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You'd think that in San Antonio, where two-thirds of residents are Latino — and a strong presence of people speak primarily Spanish — that asking for a translator before speaking to a board or commission would be an easy straightforward process.
District 1 City Councilman Roberto C. Treviño is trying to change that.
On Wednesday, San Antonio's Governance Committee will consider a request from Treviño to create a dedicated staff person to provide Spanish translation services at the Building Standards Board, the Historic and Design Review Commission, the Planning Commission, the Zoning Board of Adjustment and the Zoning Commission.
"When you have people where English is a second language, it makes it difficult for someone to understand what is happening with a case, property or whatever," Treviño explains. "A lot of times [these cases are] technical ... it's about understanding."
The City's director of development services, Rod Sanchez, admits translation services were inconsistent across those boards and commissions.
"We've had an interpreter service available, but we were kind of inconsistent in how we advertised that," Sanchez said. "The Building Standards Board did a really good job of advertising that."
With the other boards and commissions, the service was available — but people didn't really know about it.
"We just didn't advertise it," he said. "I know some people did show up with someone to help them interpret."
After Treviño filed his request in February, Sanchez said his office looked hard at their policy and as of March 1, they changed it.
Now, an interpreter is always available and present at the Building Standards Board and the Zoning Board of Adjustment.
"For the other boards ... we've advertised it on web pages and applications, basically letting people know, if you need the service, please let us know and we'll have an interpreter," Sanchez said.
Treviño, however, says the administrative changes are not enough.
"I'm pushing for more," he said. "This is about giving somebody the chance to fully understand what is happening, and Spanish is just the beginning."
While his push is in its early stages, Treviño says public access to meetings and information is critically important and San Antonio needs to improve.
"We're just going to keep pushing," he said. "Access to information is a right and I want to make sure that people get every bit of information and understanding they need to make the right choices."
Margarita Flores, who is a displaced resident from the former Mission Trails Mobile Home Community (a developer bought the park and is building luxury apartments), said she had a hard time understanding what was happening at City meetings because she is a Spanish speaker.
"And I think that’s a lot of time, why there is a lack of community input, because when people are invited they show up [they] don’t know what’s being said," she said through a translator.
Jessica Guerrero, a Fuerza Unida organizer, who translated for Flores, was also at those City meetings Flores referred to.
"Since the initial meetings, they were still trying to even understand what was happening," she explained. "There was no translation. I had to translate. It was really hard."
Still, Treviño's request doesn't cover the City Council meeting, where big decisions in San Antonio are made.
Sanchez confirmed that the only way the City will provide a translator at the City Council meetings is if a case from one of those boards or commissions is heard there.
That's different than other major cities in Texas. Representatives from the cities of Houston, Austin, Dallas and Fort Worth all confirmed that Spanish translation services are available at City Council meetings upon request with 48 hours notification.
But again, Treviño says is request is just a start. The Governance Committee takes it up at 1 p.m. Wednesday.