Some Hispanic voters in Chatham face language barrier, lack of information

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SILER CITY — When it came time to vote this year, Siler City resident Natalia Franco López didn’t go to Paul Braxton Gym. She went to the Hispanic Liaison.

She arrived with her absentee ballot, a witness and her mind made up. She knew who she wanted to vote for. The only thing left to do? Ask a staff member to help her fill out the ballot.

“I don’t know a word in English,” said López, who became a U.S. citizen in 2018. “I don’t know how to do it, but I asked for help. I asked (the Hispanic Liaison) to help me do what I wanted to do, what I needed to do.”

For some first-generation Hispanic citizens like López who speak limited or no English, voting is a bit more complicated than a simple walk-in visit to the polls. Ballots, candidate information and election protocols come primarily in English, which can prove a difficult barrier to overcome for some Spanish-speaking voters without assistance.

But in López’s case, the Hispanic Liaison provided that assistance. Staff members helped López, a 75-year-old native of Guanajuato State in Mexico, request an absentee ballot. They also read the ballot aloud to her in Spanish and tracked it online to ensure that Chatham’s board of elections received it.

“I don’t read very well, so they told me someone (on the ballot) is running for so-and-so. For example, ‘So-and-so is running for president and he’s named this. For the other party, he’s named this,’” she said, adding, “I was the one who decided. I was the one who said, ‘I’m going to vote here. Here is where my vote will go.’ And that’s how it went.”

The language barrier is one of several challenges Ilana Dubester, the Hispanic Liaison’s executive director, has seen some Spanish-speaking voters struggle with in Chatham and other counties across North Carolina. In the past, she said, the North Carolina Board of Elections would supply a translated ballot upon request. Though citizens wouldn’t actually vote on these translated ballots, they could use them as side-by-side guides when casting their official English ballots.

“It’s formatted exactly the same,” she said. “It looks exactly the same as an English ballot, but everything is in Spanish, except for, of course, the candidates’ names.”

But the Hispanic Liaison hasn’t yet received a translated ballot from the state board — perhaps, Dubester said, because they’d sent in the request a little late. So instead, the Liaison went ahead and created their own for their clients. They asked the local board to approve the translated ballot as an official guide for Spanish-speaking voters at the precincts but have yet to hear the board's decision.

The Hispanic Liaison is also offering in-person voter assistance, in which staff and trained volunteers read ballots in Spanish to voters at polling places all over Chatham County.

“We have flyers in English and Spanish that are posted at every precinct that state that if you need assistance in Spanish or Portuguese, point to this flyer and the election official will call somebody from the Hispanic Liaison,” Dubester said, adding, “And (then) we can go drive to the polling place and assist the voter.”

But the language barrier doesn’t just disadvantage some Spanish-speaking voters when it comes to filling out the ballot.

“When we’re talking about the older generation, first-generation immigrants, we’re talking about a lack of access of information in Spanish, although it is getting better,” she said, adding, “What the candidates stand for, and who they are, what they believe in — things like that are scarce in Spanish.”

Many lack access to information about local candidates and offices especially, said Maria Gomez Flores, the Liaison’s advocacy and civic engagement program manager.

“I was helping out somebody, and they were really shocked with all the names on there,” she said. “They were expecting maybe two positions on there, so they were very shocked to see all these things. They’re like, ‘Wow, all these judges’ seats.’ And it’s like, they don’t have that access to information about what these positions do and how they affect their lives.”

Many voters face that problem across the United States, Spanish-speaking or otherwise, Dubester added, but it’s particularly acute for Spanish-speaking voters. After all, even if people refer Spanish-speaking voters to candidates’ websites, those sites are all mostly in English.

“A lot of us are bilingual, and (the) second generation mostly is,” she said, “but nonetheless, we still have a lot of first-generation immigrants in America and in our county who may speak English but may not read English well enough to understand the jargon of a candidate and what it is they’re going to do for them.”

Gomez Flores also said she’s noticed that organizations and political parties haven’t engaged in much Hispanic and Spanish outreach in Siler City — perhaps, she said, because of the language barrier or historically lower turnout among the Hispanic community.

“This one-on-one interaction is important with the Latinx community because it’s how you get to mobilize the Latinx community,” she said. “COVID has exacerbated or it has hindered that especially because like in the Latinx community, it’s bad manners if you don’t ‘saludar’ (greet others). ‘Saludar’ is very big in our community.”

The annual Hispanic Heritage Fiesta would have helped bridge that gap somewhat, Dubester said, since some candidates would attend and set up outreach booths, while other groups would help register voters.

“COVID has really hampered those door-to-door efforts and things like that,” she said, “so it’s all kind of confined to the virtual world, which makes it even harder because there is such a tech divide for our people in terms of access.”

But despite challenges, López didn’t find it too difficult to vote — and she wouldn’t let anything stop her anyway. For her, the decision to vote is a very simple one. After all, she’s not just voting for herself. She’s voting for working class families, the downtrodden poor and parents separated from their children.

“We Hispanics … the majority come here out of necessity,” she said. “They don’t come for fun because they suffer here. They don’t come here to enjoy themselves. They come here to suffer and work.”

She, too, came to work. López arrived in Siler City around 1994 and worked at the Townsend poultry processing plant for 17 years alongside her husband until the plant closed. Now retired, she votes to make political leaders see “us as people, not as things without importance.”

“I hope everything will get better,” she said. “Whoever ends up with the presidency, well, I just ask our father God that he be aware, that he be considerate of all the people and (especially) the poor ... I hope that he will think of everyone — everyone — in need.”

But voting also represents something more to her. It’s the right and privilege she won in 2018, when she became a U.S. citizen after long hours of studying and memorization — something made all the harder by the fact that she didn’t have the opportunity to attend school in Mexico.

“It was very important for me to achieve citizenship,” she said, adding, “I never imagined that I would achieve it in my life. Never.”

In Mexico, her father used to tell her that voting was his civic obligation, and now she’s following his example.

“He didn’t know how to read or write, but he always completed his civic duty,” López said, adding, “There was never a year he didn’t go vote. I feel like I have to do it. I like it, and I think it is an obligation that we have to fulfil — even people like us who aren’t originally from this country.”

Reporter Victoria Johnson can be reached at victoria@chathamnr.com.

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