Monday, July 31, 2006

Hernando County's hispanic population booming


SPRING HILL — In 1988, Jenny Mojica would have turned to look if she heard someone speaking Spanish in public.
When the Puerto Rico native first moved to Hernando County, there were just 5,000 Hispanics in the area, she said. Now there are more than 10,000, representing the county’s largest minority population by nearly 4,000, according to county statistics.

“When I came here there was no Spanish grocery store, no Spanish restaurant. Nothing,” the community activist said.

Now, nearly 7 percent of county residents are Hispanic, compared to nearly 20 percent statewide, according to county statistics. But between 2000 and 2005, Hernando County’s Hispanic population increased 55 percent, while Florida’s increased only 45 percent statewide.

Today, there are multiple grocery stores and restaurants, several Hispanic social clubs, Spanish-speaking doctors and publications. There are also an increasing number of Hispanic-owned businesses, as well as companies that that offer bilingual services.

Hernando County government and health care institutions have also stepped up services in response to growing demand. Hernando County government offices, law enforcement, school district, health care and other institutions have added and expanded a slew of multilingual services to cater to Hispanics and other non-English speakers.

Still, some area-Hispanics feel that the needs of the Hispanic community aren’t being met.

Jumping the language hurdle

Israel Acevedo, a member of the Puerto Rican American Social Club, Inc., said his Spanish-speaking wife was recently in the hospital. If not for one bilingual staff member, she wouldn’t have been able to communicate with the medical staff, he said.

And, most likely, she’s not the only one who’s been in that situation, Acevedo said.

“Most of us are bilingual, but I would say there are 5 to 10 percent of us that have a very hard time learning the English language,” he said. “I believe we are in need of more Spanish-speaking people. They don’t have to be Spanish, but bilingual.”

The need, he said, can be felt in all sectors — medical, business and government. And as the peak of hurricane season approaches, aid organizations especially should make sure they have bilingual staff on hand, he said.

The Puerto Rican American Social Club attempts to help Spanish-speakers who lack English skills, he said. But they can only do so much.

“We try to attend to the needs of those who we can,” he said. “But we are a social club, not a cultural club.”

Hugo Cintron, president of Cintron Financial Group, Inc., agreed with Acevedo, saying that government offices should offer more bilingual services.

“I think there should be more bilingual people in key spots within the government,” he said. “You know, everybody that’s here pays their taxes but we’re not all getting the help that we deserve … I would say that a majority of Hispanics within Hernando County are not illegal. A lot of the Hispanics are Puerto Ricans and Cubans who are third-generation in this country.”

But in the government’s defense, the issue is a fairly recent phenomenon, he said.

“I think as an issue it’s relatively new because of the exploding Hispanic population in Hernando County,” Cintron said. “Now is when it’s being noticed, and now is when it’s becoming terribly important.”

With an election season coming up, Cintron said he has witnessed discussions about which of the candidates Hispanics will and won’t support. Cintron said he’s sure of one thing: the Hispanic community doesn’t need any fair-weather friends, something they’ve experienced in the past. Some candidates attempt to garner support from the Hispanic community, and then forget about promises made after they are elected, he said.

“There is also talk about that — that we are not looking for that type of response for elected officials,” Cintron said.

Language Line

Not everyone in the Hispanic community feels the way Cintron and Acevedo do.

Lou Hernandez said that as far as language goes, this is how it works: “What if you go to Russia or China? You’re going to have to learn to speak Chinese!”

Hernandez himself knows how hard it is to tackle the language barrier. After moving to the United States from Puerto Rico in 1943, it took him more than three years to become fluent. Regardless of how hard it is, it’s a necessity, he said.

“You have to meet the standards of the basics: the language,” he said. “… If there’s a problem with communication, whose problem is it?”

But that doesn’t mean that there shouldn’t be some kind of bilingual service for critical care at hospitals, he said. Although to be fair, health care providers would need to offer services for nearly every language.

Apparently, he wasn’t the only one to consider that point. An interpretation service called Language Line is used county-wide by fire and law enforcement dispatch centers and at least one hospital in Hernando County. The service covers “darn near any language that’s out there,” said Bill Davies, assistant chief for Spring Hill Fire Rescue.

It works like this: the patient/victim/suspect identifies which language they speak. At that point, the officer or physician calls Language Line, which in turn connects them to an interpreter. Through a three-way call, the interpreter communicates between the two parties.

Richard Linkul, director of marketing at Oak Hill Hospital, said hospital staff is using the service more and more each year. Despite diverse employees, the Language Line provides an ideal alternative when it comes to language barriers.

