A mural at the Latino Community Development Agency in downtown Oklahoma City. (Photo by Katrina Crumbacher)
By Katrina Crumbacher and Valerie Scott
Being a non-bilingual Spanish speaker in Oklahoma is not easy. From health care to banking to schools, to be a Spanish speaker and not be bilingual in Oklahoma is to be marginalized.
Imagine being in critical condition, attempting to explain your symptoms to a medical professional, but try as you might, the doctor cannot understand the words you are speaking. Imagine needing to apply for a mortgage, but there are no Spanish-speaking bankers in the area.
For many, they don’t have to imagine. For many, this is an everyday struggle.
“Not everyone gets the same level of care,” said Rita Mild, dean of Rose State’s Health Sciences division. “What I’ve witnessed a lot is if you don’t speak the language around that’s native, we say it’s English, it’s somehow seen as a decrease in intellect, which is just not true.”
The Hispanic and Latino communities make up some of the fastest-growing ethnic populations in Oklahoma, yet they are at a disadvantage when receiving health care in Oklahoma.
“One of the things that has always driven me crazy is when people are like ‘Well, they’re here. Why don’t they know English,’” she said. “They are passively in a place that’s new to them. I mean think about the bravery it takes to leave everything that you know and come to another place and then try to navigate this crazy world.”
The courage it takes to leave your home country for an unfamiliar one is often overlooked.
“I think about our students who are English as a second language,” she said. “I can’t imagine learning science in my non-native language, so I think there needs to be more emphasis on the humanity that people have. These are people who are impressive.”
Recent studies have shown Hispanic adults are less likely to have employer-sponsored health coverage due to higher rates of employment in low-wage jobs, such as line cooks, housekeepers and cashiers, etc.
Almost 24% of Hispanic adults have no source of health care other than an emergency room. In comparison, only 12% of white adults can say the same, a recent Kaiser Family Foundation study shows.
“If you don’t have health insurance, if you’re only going for emergency treatment, you’re not used to going in for routine cleanings and checkups,” said Esmeralda Ornelas, a dental assisting professor at Rose State College. “We only went to the doctor when we were sick. It was never established that we go to the doctor so we don’t get sick.”
A lack of health insurance means paying out of pocket for health care, which is often too expensive, even for regular checkups.
“Everyone in my family has health problems. My dad has diabetes. My paternal grandfather has congestive heart failure. I don’t have my maternal or paternal grandmother anymore,” she said. “My dad is a Type 2 diabetic. He drinks a lot of beer, eats a lot of red meat, has a major sweet tooth, eats sweets all the time, and never feels good. He’ll say, ‘I need to go see my doctor.’ He never goes.”
The American Diabetes Association reports the Hispanic community is at a 66% greater risk of developing Type 2 diabetes than non-Hispanic white people. A recent Pew Research Center study shows that just under half of Hispanic adults say they have a close friend or family member who needs a Spanish-speaking health care provider or translator.
“They use anybody, a friend, a sibling or a child to come translate for you, and that is completely unethical,” said Dr. Yuliana Reyes, director of health at the Latino Community Development Agency. “You should not have somebody else translate for you that is not a translator, a professional interpreter, because professional interpreters are required by law to say exactly what the doctor says.”
In 2000, then-President Bill Clinton signed an executive order titled “Improving Access to Services for Persons with Limited English Proficiency.” The order mandates federal agencies to evaluate their provided services, recognize the needs of those with limited English and implement a successful system for those individuals in need. The order also requires federal agencies to ensure that beneficiaries of federal financial assistance supply sufficient access to LEP applicants.
Essentially, all federally funded institutions are legally bound to provide access to a translator for non-English speakers. Most hospitals receive federal funding and must provide access to a translator. Big-name hospitals, such as INTEGRIS Health, Mercy Hospital and SSM Health St. Anthony, provide access to translators. While a hired translator is not always on-site, the facilities will offer an over-the-phone interpreter.
