Juneau nonprofit bridges Spanish language gap

(Creative Commons photo by Cat)

(Creative Commons photo by Cat)

A Latin American immigrant moved to Juneau recently with her boyfriend and met a local man who helped her get settled and find an apartment. She claims he asked to live with her family temporarily, and then things went downhill.

“Tuesday he was a good man, Wednesday he was a good man, Friday he was a good man, but Saturday he was a monster,” the woman says in Spanish.

We’ve omitted her name due to the ongoing nature of her case, which involves accusations of domestic abuse and sexual assault. She claims the local man was often drunk and abusive.

“I was afraid,” she says. “Because, I said, ‘What if he kills me? What do I do?’ Because he said he was going to make me disappear.”

She needed a protective order from the courts, but her English was limited.

“She didn’t know her way around and basically was harassed by this man because of the lack of the language,” says Wanda Peña. “She couldn’t communicate with anybody, so she ended up going to the courthouse and they provided her with our number and she immediately called.”

Peña is a volunteer with Piedra de Ayuda, a national nonprofit that started a Juneau branch last year and now offers Spanish translation and interpretation services. Peña helped the woman fill out paperwork and interpreted for her in court.

New Jersey native Eddy Reyes helped found Piedra de Ayuda, or A Helping Rock. It began as a homeless outreach program on the East Coast and is now based in Florida. After he moved to Juneau, Reyes started a local branch. He says government agencies like the Division of Motor Vehicles had not provided many language services in the capital city.

“Because there’s not maybe an interpreter or they don’t understand the language there to fill out a form, suddenly someone had to walk out of there without a picture ID,” he says. “Cause of course, if you’re gonna try to get a job, you have to identify yourself. Well, how do you do that if you have no ID?”

Reyes says Piedra de Ayuda is made up entirely of volunteers. Since last year, the local branch has added seven board members and helped about 20 different clients.

Although the law requires courts to provide interpretation to people with limited English proficiency, nonprofit and commercial organizations that offer language assistance are rare in Alaska. Neil Nesheim is court administrator for Southeast. He says 60 to 70 percent of interpretation is done over speakerphone, which is not always the best option.

“Obviously it’s more effective to do it in person only because you get to see subtleties such as facial language, hand language, intonation and those sorts of things,” Nesheim says.

About 5 percent of Juneau’s population identifies as Hispanic. Some, like the woman Peña helped, don’t speak English and need help translating official documents and government forms, or navigating the Alaska Court System.

The woman says she’s grateful to Piedra de Ayuda.

“She came to help me so quickly,” the woman says. “They didn’t charge me anything. They were wonderful people.”

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