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¨Habla Espa¤ol?

Chesterfield County learns how to speak to an increasingly bilingual population.


Now the county has recognized an everyday need to communicate with Spanish speakers about everything from taxes to schools to water restrictions. Thus far, it has relied on employees who happen to speak Spanish to do impromptu translation — people such as Melara and Benitez.

The city of Richmond does the same, keeping a list of bilingual people in each department and counting on volunteers to help when needed. Police officers are given opportunities for language training and immersion programs. The city also subscribes to Language Line Services, which offers on-demand translation via telephone. (The county uses that service for 911 calls.)

"We haven't hired one person [to translate] because we have several all around the city," says Carol Bracey, director of customer service for the city.

But for Chesterfield, which is seven times the size of Richmond and has a larger Hispanic population, that policy is no longer enough.

This month, the county's Department of Public Affairs hired Juan Santacolomas, a Colombian, to be the county's official "bilingual journalist." He is the first full-time employee whose sole responsibility is to inform the Hispanic population through translation and interpretation.

Santacolomas, 25, arrived in Virginia last October. A radio journalist in his native Colombia, Santacolomas says he was forced to flee after a run-in with some guerrilla soldiers, who thought he had tipped off the government about where they were hiding. In June, he was granted political asylum.

"The time was perfect for Juan to come here," says Don Kappel, director of public affairs for Chesterfield County. Kappel says he had felt frustration with his own limited Spanish while trying to interpret and translate for other departments. A row of dog-eared dictionaries and phrase books on his desk attests to his efforts.

Thus far, Santacolomas has translated a glossy guide to county services, which is now being printed for distribution in primarily Hispanic neighborhoods. He's also beginning to translate pages on the county's Web site, accessed through a link titled "Informaci¢n en Espa¤ol." Soon, he'll be working on a Spanish-language news bulletin to be broadcast on the county's public access cable channel.

For translation, Santacolomas is called most frequently by the county's Department of Social Services, Community Services Board and public-safety department. He can't be everywhere at once, however. So bilingual employees, like Benitez and Melara, fill in when needed.

Melara greets patients at the Health Services front desk, while Benitez, a part-time outreach worker, helps clients get Medicaid. Yet more and more frequently, the two find their primary task is translation.

A growing number of their customers are natives of Spanish-speaking countries. For example, this year Hispanics represented 73 percent of people who have come in for child health services, and 27 percent of those who sought the county's family-planning services. "It has really changed in the last three years," says Melara, who has worked for Health Services since 1997.

Both women are natives of El Salvador and fluent in English and Spanish, a competence the nurses and doctors depend on. "Poquito is more than I speak," admits Tgay (pronounced TEE-gay) Gordon, a public health nurse who often works with Hispanic patients.

"Sometimes they don't even know how to say, 'I have an appointment today,'" Melara says. "I came back from lunch today, and there's all these people here waiting for me to come back so they can say why they're here."

Rushing from room to room (and sometimes, even upstairs to the dentist's office) to assist patients can be a stressful exercise. "Sometimes you start talking to the nurse in Spanish and the patient in English," says Melara, laughing.

Even when doctors and nurses learn some Spanish, it takes someone fluent to translate things as complicated as medical diagnoses. Vocabulary varies among immigrants from different Latin American nations, and an increasing number speak indigenous languages with only a smattering of Spanish.

Also, "They are very shy," Benitez says, especially when discussing STDs or contraceptives. Those patients who return to the clinic frequently, however, soon get to know the translators and trust them as friends. Many come to rely on them for assistance they can't get elsewhere.

"They come to me and ask me to do their Medicaid [forms]. And I do," Benitez says. "I try never to say no, because I know where they're coming from." On occasion, Benitez drives patients to the clinic, because she knows transportation can be difficult. Some even pay a local entrepreneur $35 for a ride plus translation services.

The smallest things mean so much to her clients, she says, such as the county providing free car seats for infants. "They cannot believe that they actually get their car seat," she says. "They leave the Health Department as if they've gotten candy."

Still, "the Hispanic population doesn't know things that Chesterfield County offers for them," says Santacolomas, such as low-cost health care and the car seats. Santacolomas hopes that eventually, his work will make such benefits common knowledge.

"The principle is, for me, to help the Spanish people," he says. "I know a lot of people suffer with the language." Soon, says his supervisor, Santacolomas's number will be posted on signs in county offices, saying "If you need assistance in Spanish, please call this number."

It's a start — but Health Services' two translators know their phones will keep ringing: "Ana? Martha?" S

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