Survival Spanish Learning the Language and Culture Could Be a Matter of Life or Death

By Grusich, Kate | Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL), March 2, 2003 | Go to article overview

Survival Spanish Learning the Language and Culture Could Be a Matter of Life or Death


Grusich, Kate, Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL)


Byline: Kate Grusich Daily Herald Staff Writer

When the young man found his roommate dead one morning, he immediately thought to dial 911.

Seems like the automatic response. But in this situation, the Hispanic man found himself in a bind. He didn't speak English and feared emergency personnel would be unable to understand him.

Instead, he made a few phone calls, waiting until he could find a friend with enough English skills to communicate.

"He knows the number is 911, but what are the chances someone speaks Spanish?" said Fred Kliora, an officer with the Mundelein Police Department. "I had to help him. He couldn't communicate with the police or the coroner."

Turns out the 23-year-old died naturally in his sleep, likely from pre-existing medical conditions. Before the roommate discovered him, he was already deceased and precious minutes were not wasted by the medical delay. Still, the situation highlights an issue of growing concern in the Chicago suburbs: communication with the burgeoning Hispanic population.

Without fluent Spanish-speaking officers like Kliora available, the details surrounding the man's death would have been hard to come by.

As the number of Hispanic residents continues to mushroom throughout the region, law enforcement and emergency service personnel say the need for Spanish-speakers is on the rise. In the past decade, the Hispanic population has grown to more than 1.4 million in the collar county area - an increase of 68 percent, the largest of any race.

Now, across the suburban landscape, many cops, firefighters, dispatchers and paramedics are trying to acquire Spanish skills. They're taking language classes and cultural courses and thumbing through phrase books. The purpose is to gain enough skills to work in regions with flourishing Hispanic populations.

From offering citizen police academies for Spanish-speakers to opening community resource centers and requiring employees to learn basic Spanish phrases, police and fire departments are grappling with ways to better accommodate Hispanics. It's a move that has been noticed by area Hispanic activists.

Language proficiency, officials say, could help prevent potentially fatal miscommunications, whether it involves the life of a Spanish-speaking patient or that of an unsuspecting officer.

Using native speakers

Officials throughout the region said bilingual skills, especially among dispatchers, corrections officers and those working the front desk, are an advantage when it comes to career prospects.

They often have to look no further than their own communities to find those fluent in the language. As the Hispanic population grows, more native speakers are joining police and fire departments.

"One of the good things is, the more of a Spanish-speaking population you get, the more likelihood you get Spanish-speaking employees," said Cmdr. Dave Barrows of the Kane County sheriff's police, who now counts several Spanish-speakers on the force. "I can remember when there was none."

Waukegan Police Chief Miguel Juarez, a native of Mexico, has been at the forefront of local efforts to bridge the gap between Hispanics and police, as well as spur more Hispanic involvement in community events. He recently sponsored the department's first Spanish-language Citizens Police Academy.

"We are absolutely trying to recruit more bilingual officers," he said, adding they often pursue minority college students from throughout the Chicago and Milwaukee regions. "We're also networking with the Hispanic groups that are here locally to get more interest."

Of 230 sworn officers and civilians, about 15 are bilingual, Juarez said.

The department now has a college reimbursement program. If a cop opts to take Spanish classes, it's on the city's dime, he said.

Juarez, along with leaders at several other police and fire departments, say hiring bilingual employees is the tip of the iceberg. …

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