For those who face financial difficulties, most attempt to avoid hospital bills and instead resort to cheaper health care alternatives, such as Urgent Care Clinics and Health Express Centers.
(Photo by Katrina Crumbacher)
Smaller institutions like these are not legally bound to offer translation services like federally funded hospitals.
Not being bilingual in a society that’s tailored to English affects every aspect of life. Most public information is in English, which leads to less information available for those who only speak Spanish. The federal Office of Minority Health reports that nearly one-third of Latinos are not fluent in English, and the pandemic only exacerbated the health care challenges facing the Hispanic and Latino communities.
During the pandemic, Reyes said she watched the televised Centers for Disease Control and Prevention press conferences. She watched the conferences first in English then in Spanish, but what the Spanish translators were saying didn’t match what was being said in English.
“The Hispanic community, especially in Oklahoma City, didn’t know who to listen to,” she said. “They listened to their friends and families back home. There was so much false information going around everywhere, worldwide.”
Beyond health care, language barriers continually challenge social services, such as public safety institutions and schools. Lawmakers like Sen. Kevin Matthews, D-Tulsa, and Sen. Mary Boren, D-Norman, have seen what it’s like firsthand.
“I was in the fire department for 25 years,” said Sen. Kevin Matthews, D-Tulsa. “We actually ended up having to have interpreters. When we went on a medical call or they would be in transport to the hospital, etc., there was a problem because the people who were there to help couldn’t communicate.”
Staff were forced to rely on other members of the department to translate while also having to focus on the life-saving tasks at hand. “We recruited people that would understand, and they got compensated for being bilingual,” Matthews said.
Schools also face the language barrier for students, parents and teachers. Classrooms revolve heavily around communication. If a child can’t understand the counselors, teachers or students around them, they can’t be expected to learn at the same pace as their peers.
“When I was a school counselor at Adams Elementary, we would have child mental health issues,” said Sen. Mary Boren, D-Norman. “At least two times I know of involved a child whose parents did not speak English.”
The miscommunication that comes with a lack of translation puts a hold on children who cannot be understood when voicing their needs.
“Basically, as a parent, you’re trying to say, ‘Look, my kid really needs help now,” she said. “If you have a language barrier, you might say, ‘My kid is upset. He’s crying.’ Then the person who’s taking them on would say, ‘Well, there’s lots of kids that are upset and crying in the world.”
Several employees are expected to play the role of translator while also being responsible for completing their own work. Along with miscommunication when translating, professional translators are required by law to interpret each word to the best of their ability. For someone who is not a trained interpreter, several key points in conversation can and often get lost in translation.
“Often you’ll see in schools, ‘You speak Spanish. Come here!” Boren said. “In our school, they pulled English language learner teachers to come interpret at the front desk if the parent walked in and needed help, so they pulled them out of the classroom.”
This can easily lead to a slip in the school environment when teachers are pulled away from their classrooms and are heavily relied on to translate.
“They could spend a good 50% of their day just answering questions on the phone for parents about lunch, or when’s the meeting and they weren’t doing instruction for their ELL kids,” she said.
These key employees are stretched thin by being the only reliable source of communication for non-English speaking customers, students or patients. Especially when these key bilingual workers are not appropriately compensated for their extra workload.
The Apple Store at Penn Square Mall recently approved a move to unionize and cited a lack of multilingual speakers in store as one of many concerns, an Oklahoma City television station reported.
As one of only two Apple stores in the state, the store faces an overwhelming level of storefront traffic. As one of only a few multilingual employees in the store, union organizer Kevin Herrera is stretched thin ensuring Spanish-speaking customers have someone who can understand them.
“I, as a bilingual speaker, want to give that part of Apple to our community so they can have the same experience as our English speakers,” he said. “When it was Mother’s Day, I had a line of one hour and a half, people waiting to speak to me because I was the only bilingual speaker in the store at the time.”
Being a non-bilingual Spanish speaker in Oklahoma is not easy, and those who are bilingual end up overworked and underpaid.