YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

The Nation

With Immigrant Boom, South Makes Translation

Police and others are learning Spanish to accommodate the growing population from Mexico and Central America.

May 27, 2003|Ken Ellingwood | Times Staff Writer

LAWRENCEBURG, Tenn. — Around a horseshoe-shaped table, two dozen Tennessee cops follow their instructor's lead, trying to turn their twangs into trills.

"Manos arriba!" the teacher prompts. "Manos arriba!" the officers answer, one at a time. "Manos arriba!"

Their accents are clunky and rolled Rs come out sounding more like growls. But the officers gathered in this classroom in Tennessee farm country can hardly be blamed for less-than-nimble tongues. For most, it is only their second day of speaking Spanish.

Over three days, the officers, representing 10 departments from around the state, will learn a holster full of helpful phrases in Spanish, from the mundane, like papeles del carro, or auto registration, to the more adrenaline-charged manos arriba (hands up) and acuestese boca abajo (lie facedown). They also are introduced to aspects of different Latin American cultures and to simple but important niceties, such as whether to address a woman as senora or senorita.

Similar scenes are now playing out around the South, as police officers, firefighters, social workers and other government officials scramble to cope with a population of immigrants from Mexico and Central America that has grown faster in spots around this region than anywhere else in the United States.

But unlike places such as California, with generations of Latino residents and a deep reservoir of Spanish speakers, most of the South is essentially starting from scratch when it comes to the language.

Besides crash courses for police and municipal employees, some agencies are making use of a translator hotline, while others are hiring interpreters and translating documents into Spanish for walk-in clients. Police in Lexington, Ky., finish their language classes with five weeks of Spanish immersion in the Mexican state of Michoacan. Four officers head for Mexico on Thursday.

The language training is the latest sign of how immigration is altering the face -- and voice -- of the modern South, a part of the country with few home-grown Spanish speakers but plenty of work in crop fields, construction sites and poultry plants during the last 15 years. The presence of immigrant workers here, a novelty not long ago, has fairly quickly been accepted as a fact of life.

While cities such as Charlotte, N.C., and Atlanta have seen fast jumps in the number of Latino residents since 1990, the immigrant wave has shown up too in rural areas -- from Athens, Ala., to Shelbyville, Tenn. -- where it once would have been unusual to hear anything but English.

"Nontraditional states like Georgia for receiving immigrants are really faced with the challenge of language," said Jorge H. Atiles, an assistant professor at the University of Georgia who co-wrote a report last year on the needs of Latinos in Georgia.

Officials acknowledge that many agencies have been slow to respond. Often, Spanish speakers have shown up at government offices seeking help, only to be met with uncomprehending shrugs or instructions to come back with their own translators. Many don't bother to return.

The language barrier is viewed as especially critical among public safety agencies. Police and sheriff commanders are arranging Spanish classes so that officers can deal with immigrants as they would native-born residents -- not just as criminal suspects but as victims, witnesses or motorists running a red light.

Police also see the language training as a safety measure for themselves; the Tennessee class includes a rundown of Spanish phrases that might be used to deter a violent attack on an officer.

Critics say the language programs might be done with good intentions, but that they are a poor use of public money.

"We think that instead of English-speaking employees going to learn some phrases in Spanish ... the immigrants themselves should be learning English," said Jim Lubinskas, spokesman for U.S. English Inc., a Washington-based group. He said crash courses probably don't provide enough proficiency.

Art Heun, chief of police in Pulaski, Tenn., about 80 miles south of Nashville, said it would be ideal if immigrants mastered English. But, he said, "the fact of it is, that's not happening, and we have to communicate with them. Why make it difficult on both sides?"

Four of Heun's officers attended the class here under a new program called the Tennessee Criminal Justice Language Academy, which plans at least eight rounds of classes by year's end.

Sgt. Randy Keene recalled his first encounter with Spanish speakers a decade ago when he stopped a car that had been reported stolen. The English-speaking driver and several Latino passengers were ordered out of the vehicle. But the Latinos didn't seem to understand. In the end, Keene said, "they understood a 12-gauge shotgun, and they came out."

Los Angeles Times Articles