Vaccines, Weather Show How Language Barriers Leave Spanish Speakers Out In The Cold

This week’s weather emergency shined a light on a recurring problem — too much crucial information doesn’t reach Spanish speakers. Community leaders are trying to bridge the language gap.

By Alejandra MartinezFebruary 23, 2021 3:20 pm, , , , , ,

From KERA:

Two weeks before the icy blast hit leaving many North Texans without electricity and water, 75-year-old Gloria Núñez Estrada was getting ready to go grocery shopping.

Before stepping out of her house, she caught a short news segment on the local Univision TV channel.

En Oak Cliff hay un evento de suscripción para vacunarse, announced the news anchor. “In Oak Cliff there is an event where you can register for the COVID-19 vaccine.”

The news segment informed Estrada about COVID-19 vaccine registration happening at her local supermercado.

Pero para registrarse era el problema. Nomas sabían que uno quería español y ya no le contestaban. No regresaban la llamada, Estrada said in Spanish. “Registering for the vaccine has been a headache.”

She had been calling the county’s registration phone number for weeks. Sometimes waiting more than two hours to reach someone and when someone finally answered her, they did not speak Spanish.

Estrada has hypertension and asthma. She lives alone and doesn’t drive. And like many in her neighborhood of Oak Cliff, she doesn’t have internet at home.

Y aparte para venir caminando. Yo no manejo, said Estrada in Spanish. “And on top of that I had to walk, I don’t drive.”

Estrada felt this was her only shot to register and that’s why she set out on foot and walked 15 minutes to the store to get in line.

Registration Hubs Meet People Where They Are At

Outside the Super Mercado Monterrey in Oak Cliff, tucked into a corner of the parking lot, volunteers with El Centro College are helping people register for the vaccine.

Some of the volunteers are bilingual and can help translate what information is needed in the vaccine registration forms. They also enforced social distancing and dispensed hand sanitizer.

In a city like Dallas bilingualism is crucial. According to PolicyMap, a data and mapping tool the city of Dallas uses, 1 in 5 people in Dallas speak only Spanish or it is their preferred language. In Oak Cliff, that number is 1 in 3.

Many Spanish speakers in the city depend on Spanish-language TV to get life-saving information.

Like Estrada, a lot of the people in line also caught the local Spanish news segment or found out this was happening from friends or neighbors.

Dallas resident Cruz Lopez also attended the event. Sheregistered herself, her brother and two other family members.

Pero como para uno de Mexicano ya vez que habla nomas español. Lo tiene que estar repitiendo por que si no, no van a saber tampoco, Lopez said in Spanish. “We only talk Spanish. If news channels or officials don’t repeat the information we will not know.”

Lopez said in her immediate circle there are only Spanish speakers and that word of these events is not getting to the people that most need to know. She found out about the registration by word of mouth.

people lined up in a vaccination registration site

Keren Carrión/KERA

A line of Oak Cliff residents begins to form around 5:30pm, right before the registration site is set to close, on Feb. 3, 2021.

Community Leaders Say There’s Work Left To Do

Dallas County Commissioner Elba Garcia has been to many of the vaccine registration hubs. She said that the county does have the information in both Spanish and English, but understands that this does not remove the many barriers the community still faces: language, mistrust and digital connectivity.

“Sometimes people want to ask more questions than what is there,” Garcia said. “People asked, well can I register my sister? What will happen if I can’t go to the appointment the day that they give you? How can I change it?” .

According to her there’s a huge need for in-person registration and she is happy the county is rolling that out nowt now. Garcia said it was a problem that Dallas’ initial only did online registration..

The county’s early outreach efforts to Latinos had a couple problems, like broken website links and Spanish-language advertisements that were not properly translated.

“Sadly a lot of people were turned away. We are trying to improve the system as much as we can,” Garcia said.

Since then, Dallas county set up a bilingual phone line to register for the COVID-19 vaccine: 855-466-8639.

The county also started partnering up with organizations and community leaders that understand how to reach Spanish speakers. This said Garcia can hopefully be one way to reach this community that is often distrustful of officials, but are more receptive when the information comes from a trusted and community-led organization.

Another thing that could help is educating county translators, according to Dr. Mayra Jimenez Thompson who works in the Hispanic Wellness and Preventative Care unit at UT-Southwestern.

Earlier this month, Thompson participated in a city panel that address COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy among Hispanics.

She said how you message things goes a long way, and recommends officials to us words that can be understood by the general population.

“Not only in English but in Spanish sometimes we use medicine terminology that is difficult for the everyday population to understand,” Thompson said.

Some advocates say there’s little hope things will change when this continues to be a recurring problem.

“This isn’t the first time we see Latinos and Spanish speaking folks being neglected,” said Antonio Arellano, executive interim director of civic engagement organization JOLT.

Arellano sees this as a big failure by the government, especially because it’s common knowledge that Latino Texans are already at higher risk of contracting the virus.

“I mean here we are in the middle of a pandemic and we have another massive weather event and we again fail to meet the needs of the most vulnerable,” he said.

This situation leaves community groups like his to fill the void.

This week, JOLT and other groups, like The Concilio and LatinxDallas, have been translating and sharing information about the weather, power outages and water warnings.

According to Arellano, the problems with communication about vaccines, and now the weather, show the need for more diverse voices in government.

Got a tip? Alejandra Martinez is a Report For America corps member and writes about the economic impact of COVID-19 on marginalized communities for KERA News. Email Alejandra at You can follow Alejandra on Twitter @alereports.

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