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Language barrier: Information about the coronavirus isn't as accessible to the Central Coast's non-English speakers 

click to enlarge COMMUNICATION BREAKDOWN? Officials are now translating information about the pandemic into several languages, but it's hard to know for sure if the word is getting out to all of the folks who need it most.

Graphic By Alex Zuniga

COMMUNICATION BREAKDOWN? Officials are now translating information about the pandemic into several languages, but it's hard to know for sure if the word is getting out to all of the folks who need it most.

March 17 was the first time the San Luis Obispo County Public Health Department conducted a press briefing via Facebook Live regarding the coronavirus. It was entirely in English.

Recent U.S. Census Bureau data states 17.9 percent of households speak a language other than English in San Luis Obispo County.

Latino Outreach Council of San Luis Obispo County CEO Jaqueline del Valle Frederick said the nonprofit is concerned that there isn't enough direct communication in Spanish or Mixteco—spoken by indigenous people in the Mexican states of Oaxaca, Guerrero, and Puebla—in both the city of Santa Maria and in SLO County.

"We've been very active in the last six or seven years with trying to make sure that the Latino community is aware of the resources that are available to them, because the resources are there, they just don't know about it," del Valle Frederick said.

The Latino Outreach Council is launching public service announcements to air on Spanish Television and radio in both SLO and Santa Barbara counties. Del Valle Frederick said the announcements will remind people to shelter in place and stay at home, and inform them about "the precautions they need to take with regard to using masks and gloves when they go out."

From these announcements, viewers or listeners will be directed to the Latino Outreach Council Facebook page and website where all information will be translated into Spanish. She said the nonprofit also has an email list with more than 500 subscribers, and it will use that platform to send information out as well.

SLO County spokesperson Michelle Shoresman told New Times the county is concerned about its entire population getting the information they need to be safe.

"It is a constant challenge to keep everyone in the community informed," Shoresman said.

All of the county's COVID-19 press briefings now have transcripts in Spanish at readyslo.org under the "emergency SLO" tab.

Shoresman said the press briefing videos can also be viewed on Facebook by those who have their page settings turned to Spanish and on the county's YouTube channel, where the settings can be changed to show Spanish subtitles.

"Of course, those who don't have access to the internet, television, or print media in their primary language are always more at risk. Not to mention that many cultures share information in different ways with their members," Shoresman said. "We hope that we are reaching everyone, but there is always work to do."

Recent census data shows that roughly 93 percent of households own a computer, and 86 percent of households have a broadband internet subscription. SLO County, Shoresman said, is working on a Spanish public service announcement with KSBY that's anticipated to begin the week of April 13.

SLO County has also translated some documents for health care workers into Tagalog, Shoresman said, as there is a "reasonable-size population of Filipinos in the local health care workforce." The county is also beginning to work on some communication in Mixteco.

Santa Barbara County Public Information Officer Jackie Ruiz said her county is also concerned that its non-English speakers aren't receiving critical public health messages.

In Santa Barbara County, roughly 38 percent of the population speaks a language other than English at home, according to recent census data. Those languages include Spanish, Mixteco, and Zapotec.

Ruiz said Santa Barbara County has been doing voiceover translation in Spanish along with American Sign Language at every press conference since the conferences began on March 12.

"We have multiple Spanish translators at the Joint Information Center every day of the week to help with the ongoing press-release and social-media translation. We are also part of a rapid response team that has helped us translate materials into many indigenous languages via video or sound files," Ruiz said.

All coronavirus-related information is also accessible to Santa Barbara County residents in multiple languages by dialing 211.

In Santa Maria, City Councilmember Gloria Soto said the council was slow to take local action for its residents in regard to the pandemic.

Soto said she got on calls with the county's local public health officials, Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors, and U.S. Rep. Salud Carbajal (D-Santa Barbara) to discuss how to make the Latino community understand the importance of social distancing and staying at home.

"I felt the need to push back a little bit, because it's not just about telling people to stay home. It's about understanding the unique and different communities within our county and city," she said.

Soto gave an example of a family that goes to a doctor visit together because "they're each other's support system," or a new immigrant to the area who's not only trying to understand a new language but also figuring out how to navigate the pandemic.

"I made it clear that it's important we tailor our message in a way that is culturally competent," she said. "If this is just about translating, some messages don't automatically translate properly in other languages."

One of the city's first steps is creating a long-term relationship with Mixteco/Indigena Community Organizing Project (MICOP), a nonprofit that unites indigenous leaders and allies to strengthen the Mixtec and indigenous immigrant community.

Donna Olivera, communication coordinator for MICOP, said her position was created specifically to gather recent public health information and work with MICOP translators to create informational video and audio messages in Mixteco.

"It's really difficult and I have to do the research myself and find the most important information to get out there," Olivera said.

She said the process of getting the information out is slow as she awaits responses to questions that she's sent to public health officials, not to mention that there are only five Mixteco translators who work for MICOP.

Mixteco isn't a written language, so Santa Barbara County has created coronavirus-related videos in Mixteco. The Santa Maria Joint Union High School District is also sending out information in Mixteco via video format to keep parents and guardians of students informed of district updates.

The public health crisis, Soto said, is really shining a light on the disparities that exist.

"It's the working-class and minimum-wage earners that are most at risk. We're still slow enough in putting in place policies or recommendations that will help to protect them while they're still on the front line," Soto said. "It's the utmost importance that we use this crisis as an opportunity to build bridges with communities that have always been hard for us to reach." Δ

Staff Writer Karen Garcia can be reached at kgarcia@newtimesslo.com.

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