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Bilingual Laurel city employee helps bridge language gap

City employee Ana Navarro is not an ordinary administrative specialist.

In addition to performing her daily duties in the office of Laurel City Council Clerk Kim Rau, which includes performing social media tasks and administrative support, Navarro, who speaks fluent Spanish, is often tapped to leverage her language skills in service of the city's booming Hispanic population.

"If you look at the U.S. Census data, the Hispanic population in Laurel has tripled [in the last 10 years], so obviously it is something that is very important to us," said Pete Piringer, the city's Director of Communications.

The value of connecting with that population demographic has been made more evident by Navarro, who began working at the city in September 2012. A handful of times each day, the 27-year-old Hyattsville resident makes her way to the front desk to aid Spanish-speaking city residents.

"According to the last census, I believe the Spanish-speaking population in Laurel was around 15-17 percent," said City Council President Fred Smalls. "That's significant. It's very important that our city government is able to communicate with all of the city residents, and certainly for the larger population groups, having someone like Ana is very important."

In addition, Navarro also translates the city's literature and press releases into Spanish, and helps when Spanish speakers come to the city to apply for passports. To meet an increase in passport requests, starting Jan. 6, the city's passport application office will expand its hours from three to five days a week.

Navarro, a graduate of Northwestern University, said the Spanish-speaking residents she has talked to at the front desk are grateful for her presence.

"In my own life I've helped family members when they go to places where they knew that there was no Spanish speaking person," said Navarro, whose parents immigrated to Maryland from El Salvador in the 1980s. "Hopefully, the word will get out and more Spanish-speaking people will come in."

Navarro said that while residents are grateful, there is more that the city can do.

"There is a lot that needs to be done," Navarro said. "It's not that the Hispanic community doesn't want to participate; it's that they don't know what's going on or feel comfortable with it."

Rau agrees, and said she has many ideas for how the city can improve its outreach to the Hispanic population, and Navarro would likely play a large role in facilitating that outreach.

"That's one of the things I'd like for us to do in 2014, to help better serve the population, know what the restrictions are and get them more involved," Rau said.

According to Rau, Navarro's position was not envisioned for a bilingual Spanish speaker. However, given Navarro's success, it might behoove the city to move toward hiring more bilingual employees, Piringer said.

"In general, that's a desirable quality we look at in employees," Piringer said. "We expect that demographic to continue to grow, so that will continue to be very desirable."

In vacancy announcements, Smalls said the city includes "the ability to speak a foreign language is a plus.

"It allows us to do further outreach to our community," he said.

While Navarro is helping the city "bridge that gap," Smalls, too, said more should be done.

"In terms of any population group that doesn't speak English — Middle Eastern, Hispanic, Asian — we need to do a lot more to bring those folks into the city government," he said.

Election translations

While the city makes use of Navarro's skills every day, it proved especially useful during the November elections, Rau said.

Navarro translated all of the city's voting materials, including the voter guide, into Spanish, Rau said, in addition to aiding Spanish-speaking residents who came to the city prior to Election Day.

"It's hard to measure how effective the effort was," Rau said. "But I was very pleased we were getting the word out to the Spanish-speaking population."

Rau said she plans to expand Navarro's role in the elections as she gains more experience.

Piringer said the base Navarro helped build during this year's election will help the city moving forward.

"We are going to build on that foundation, which we can thank Ana for building," he said.

And although Navarro didn't necessarily sign up to be the city's conduit to the Hispanic community, she doesn't mind the extra work.

"It's normal for me to help and translate," Navarro said. "I'm glad to do it."

Reporter Sara Toth contributed to this story.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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