Charlotte And Mecklenburg County Governments Playing Catch-Up With Growing Latino Population
Martin Rojas’ day starts at 6 a.m. when he wakes up and gets ready for another day working with his wife and business partner at his bakeryNew York Pastries and Pastelería on East Exmore Street in Charlotte.
By 7, the shop smells of fresh pastries with hints of sweet vanilla and fruit fillings. At 8, they unlock the front door, where customers have already lined up and delivery orders make the phone ring non-stop.
Cases of baklava, eclairs, fruit tarts, Italian rainbow cookies and a variety of cakes sit behind him waiting to be sold.
While his specialties are European pastries, Rojas hails from Mexico, making the likes of bright-colored conchas and creamy tres leches flan also part of his vast selection.
“The community has really welcomed me very well,” said Rojas, whose customers kindly refer to as Don Pepe. “People always ask for me when I’m not around; I feel very blessed.”
After leaving Mexico, Rojas lived in New York City and worked in a Greek bakery for two decades before taking everything he learned down South. He set up shop in the Queen City five years ago.
It was the first time he opened his own business -- and he had to navigate the complicated process with a low level of English.
“The hardest part was understanding very specific words,” Rojas explains. “I had to make my daughter, who wasn’t even 10 at the time, translate what she could for me.”
A Growing Need
Rojas was one of close to 97,000 Latinos who, according to Census data, lived in Mecklenburg County in 2015 and identified Spanish as the main language spoken at home. While Spanish was the main language spoken among 9% of Mecklenburg County's total population, most of the county's Latino population only spoke Spanish. This means it is likely their primary language is Spanish.
In fact, North Carolina ranked 11th among all 50 U.S. states, Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia in 2015 with the largest number of Latinos who spoke Spanish at home. Mecklenburg County was also the only North Carolina county among the top 100 across the U.S. with the largest Spanish-speaking population, ranking at 81. Among other North Carolina counties, Wake County ranks 100.
Data for 2018, the most recent available, shows that the Spanish-speaking Latino population reached over 110,281. And chances are it will continue to grow. Research by theCarolina Population Center at UNC-Chapel Hill shows that this population grew faster in North Carolina than in any other state between 2010 and 2018, up 24.6% compared to the national rate of 18.6%.
Still, the rate at which the local governments are supporting Spanish-speaking residents is nowhere near where it could be according to Rojas and others he’s spoken to in the community.
For example, a Spanish-speaking liaison or interpreter within the county’s Office of the Tax Collector or Charlotte’s Business Resources office would be very useful, said Rojas and others who have come to him asking for advice on opening a business.
“There are many of us here who have businesses, but don’t speak English very well, and sometimes I have to reschedule appointments around my daughter’s school schedule so she can translate for me,” Rojas said. “If there were someone there who understood us, it’d be really different. It’d be great.”
Local Government Efforts
In the last decade, there have been many attempts within the Charlotte City Council and Mecklenburg County Commissioners to support language access in Charlotte. The city is the most populous in North Carolina and Mecklenburg’s county seat. In 2018, the city hiredFederico Rios as the city’s first immigrant and integration manager in the Office of Equity, Mobility and Immigration Integration (EMII), formerly the Office of International Relations. Prior to that, according to Rios, the city staff that worked to help the immigrant community was just a “subgroup” within Charlotte’s economic development department.
Once Rios came on board, the goal was to dedicate an entire office to better engagement with immigrant communities and help them integrate to the city’s fabric. However, that initial language access and immigrant integration plan was established three years prior with the publication of the 2015 Immigrant Integration Task Force report, the same year Martin Rojas opened his business.
“This particular report is, I believe, the first real effort that was put into collecting information from multiple language sources and disseminating information across language groups,” Rios said. “Previous reports and previous focus had always been given to English-speaking community members.”
Workers within EMII advise all other city departments and offices to ensure their initiatives, communications and engagement are inclusive to non-English-speaking community members. With 16-17% of the Charlotte population foreign-born, it has outpaced the rate of immigrant growth in the notably diverse city of Philadelphia, Rios said.
“The city manager, who at that time was still pretty new, recognized that there was a need to better connect and communicate consistently with the immigrant community,” he said.
Besides Spanish, which Rios identified as the biggest need, other languages identified by the city include Vietnamese, Russian, German, Greek, Hindi and Mandarin. Workers in EMII focus on the top 10 languages spoken by members of the community. Rios said the office also tries to provide language access services to anyone who needs it, regardless of their native tongue.
The COVID-19 Effect
While EMII exists, Rios said it was not until the coronavirus pandemic that their efforts to translate many of the city’s communications and resources were expedited, specifically regarding health and public safety.
“Since the pandemic, we’ve been more intentional than I’ve seen prior,” he said.
“We’re all racing to get information done,” he added. “We’re not California, we’re not New York. We’re new to this and so I’m proud of where we are. But no, we were absolutely not ready.”
Among those efforts, the city EMII is currently in the process of enacting a city-wide language access policy, which would require every city department and office to have a language access liaison to review vital documents coming out of them and ensure they are translated.
On the other hand, Mecklenburg County’s efforts do not compare. Mecklenburg County’s public information officer, Pamela Escobar, could not detail what is and what is not translated in the county’s communications. Her response was that the county does not have “a concise list because we have many departments.” She explained thatthe county’s website “is the best place to see what we have,” the latest example being a “COVID-19 Business Toolkit.”
While Charlotte’s website was manually translated into Spanish and other languages, the county’s website, as noted by the dropdown menu on the top right corner, is “powered by Google Translate.” While effective for small phrases and announcements, the method fails to accurately translate many of the pages within the site with detailed articles and press releases, translating them word-for-word instead of by meaning. Some of the pages aren’t available in Spanish at all and, when opened, lead to an error message.
Emily Yaffe, an immigrant integration specialist with Charlotte’s EMII office, explained that she and other of her language access colleagues have recently had to lend a hand to the county to communicate with the immigrant community and translate vital documents and communications. Rios said this collaboration extended even further during the COVID-19 pandemic through emergency operations between the city of Charlotte, the county and the school district, too.
“I worked at the county on making sure that they had an extensive amount of translations,” Yaffe said. “We should be making sure we’re reducing those barriers.”
Since the pandemic has put city leaders on a faster timetable, Rios and Yaffe expect this urgency will help prove to the City Council and fellow county leaders it is time to make language access a priority -- starting with the implementation of the language access policy by June 30, the end of the fiscal year. The goal is for EMII to start assigning liaisons for each department before the end of the next one.
Martin Rojas is hoping to expand his business in a different part of the city once the effects of the pandemic slow down. Rojas also hopes that by then he and other immigrant entrepreneurs will finally have someone in local government offices to help them succeed.
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