Long-time residents of Chula Vista and their neighbors Maria Teresa Pineda and Delia Torres first entered the council chambers in Chula Vista Town Hall last week.
Pineda expected that she would speak the best she could in a language that wasn’t her first – English, about a traffic problem in her neighborhood in front of the city council.
Instead, she and Torres were relieved to hear their mother tongue, Spanish.
While the two women could not see them, they heard the voice of interpreter Mariana Lopez, who wirelessly translated the meeting into Spanish via headphones from a separate room overlooking the council rooms.
“Estuvo muy bien porque no entiendo mucho el inglÃ©s,” said Torres of the interpreter setup and said it was helpful because she rarely understood English and could therefore overhear the conversation between Pineda and the council.
The interpreting service is part of Chula Vistaâs recent efforts to make Council meetings more linguistically inclusive.
Chula Vista had provided a Spanish interpreter upon request 48 hours before a council meeting. However, no advance notice has been required since April after the city signed Lopez, who has been interpreting events and other public forums with the city for nearly 20 years.
“I interpret the meetings, but I also go with them (local residents) on the way to the microphone and interpret their direct communications with the councilors,” said Lopez. “People are very grateful that they have a voice to speak to the people they represent.”
C.Hula Vista efforts are picking up speed, but it’s not the first town in the county to bring Spanish to their council meetings.
For nearly 20 years, National City has provided Spanish interpreting services for council meetings in a room adjacent to the council chambers, and since 2017 interpreters have also been interpreting the comments of Spanish-speaking members for council members and vice versa. During the pandemic, those services were postponed online as the council meetings went virtual, said Shelley Chapel, the city’s deputy town clerk.
In the fall, Chula Vista plans to provide simultaneous live streams and recordings of council meetings in Spanish, followed by Spanish subtitles on council meeting videos, said Cristina Hernandez, an analyst for city workers at Chula Vista. Later on, Tagalog could be next, she added.
In late May, the city also began offering the agenda titles of its council meetings in Spanish to translate entire agendas and make them available to the public alongside English versions – a feature other cities in San Diego County do not yet offer. The translations done with automated software and the simultaneous streaming services are tools that the city will have access to after switching providers in October 2020. Chula Vista pays approximately $ 7,500 a year for Spanish streaming and up to $ 25,000 a year for interpreting services.
However, bringing in these new services is not solely attributed to the city. Community groups play a vital role in perfecting for the local Spanish-speaking population, said Hernandez.
How it started
Much of the agenda and meeting conversations in Spanish began before the pandemic with city officials meeting with residents who are part of the South Bay Community Services Resident Leadership Academy, a program that focuses on encouraging people to get active deal with issues that affect their lives, such as public safety and civic engagement.
One of those involved was Veronica Marquez, who lives in Chula Vista and has worked at the academy for more than two years. Through translation she learned about the city’s authorities and their approval process, but when it came to council meetings it was too complex to understand.
“No entendÃamos lo que nos trataban de decir y aparte usaban un tipo de vocabulario como de abogados, con tÃ©rminos muy elevados,” said Marquez, saying that the academy’s residents had difficulty understanding the meetings, particularly because of government jargon.
When they heard their concerns, the city worked not only to provide accurate translations of the agendas and live interpretations, but also to offer a Spanish glossary of agenda terms and descriptions as requested by members of the academy.
âEven English speakers may not know all the terms. So imagine that English is not your main language, âsaid Hernandez. “I think we accepted almost every single one of your suggestions and I really appreciated your openness.”
Efforts to offer languages ââother than English at council meetings have been a long time coming, said Nancy Maldonado, CEO of the Chicano Federation, whose staff often speak for Spanish.
“I think for so many of us we grew up at a time when we were sometimes discouraged from speaking Spanish in public places because we didn’t want to be stigmatized or labeled or viewed differently,” she said. So that signals more than just, ‘Oh, they’re translating the city council meeting.’ It signals the respect that our community has long earned. “
Spanish speakers in numbers
Marquez and the women who attended the council meeting last week are from a population in Chula Vista whose language at home is Spanish.
Almost half of Chula Vistaâs 251,000 residents, ages five and older, speak Spanish at home, and approximately 16 percent of that population have limited English language skills, according to the 2015-19 American Community Services of the US Census Bureau.
In fact, several cities in San Diego County have large populations of residents who speak Spanish and speak English âless than very wellâ. These include Escondido, Vista, and National City, which has the highest population of those who speak Spanish at home. Of around 60,000 residents aged five and over, 52 percent speak the language at home and 18 percent speak English âlittle wellâ. Of the city of San Diego’s 1.3 million residents, 8 percent have limited English proficiency and 9 percent of San Diego County’s 3.1 million residents, according to the report.
The investment is worth it
Currently, other cities outside of Chula Vista and National City are offering translations of their city websites, including agenda titles, into multiple languages ââvia Google Translate, and some only provide interpreters upon request.
For some cities, bringing in Spanish translations or additional languages ââboils down to funding and needs.
âThe truth is, I never received a request for it. I’ve been on the council for 20 years, but we’re certainly very different, âsaid Oceanside Mayor Esther Sanchez, who is bilingual and the first Latina to compete in the city, where around 25 percent of the population whose language is Spanish is spoken at home. She said that adding these linguistic services was something “that we should probably start looking at”.
Efforts to request translation services for public gatherings have been briefly considered in the California legislature under Assembly Bill 339, which is primarily aimed at expanding access to government meetings through remote participation. The interpretative aspect was removed by the state’s local government committee, likely for cost reasons, said Charlsie Chang, spokeswoman for MP Alex Lee (D-25), who co-drafted the bill.
Some government officials see it as a vital investment.
âWhen you think about the cost of civic engagement, it’s a worthwhile investment,â said Mayor Alejandra Sotelo-Solis, who said the move came when the city became a âcompassionate cityâ or a more immigrant city. “It’s pretty cool that people feel empowered, that they feel like, ‘You really want to hear my voice even when I’m not fluent in English.”
District chief Nora Vargas, whose first district includes the towns of South Bay and who is the first regulator of Latina, agreed. She has been providing COVID-19 updates during the county news in Spanish throughout the pandemic. Access to essential information in Spanish began with Conexiones, a virtual bilingual resource center for residents that she launched during her election campaign.
âI try to make everything I do bilingual and bicultural. For me this is completely normal because I am a binational child. I go back and forth with the language and the community I grew up in, âsaid Vargas. “We should all get involved, and more importantly, people should hold us accountable regardless of your background or culture and language.”
Vargas encourages cities to invest in services that help non-English speakers participate in government.
“The positive things we can take away from COVID are community, working together, and finding ways to not only break down language barriers, but also obstacles for government to have access because they need access to vital services” , she said.