Making Change: Growing Bilingual Attitude in Northeast Ohio

The mother is talking animatedly with her child's doctor. You can almost sense her relief. Here's a medical expert who understands what she's saying and will be able to help her son.

Of course, having feelings of cultural isolation aren't new to the doctor, Henry Ng, who is Chinese.

Henry Ng: There's usually some disconnect. They look at me and they kind of do a double take, thinking, 'Did you just say what I think you said?' And then they say, 'Oh, your accent's almost perfect. Where are you from?' And I go through the long spiel. Or sometimes I pull their leg and tell them I'm from Puerto Rico.

Ng is one of the physicians who staff a Health Clinic for Hispanic children and adolescents at Metro-Health Medical Center on Cleveland's west side. Located in the heart of the city's Hispanic community, the clinic started less than two years ago and already has a very full schedule of patients. Until recently, most of them have been Puerto Ricans.

Oscar Gumucio: But, now we've got a huge immigration of Dominicans and also some from Salvador and Mexico.

Oscar Gumucio is a former Jesuit priest who worked for the Cleveland School District for 33 years. After he retired, he got a call to help Metro-General set-up their new clinic. A native of Bolivia, himself, Gumucio says it's important to understand more than just words.

Oscar Gumucio: For instance, you tell the Puerto Rican kid, 'Look at me,' that is against the culture because when an adult talks to a child, the child is supposed to bow the head. Culture is crucial.

The Metro-General clinic is one example of how local agencies and institutions are reacting to a continuing increase in the Hispanic population. That changing demographic is part of a nationwide trend that was recently documented in a report issued by the U.S. Census Bureau. In a one year period between July of 2004 and July of 2005, nearly three million people were added to the nation's population. Half of that number were Hispanics. Such statistics have boosted the business of Akron-based legal interpreter Isabel Framer.

Isabel Framer: First it was with the interpreting assignments. It just began to increase more and more and more. But also, my work as a trainer and consultant has increased tremendously as far as training is concerned. I travel quite often.

Framer offers consulting services for judges, lawyers and law enforcement personnel on respecting the rights of people with limited English proficiency or LEP. To graphically illustrate the need for accurate interpretation and translation, she often refers to a Northeast Ohio murder case, where a suspect named Alejandro Ramierez was the victim of an incompetent interpreter.

Isabel Framer: The police had contracted a person who claimed to be an interpreter, but had only taken seven quarters of Spanish, and the interpreter pretty much butchered the Miranda warning.

She reads from a transcript.

Isabel Framer: 'Okay Alejandro, here are your right hands down with the law, okay? Mr. Lutha is a policewoman.' And Ramierez says, 'What?' 'You have the right hand that something that you are going, you can use against you in the court of the law. Okay?'

That case was ultimately reversed due to this mangled interpretation. Three years ago, as such incidents started to increase, Summit County Sheriff Drew Alexander figured it was time to be pro-active and create a policy for handling people with limited English proficiency.

Drew Alexander: The first thing we figured we'd just get someone else's policy. I'm sure Miami, or Dallas or Los Angeles - somebody that has a large LEP population is going to have this. But, to our surprise, nobody had it. Then, we knew we had a bigger problem. We needed to create this policy.

Alexander teamed with the city of Lorain's police department and legal interpreter Isabel Framer to create a resource guide called 'The Summit/Lorain Project.' He says it's gotten good reviews.

Drew Alexander: Other agencies around the country now are using this document - with our blessings.

The Summit County Sheriff says he understands the desire of some legislators to create laws mandating English as the national language, but given the rising Latino demographic, he doesn't think it's a practical goal.

Drew Alexander: That's the easy way out. 'Dammit, they're in our country, why don't they speak our language.' We all agree that they should speak English. The point is, they don't. And we have to deal with that.

David C. Barnett, 90.3 News.

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