“We’re leaving people behind if we’re not translating,” said 18-year old Melanie Coronado Amaya. Photo by Bridget Fogarty

This story originally appeared in El Perico on Aug. 22, 2021.

Melanie Coronado Amaya’s mother was scrolling through her Facebook feed in August  of 2020 when a particular post that looked important caught her eye. She turned to her 18-year-old daughter for help.

“¿Qué dice esto?” the mother asked Coronado Amaya, pointing to an announcement in English about the Omaha City Council’s newly instated mask mandate. Reading the text carefully, Coronado told her mom in Spanish what the words said.

“We have to wear masks now, you know, because of the risk from the pandemic.”

Since the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, residents across the country have relied on public health officials, local government and experts to make sense of rapidly-changing public information and safety regulations. But when institutions and organizations don’t offer translation or interpreting services, individuals whose primary language is not English are left out of accessing crucial, and sometimes life-saving, resources, especially during a pandemic.

Bilingual children and young people like Coronado Amaya are oftentimes the ones that must step up to close those language gaps.

“If I wasn’t there to help my mom understand that there was a mask mandate, she wouldn’t know about it,” she said.

Coronado Amaya is a Mexican American born and raised Omahan, and a student Metropolitan Community College who spent her summer as a communications intern with the Latino Center of the Midlands. She’s used to being that bridge from English to Spanish for family and community members— and she is happy to be that help.

She just wishes more individuals in local government and organizations would make the effort to communicate with the immigrant and refugee communities they mean to serve, in the native languages they speak.

“They are a part of the community,” she said. “We’re leaving people behind if we’re not translating.”

Prioritizing language access for “an integral part of the Nebraska community.”

Omaha has a long history of immigration, dating back to its inception in the mid-1800’s.

Census data shows the city’s current foreign-born population as 10.7 percent, and Omaha has been coined as “the most apparent immigration hub” of the American Heartland, according to a recent report by Heartland Forward, a nonprofit focused on improving economics in the center regions of the United States.

Isabel Velázquez, a social linguist, associate professor and researcher at the University of Nebraska Lincoln, believes improving language access in Nebraska is not just an accommodation to the non-English speaking population, but a basic human right.

“Immigrants are an integral part of the Nebraska community,” Velázquez said. “We contribute to the economy. Our work makes possible the quality of life in this state.”

But despite 2019 U.S. Census Bureau Data showing 16.6 percent of households (or about 31,000) speak languages other than English, some Omahans are still resistant to the reality of a multilingual community.

Coronado Amaya has never been insecure about her Latina heritage, but there have been times she doesn’t feel safe speaking Spanish in predominantly white areas of Omaha. She thinks the city’s segregation and racist stereotypes play a huge role in people’s misconceptions about their Black and brown neighbors.

“In spaces where I don’t feel welcome, I have a fear of somebody coming up to me and be like, ‘You can’t say that,’ or, ‘You can’t speak that language’,” Coronado Amaya said. “People make the assumption that you’re not from here, and then the racism starts; it’s just like a domino effect from there.”

Velázquez sees this resistance and criticism of language reinforce harmful stereotypes, and upholds mono-cultural perceptions of the world, like those of 19th century Europe and German nationalism. These perceptions ultimately silence entire cultures and languages.

“Saying ‘I don’t have to invest in people in my community getting access to the translation’ is like saying, I only need the veins on my left leg, because I never use my right ones— so let’s not send blood to the right one,” Velázquez said.

In other words, the whole body of a community suffers when a large portion is neglected by those in power.

Leaders in Omaha and Douglas County have made certain strides to meet the communities’ growing language needs. The Mayor’s office hotline has a Spanish hotline, for Hispanic residents to call with minor issues or city questions. Omaha Public Schools offer resources for students learning English, including bilingual liaisons in languages like Spanish, Karen, Arabic, Bhutanese and Nepali, Karenni and Burmese, and Kiswahili and French.

Still, some believe many of the flaws in language access that perpetuate information gaps remain unaddressed.

