‘Can you tell me what he said?’ … No, I don’t want to depend on anyone.”

As of last year, her English had improved, but she said she was still learning. 

Language acquisition just takes time — especially if you’re starting from a lower literacy baseline. That’s why, in the meantime, Chatham County must have Spanish-language services and resources to serve those who can’t or just haven’t yet got there.

Victoria Johnson is the News + Record’s La Voz de Chatham reporter. She can be reached at victoria@chathamnr.com.

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