Here’s How Translators Are Helping Harvey Ecavuees

Translators are in high demand at Austin’s Delco Center shelter because almost half of all Houstonians speak a language other than English, via Texas Standard.

Thousands of people are finding their way to dry blankets and warm socks in shelters all across Texas. Dallas expects to host as many as 10,000 people fleeing Harvey; in Austin, as many as 7,000. Donations keep trickling in.

But there’s one big need that’s still out there: multi-lingual volunteers.

Walking into the Delco Center – one of Austin’s shelters for Harvey evacuees – you might remember that Houston was recently dubbed the most diverse city in America. A little less than half the people there speak a language other than English.

Many are bilingual like much the rest of Texas. But not all.

“I would certainly encourage [people] out there, if they are bilingual or trilingual, to certainly volunteer,” says Geof Sloan of the Red Cross.

Tuesday morning there were no Spanish-speaking volunteers at the shelter. But, Sloan says, one of the evacuees from Freeport rose to the challenge.

“Anything I can do to help, just let me know,” says Maria Villagomez. “You also need a lot of help, and helping each other is a great idea.”

Also at the shelter was Jose Guerrero. Walking around with the family’s yellow- and-green parrot on his shoulder, he was hard to miss.

At the time, he was on the phone with his sisters. They were still trapped in Richmond, Texas.

Guerrero says leaving Richmond in the middle of a disaster – and finding answers to his questions when he doesn’t speak English – has been tough.

Forty-seven-year-old Guerrero was born in Mexico and has been in the U.S. since he was 15. He’s been here much longer than he ever was in his home country. He’s a naturalized American, but he’s never been able to learn how to speak English.

“I’m a little mad with myself that I don’t speak English,” he says in Spanish. “I don’t know what to tell you. Have I been lazy to learn? I’m a gardener. Have I worked too much and haven’t had time to go to school? I just don’t know.”

Later that day, a bilingual volunteer arrived at the shelter. Maribel Canizales does IT work for the state comptroller’s office, but took the week off to work for the Red Cross.

Immediately after she arrived, a family of Spanish speakers showed up. The mother asked if there were any showers available and Canizales walked the family to the showers, asking what else they needed: Shampoo? Socks?

The adults were clearly shaken. As Canizales led them through the center, she casually put her arms around the mom.

So what does it means to someone when somebody speaks their language? “There’s a connection … it makes them feel at home,” Canizales says, crying. “I want those people to feel at home, comfortable and welcomed.”

Canizales is originally from Laredo. She gets emotional because, as a child, she was told not to speak Spanish.
“When I came to Austin, it was very segregated back in the 70’s,” she says. “We were not very welcomed with our language, and so we were encouraged to speak English. And so, I kept up on the side with my native language, Spanish.”

Today, anyone who’s been keeping up with a language other than English is encouraged to fill out a volunteer application and complete the training for the Red Cross. People who speak languages from India, Europe and Asia are needed too.

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