Language barriers, fear heighten woes in Flint water crisis

AP News
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Posted: Jun 08, 2016 2:09 AM
Language barriers, fear heighten woes in Flint water crisis

FLINT, Mich. (AP) — Margarita Solis regularly drives to Flint distribution centers to load up on bottled water, as thousands of residents have done in the city coping with a lead-contaminated water crisis.

One stop is a little farther afield but feels like home: She goes to Our Lady of Guadalupe Church north of the city, where the conversation with volunteers may be in Spanish. It's nice for the 21-year-old Solis — a church member and lifelong Flint resident who speaks English and Spanish — but necessary for her parents and others with Hispanic or Latino roots who speak little or no English.

"They always depend on me or my siblings, who do know how to speak English well," Solis said of her parents, who moved to Flint shortly before she was born and now are U.S. citizens. "So, sometimes, like for my mom, she kind of has to wait around until we have free time, because we go to school and work and everything."

The city of nearly 100,000 has been dealing with the lead contamination since switching from the Detroit system, which draws from Lake Huron, to the Flint River in April 2014 as a short-term measure to save money while another pipeline to the lake was under construction. Last September, state officials acknowledged a failure to add chemicals to limit corrosion had enabled the river water to scrape lead from aging pipes, exposing people in some homes and schools to the potent neurotoxin.

The struggles have been acute for members of some Spanish-speaking households, who say it took several months to learn about the water problems and the need for filters. State officials said there are no Spanish language print media or radio outlets in Flint devoted to news. What's more, some people in the country illegally have been afraid to provide information to anyone in exchange for water or other basic help lest they be deported or questioned by law enforcement officials.

Officials with Our Lady of Guadalupe recognized the language and cultural barriers in January, when they started distributing supplies as well as information in English and Spanish developed with the help of government officials. After concerns were raised, government officials also stopped checking identification at official distribution sites.

Advocates note improvements, with more documents and phone assistance being made available in Spanish and other languages. Still, it's difficult to reach everyone after concerns spread in the community.

"I think it's hard to convince people that there are safe places for them to come to — even at this point," said Victoria Arteaga, a local immigration attorney who attends and works at Our Lady of Guadalupe, where her husband, Omar Odette, is the administrator. "We still see people who are hesitant to go to these sites and ask for help. ... There's always that fear that if I got in my car and get pulled over, something will happen."

She said it's also likely some children aren't having their blood tested for lead because of those fears. And some might not see the right doctors to deal with lead contamination because people must be U.S. citizens or non-citizens meeting certain criteria to get Medicaid. Those without documents have to rely on limited emergency services, she said.

Arteaga says there are an estimated 1,000 people living illegally in the Flint area. Flint's Latino community represents at least 5 percent of the overall population, according to the federal Census, though she says it's likely higher.

The language barrier came up in April during a Michigan Civil Rights Commission hearing exploring whether residents have faced racial and ethnic discrimination. Commissioners heard from Yaquelin Vargas, 21, who moved to Flint from San Antonio, Texas, six years ago with her father.

Vargas said buying their home was a "dream come true," but now they struggle. Her father is too ill to work and she must care for him and her 7-month-old daughter, Lydia, who tested positive for lead. She's also concerned about people in her east-side neighborhood, many of whom, like her father, speak little English.

Arteaga said Vargas "is a perfect example of the people that are lost right now — they're not sure what the future holds for them."

President Barack Obama, who declared a state of emergency in the city in mid-January and ordered federal aid to supplement the state and local response, visited Flint in May.

Among those who met with Obama was Rick Vasquez, a retired General Motors worker who coordinates Our Lady of Guadalupe's distribution efforts. He's glad to be helping other residents, particularly those dealing with language barriers.

Vasquez said it's hard for him to fathom how a U.S. public water system can be fouled in this way, and shared those concerns with Obama.

"I've lived here all my life. I never thought that I would be living in a Third World country, and this is exactly what it feels like," said Vasquez, during a break from lugging water and filters to residents' cars. "We're surrounded by Great Lakes. This should have never happened."

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Associated Press writer Mike Householder contributed to this story.

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Follow Jeff Karoub on Twitter: http://twitter.com/jeffkaroub .