“If there’s someone immediately available who can help, we’re there,” he said. “But we don’t have someone designated here to specifically do that, so that’s why we have the language service. We don’t want to take our employees away from their normal duties.”

The Hernando County Sheriff’s Office has used the Language Line since the 1980s. Both dispatchers and deputies use the service, said Donna Black, spokeswoman for the department. The sheriff’s office has six bilingual deputies on hand, but it’s impossible to cover all bases with bilingual deputies, Black said.

“The Language Line gives us limited possibilities of bridging any kind of language gap that there might be,” Black said. “Our deputies carry a card on them that has over 150 languages on it. They hand them the card. They point at the language. The deputy calls in and the Language Line is patched directly to them.”

In June the sheriff’s office had 11 calls to the Language Line. Nine were Spanish, one was Japanese and one was Mandarin.

“In essence we don’t have a language barrier,” Black said.

Answering the call

While it’s great that language services are provided, Noemi De La Rosa, vice president of the Latin American Civic and Cultural Association of Spring Hill, said she believes immigrants in the United States should learn to speak English.

The problem is, there is a lack of affordable programs to help them learn, she said.

“I think that for any Hispanic living in the United States it’s necessary to learn English,” the former Spanish teacher said. “What I would like to see is more programs to help these people learn English.”

Churches, clubs, schools and other organizations should make a cooperative effort to provide non-English speakers with an affordable way to learn the language, De La Rosa said. If more immigrants spoke English, they may receive a warmer welcome, she said.

“We cannot leave everything to the government,” she said. “We have to try and do something.”

But the Hernando County School District is proving that some things can be left to government. The district offers student and adult English for speakers of other languages — or ESOL — classes free of charge.

In October 2000, just over 6 percent of students in the school district were Hispanic, according to Roy Gordon, spokesperson for the district. As of May 2006, Hispanics made up just more than 9 percent of students enrolled in Hernando County schools.

As the population continues to change, the district assesses the need for ESOL classes, Gordon said. Hernando County also began offering a Spanish version of the parent guides — an essential reference for all parents — that are sent home with each child, Gordon said.

Adult ESOL programs are rapidly expanding as well. The classes, which are offered at four different locations (see info box), also provide free childcare through United Way. ESOL teachers and volunteers aim to help non-English speaking adults achieve their goals, whether it’s to secure citizenship or to help their children with homework.

The program runs the length of the school year and has open entry and exit, so students can leave whenever they’ve reached their goals.

“It’s been growing and growing and growing,” said Denise Moen, adult literacy and district volunteer coordinator.

At this point, there are no plans to additional locations for the classes. However, the district will continue to expand the small study groups at each location, Moen said.

The county acts on changing demographics

Hernando County government has also acknowledged a need to serve its Spanish-speaking population. Despite initial delays, there is now a Spanish-language version of the Web sites for both the Department of Public Health and Human Services and Emergency Management. The Department of Health and Human Services also offers many of its brochures in Spanish.

Those changes are a direct response to the burgeoning Hispanic population, said Brenda Frazier, community relations coordinator for Hernando County.

“I think the county is just acknowledging our changing demographics,” Frazier said

Warden Don Stewart said the Hernando County Jail also offers services for non-English. Of 200 employees, roughly 25 percent are bilingual, he said. Stewart also makes sure they have at least one Spanish-speaking staffer on duty at all times. Jail orientation and assistance with locating Spanish-speaking attorneys are also offered in Spanish.

“Those are services we provide 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” Stewart said.

“… At this point, I have not had any issues brought to my attention where we have not been able to provide a service upon request.”

But some things haven’t changed despite the influx of Hispanics.

Hernando County voting ballots, for instance, are offered only in English. In 1992, it was mandated that several counties offer a Spanish version of the ballot said Annie Williams, supervisor of elections for Hernando County. Collier, Hardee, Hendry, Hillsborough and Monroe counties were ordered to offer the ballots. Hernando County was not, she said. The decision was made based on a formula involving census numbers.

The Fifth Judicial Circuit in Hernando County offers interpreter services. But for the past two years, the state has cut its budget for the program despite growing needs.

“So far it hasn’t been a problem. We have been able to provide interpreters as needed,” said Peggy Bryant, trial court administrative assistant. “They’ve just asked us to be as economical as possible.”

So whenever possible, Bryant uses the more cost efficient Language Line instead of a local interpreter. But Language Line is only practical for some situations, Bryant said.

Other areas of government simply haven’t felt a need. Mike McHugh, director of the Office of Business Develop-ment, said language issues are not something that is at the forefront of his talks with incoming businesses.

“It’s not something that we hear every day about … but I think as these population changes continue to take place it will matter,” he said.


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