Velázquez believes change can come through investing in the education of languages native to immigrant and refugee Omahans, particularly for teenagers who have grown up in Nebraska speaking mostly English outside their multilingual household.

“Why should Latinx children study Spanish when they already speak Spanish?” is the question English speakers frequently ask Velázquez, to which she answers: “How many years did you study English in school?”

Having a biliterate generation requires a community effort Velázquez said. She believes young people should be able to see bilingualism and biliteracy of their family’s language as a viable option for their future, not something they are told will hold them back.

One nonprofit in Omaha sees that same future, and has a mission to improve language access while celebrating and uplifting culture through language teaching.

World Speaks finds its way as a solution

When Leah Whitney Chavez was eight years old, she moved from her vibrant, multicultural community in Bellevue, Washington to Bellevue, Nebraska.

As a young Black girl in Nebraska, she grew up navigating predominantly white spaces where individuals made hurtful, racist remarks often. The lack of diversity and cultural education among community members and peers was palpable.

Overtime, a passion for languages, especially the Spanish language, cultivated within Whitney Chavez. In 2008, she had a vision of creating a language school in Omaha.

Leah N. Whitney Chavez, Executive Director/ Founder of World Speaks, poses for a portrait for the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s “I am the ROI” series. Photo provided by Leah Whitney Chavez.

“I wrote in my journal, but I didn’t think anything of it,” she said.

In 2016, her vision officially became reality as World Speaks Omaha— a 501c3 nonprofit organization offers translation, interpretation and language classes in twelve languages, including Spanish, Burmese, Arabic, Korean and American Sign Language.

“It’s not always about being super fluent or being perfect,” said Whitney Chavez, World Speaks Omaha’s founder and executive director. “But when you just take the opportunity to learn how someone else thinks, tap into somebody else’s culture, they just really appreciate it.”

“People are cut out… even if it’s information they really need to know.”

Before building World Speaks into the organization it is today, Whitney Chavez worked at a nonprofit helping residents navigate public resources. There, she saw the true importance of language access. She realized how often services intended for immigrants and refugees weren’t made available, simply because agencies wouldn’t make the effort to hire a translator or interpreter to offer aid in other languages.

“People are just cut out because of the language barrier, even if it’s information they really need to know,” she said. “And folks think it’s okay— like, it’s kind of normal.”

Worst of all, she saw how families were used to being neglected and left behind on information. And Whitney Chavez saw the pandemic really highlight how Omaha was behind in getting information out in different languages spoken and read throughout the community.

“You’re putting out valuable information,” Whitney Chavez said. “When there’s not that access to someone’s native language, you’re actually putting your community in danger.”

At the heart of the World Speaks mission is a goal to connect communities through cultural understanding and education, amplifying and celebrating the diversity of identities in the Omaha area.

Since Whitney Chavez herself is not Latina, she prioritizes hosting a native speaker at each class. This gives the individuals learning the language the opportunity to practice with a native speaker— and gives native speakers the chance to share their culture in community with others.

World Speaks also offers Justice Speaks, a platform for community members to share their personal stories and experiences as an ongoing dialogue about the issues facing marginalized communities in Omaha.

Cami Cavanaugh Rawlings first heard about World Speaks through a Zoom presentation. As the director of development at The Big Garden, she knew right away her staff would benefit from Spanish classes. Together, about 12 team members participated in a Zoom class once a week, focusing lessons and conversations on phrases in Spanish the group could use in different gardening situations.

For Cavanaugh Rawlings, the decision to work with World Speaks was “just so easy.”

“If we’re going to live in and work with a community that has languages that are different from ours… I feel like we should learn it,” she said. “It’s just the right thing to do.

For program information and more about the work World Speaks does, see here. The virtual courses for learning beginner’s Spanish begins September 16, and the waitlist is currently open.

Bridget Fogarty is a Report for America Corps member reporting with The Reader and its billingual (Spanish/English) sister publication El Perico.

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