Calif. Medical Center Offers Cure To Indigenous Language Barrier

by KRISTA ALMANZAN

Immigrants from Mexico don't always speak Spanish. Instead they speak indigenous languages. That's created huge communications problems, but a hospital in Salinas has found a solution.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Salinas, California is known as the Salad Bowl of the World. Nearly a third of the world's lettuce is grown there. Many of the areas agriculture workers are from Mexico. They speak, not just Spanish, but also indigenous languages, like Triqui, Mixtec and Zapotec. For hospitals having interpreters is essential but many of them speak just Spanish. There's one medical center trying to accommodate the indigenous languages. Their approach could be useful elsewhere in the country.

Krista Almanzan from member station KAZU reports.

KRISTA ALMANZAN, BYLINE: A newborn baby girl sleeps in a bassinet at a Salinas hospital. By her side, her parents meet with a lactation consultant.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Mama, real important that we can get milk to the baby and we...

ALMANZAN: The couple's eyes fix on Angelica Isidro. She's not the consultant, a doctor or a nurse. She's the hospital's Mixteco language interpreter.

ANGELICA ISIDRO: (Foreign language spoken)

ALMANZAN: In recent years, Natividad Medical Center has seen a growing number of patients like this couple - immigrants from Mexico who only speak an indigenous language - in part because of a lack of access to formal education in their home country, and a strong sense of pride in their indigenous culture.

PETER CHANDLER: They're not a huge percentage of our population. But they impact us greatly when they come in.

ALMANZAN: Dr. Peter Chandler is an OBGYN and chief of staff at Natividad. He recalls a time when he had a Mixteco-speaking patient who needed an emergency C-section, but refused.

CHANDLER: So they ended up having to get other consultation from people in their community and that took time.

ALMANZAN: That was the breaking point. So the hospital's Language Access Coordinator, Victor Sosa, started seeking out indigenous language speakers who he could train to become medical interpreters. Sitting in his office, he scrolls through his database. It lists about a dozen indigenous languages and more than 100 interpreters.

VICTOR SOSA: Nawat, Maya, Apache and Amuzgo...

ALMANZAN: The number is so high because within these languages there are regional variations.

SOSA: We have to identify where the township or districto they're from, to make sure we get the right language and the right variant, because if it's different enough, they won't understand each other.

ALMANZAN: This network is at the heart of the hospital's Indigenous Interpreting Plus program. It's a service free to Natividad's patients. And now the interpreters and interpreter training are available to agencies across the nation, for a fee.

Sosa walks over to a set of monitors where interpreters work remotely.

SOSA: This is a system that we have to take calls over video and...

ALMANZAN: In some cases, the interpreters are local. The network includes people Sosa trained in other indigenous language clusters across the country, including Arizona, Texas and Alaska. And the service isn't just for hospitals. California Rural Legal Assistance was one of the program's first clients.

Maureen Keffer says her group has long helped indigenous farm workers from Mexico navigate the court system.

MAUREEN KEFFER: For decades, really, agencies have been treating indigenous language speakers as if they were Spanish speakers, and then being really kind of surprised or disappointed when they are not communicating well.

ALMANZAN: Back in the hospital room, the newborn baby's father, Urbano Garcia, says he can get by on what Spanish he knows, but...

URBANO GARCIA: (Through Translator) I feel better speaking my own language rather than Spanish.

ALMANZAN: Up to this point, the Indigenous Interpreting Plus program has been funded by community donations, including large contributions from local agriculture businesses. The hope is the service fees will eventually be enough to support the program.

For NPR News, I'm Krista Almanzan.

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Natividad Medical Center • 1441 Constitution Blvd. • Salinas, CA 93906 • (831) 755-4111