As the owner of the leading linguistics service company in the Roaring Fork and Colorado River Valleys, and a first-generation immigrant from Mexico myself, I knew how important it was to translate information about the Grizzly Creek Fire. The population of the Roaring Fork Valley, where I call home, is about 30 percent Latino, and many in my community are monolingual Spanish speakers. In order to stay safe in these urgent situations, people need access to information in their own language.
So after Voces Unidas, a local advocacy group, spoke up for the need for translation and interpretation, I volunteered. I had been a medical interpreter for years, so I had the training and connections to hit the ground running. My background as a community organizer helped, too. I was able to connect public information officers to sources and leaders people trusted. Soon, the incident management team hired my small business to support their communications.
The work was hard, but I loved it. I learned how the incident management system worked, and also saw the gaps. The leadership of these emergency services are not very diverse, and few are bilingual, so even with the best intentions, they didn’t know how to reach everyone. We need to bring in more diverse, multicultural, multilingual voices to federal and local agencies to better serve our communities.
If we don’t, it can have dangerous consequences. For example, in 2018, officials handling the Lake Christine Fire in the nearby town of El Jebel told Latino residents they would need a “green card” to re-enter their homes when the fire danger had cleared, creating confusion and fear for undocumented residents who did not have a “green card” for residency. Our communities need emergency services to deliver these messages in a timely manner, that are culturally relevant, from a trusted source, and in as many forms as possible. Otherwise, we risk leaving people behind.