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Activist calls on Berwyn to offer bilingual services

BERWYN – Ever since Naomi Martinez and Luz Chavez can remember, they were the impromptu point person in their family, often translating documents, school letters, bills and forms from English to Spanish. As daughters of Mexican immigrants, they were a bridge for their parents, bearing a heavy responsibility that tiptoed between the lines of obligation and opportunity.

“Growing up translating for my parents, it’s hard because it’s something that you don’t know if you’re doing [it] right,” Martinez, a recent Berwyn transplant, said about one of the biggest challenges and pressures that children of immigrants face. “You don’t know if you’re helping your parents, like you’re doing your best, and it’s a hard thing to have your children do [that] for you.”

Even now, as an adult, Chavez plays the role of interpreter for her mother. While she finds herself mostly answering questions about applications, deadlines or updates from the city of Berwyn, she wonders how many other Spanish-speakers are left in the dark with issues unasked.

“When you’re in these, especially city council meetings, it gets really detailed and really technical,” she said. “It’s not conversational English. You know what I mean? You’re talking about TIFs [tax-increment financing] and taxes and ordinances.”

Chavez knew that she and Martinez were not alone in their experiences.

Nearly 64% of Berwyn’s population identifies as Hispanic or Latino, according to the 2018 U.S. Census Bureau. That alone illustrates the need for more translation services provided by the city, Chavez said. Although the city offers some forms in Spanish and has hired bilingual staff, Chavez believes Berwyn officials can do more to strengthen their ties and communications with Spanish-speaking residents.

At the Aug. 27 Berwyn City Council meeting, Chavez spoke during an open forum about the importance of providing bilingual services for the Hispanic and Latinx community. That appearance, she said, came on the heels of a two-year effort of raising awareness for Spanish translations at meetings, city-issued documents such as agendas and social media posts. Chavez has previously tried to voice her concerns to some Berwyn aldermen, but felt unheard or misguided, she said.

Half of the city’s eight aldermen are Latinos, including Second Ward Alderman Jose Ramirez, Fifth Ward Alderman Cesar Santoy, Sixth Ward Alderwoman Alicia Ruiz and Seventh Ward Alderman Rafael Avila. Efforts to reach them for comment were unsuccessful.

“As Latinx folks, we’re part of a marginalized community,” Chavez said. “When we have access and privilege, we have an obligation to serve those that don’t have the privileges. How are we helping our community? How are we improving our community?”

Chavez provided a quote to offer professional translation services before pivoting the conversation to the bottom line: “It’s about whether Berwyn believes in the voices of Spanish-speaking residents and are important enough to invest in,” she said. “If you believe they are, then you should follow up that with action.”

Chavez asked Mayor Robert Lovero for direction on what the next steps could look like and a follow-up date on her request. Lovero said he couldn’t pinpoint a date because “it’s not the way the government works.”

The short, heated exchange between Chavez and Lovero has now circulated via Facebook as a minutelong video, garnering more than 3,000 views and comments from many supporters. It also continued to spotlight the conversation on bilingualism and diversity.

Lovero maintained that he had “tried to engage in a meaningful conversation” with Chavez and offered an apology to Berwyn residents.

“I’d like to apologize to the city council attendees for losing my composure,” he wrote via Facebook messenger. “I believe city business should be open to all residents and will do my best to continue to achieve transparency and inclusivity because it is the right thing to do.”

Martinez sought to give insight on those who are critical of non-English speakers and ask, “Why don’t they know English?”

“People are in survival mode,” Martinez said of immigrants, who at times are marginalized, “don’t feel empowered” or like “no one in your community is fighting for you,” she said. “That’s how I grew up. You’re in survival mode, and you’re just trying to feed your family and pay your rent.”

While Chavez commends Berwyn for passing a Welcoming City ordinance in 2017, which promises to protect all of its residents regardless of their immigration status, she remains critical.

“There’s still so much work to do in Berwyn to make it diverse and get Spanish-speaking, Latinx voices heard, to get spaces for them and get resources for them,” she said.

A work in progress

Third Ward Alderwoman Jeanine Reardon and First Ward Alderman Scott Lennon believe the city can work harder to extend more translation services for Spanish-speaking residents.

“With such a high percentage of folks of Hispanic origin or descent, there’s no reason why we can’t make it more accessible,” Reardon said. “I take some blame for that for my own meeting[s] and recognize it hasn’t really hit my radar.”

After the Aug. 27 council meeting, Reardon contacted residents of her ward to find an interim translator with the hope of eventually hiring a full-time one.

Lennon, meanwhile, recently called for an official recommendation to translate meetings and agendas in Spanish, coordinate with the IT department to make those bilingual documents available through the city’s website and to partner with the outreach committee and determine what translation services Berwyn needs.

This proposal was expected to be unveiled at the Sept. 10 city council meeting. Additionally, Lennon is using social media to inform his residents about criminal activity, safety concerns and family-friendly events in both Spanish and English.

Chavez, too, is keeping the momentum going.

Almost a week after the conversation-turned-confrontation with Lovero, Chavez launched her own Facebook page, “Yo Soy Berwyn,” or “I Am Berwyn.” The personal project aims to relay city-related news and issues in Spanish, she said.

Chavez hopes users can see the page as a vital resource, a place where they can talk, share and learn how to participate in city council or school board meetings, connect with their elected officials or attend public forums.

For Chavez, this request is a cry for help, a chance to move toward change.

“I am listening,” Reardon said, adding there are people in Berwyn that are “good listeners.”

“I’m not capable of making all the changes all the time, but I am willing to see where I’ve made enough change and can do better,” Reardon said.

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