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Committee seeks aid for Spanish speakers; City officials worried about language barrier for Hispanic residents


If Spanish is your primary language, try calling 911. Or bailing someone out of jail. Or dealing with city government in almost any capacity.

Baltimore has an estimated 50,000 Hispanics, but few Spanish speakers in government and few public information pamphlets or emergency notices in any language but English.

That may change.

The City Council's Judiciary and Policy Committee passed a resolution yesterday encouraging all city departments to print public information and emergency notices in Spanish and English.

"Language barriers shouldn't endanger people's lives or prohibit people from being good citizens," said Councilwoman Helen Holton, who sponsored the resolution and is taking Spanish classes.

The resolution would help avoid problems such as the one Holton encountered at Central Booking and Intake Center last summer when she came across frantic Hispanic family members who could not speak English. A mother and father were trying to find a translator so they could bail their son out of jail.

Holton pulled out her cellular phone -- which is prohibited inside the jail -- and called someone who translated the bail bond documents over the phone.

Several of the speakers at yesterday's hearing had similar stories.

"Working for the Health Department, I've translated for hospitals, jails, courts," said Angelo Solera, Hispanic liaison for Baltimore Health Care Access Inc., a bureau of the city Health Department. "When a Hispanic guy was killed a few months ago, I translated for the homicide detectives and the family."

Committee Chairman Robert Curran opened and closed the hearing speaking in Spanish so unintelligibly that the audience cracked up.

"Hey, at least I tried," he said.

Holton had a different view.

"That demonstrates what language barriers mean," she said.

Hector Torres, spokesman for the Fire Department and chairman of a Latino affairs committee formed by the City Council, said he happened to be listening to the fire radio and heard a paramedic asking for a Spanish speaker two weeks ago. He called in and was able to decipher the patient's medical history for the paramedic.

"It turned out to be not a problem, but it could have been one," he said. "On the fire side, we have absolutely nobody with that capacity. I'm the only one.

Holton said she is focusing on the Hispanic population because it is a significant part of Baltimore's population and because no other non-English speaking groups have approached her about the issue.

The cost of printing material in Spanish should not be very high, Solera said, because translations can be done on the back of English publications.

"How much will this cost the city if we don't do it?" Solera asked. "You have blacks and whites leaving the city and Hispanics moving in. And they pay taxes. The IRS doesn't care what language you speak."

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