This story has been updated.
Madeli Escoto was on hold for 30 minutes before someone at Baltimore’s Department of Social Services picked up. The Honduran mother who crossed the U.S-Mexican border in 2019 immediately asked for an interpreter because she isn’t fluent in English.
“I don’t speak Spanish. I don’t understand you,” the person on the other line said before hanging up.
Escoto said she was livid, but her story is all too familiar — Baltimore residents who don’t speak English can struggle to access city and state resources — especially Spanish speakers.
In Baltimore, community advocates are pushing the city to hire more bilingual employees rather than rely on an interpretation service or staff who don’t speak other languages.
The social services department is managed by the state and under state law Escoto should have been put on hold and provided an interpreter. If it had been a city agency, a city official should have connected her with the Language Line, a telephonic interpretation service that the city has allocated more than $8.4 million for since 2021. But that doesn’t always happen.
“We, non-English speakers, are the ones who leave the situation scathed,” Escoto said in Spanish.
Data from the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs show that Spanish is the most requested language of the phone interpretation service. While advocates say the immigrant affairs office has done a lot of the leg work to overcome language barriers, they say the numbers also demonstrate a need for more Spanish-speaking staff.
There are currently 19 city employees who self-identified as Spanish speakers and 578 who identified as Hispanic or Latino, but the numbers may be “severely underreported,” according to a spokesperson for the mayor’s office. The figures also do not necessarily mean these employees interpret or translate in their roles.
When a family applies for government assistance, the city should not only provide the service but also educate and inform them on all aspects of the program, said Rocio Masset, who has worked as interpreter and case manager for various social programs.
“And that can only be done in their language,” Masset said.
Masset was part of a partnership between the city and the Southeast Community Development Corporation, where she worked as an eviction prevention case manager in the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic when housing instability skyrocketed among immigrants. While she applauded the initiative, many of these partnerships only exist because the city can’t provide access to social services in other languages, leading the government to rely on nonprofits and corporations.
Macrina Galvez and her husband have gone to the city’s Department of Social Services in Dunbar multiple times to apply for food stamps for their five children. The department didn’t provide in person or phone interpreters, usually keeping the family for hours only for them to leave the building without the benefits.
The times she did receive her benefits were when she found a pro bono legal center with Spanish speakers who were able to help her. But for most of the pandemic — when her husband, who worked at a restaurant, lost his job — Galvez tried to access the benefits on her own. The officials, she said, did nothing to try to understand her.
Several Spanish speakers shared similar stories with The Baltimore Banner. A mother from Mexico seeking refugee status waited a minute to get connected with an interpreter when she called 911. She wasn’t in immediate danger then, but she wondered: What if there had been someone in her house? What difference would that one minute have made?
Others said they were never connected with an interpreter when they called 911 and 311. Those who did said it gave them a feeling of discomfort not being able to understand what was being said. Or they felt as if interpreters were not translating everything or could not understand them. Data of 311 calls between January 2020 and December 2021 show that only 2,000 of more than 660,000 calls were in Spanish.
The recent growth in the Latino population indicates to Odette Ramos, the councilwoman representing the 14th district, that the city needs more Spanish speakers.
“We need to be ready for our multilingual speakers and Spanish speakers in particular, because that’s the next highest population that we have,” Ramos said.
But some city officials, including chief equity officer Dana Moore, are against a mandate, arguing that it would leave out other languages widely spoken in the city.
“The best approach is to have every agency be aware of the need to access interpretation,” Moore said.
Catalina Rodriguez-Lima, the director of the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs, recognizes that there is a need for Spanish-speaking employees. But she stresses that hiring more Spanish speakers or issuing a blanket requirement for all agencies will not address the systemic language barriers in the city or build a system that is sustainable. Each instance deserves a different approach, she said, and some agencies may benefit more by subcontracting nonprofit organizations such as CASA and Latino Economic Development Center.
Ramos and other city councilmembers held a hearing at City Hall Thursday on the issue of adequate interpretation services. Almost 20 people provided written and spoken testimonies.
Gina Báez, a health program administrator at one of the clinics the city health department runs, said many of her clients in the family planning clinic are Latina women. Many said they struggled getting an interpreter to access city resources.
Julia Sarmento, who works at the Latino Economic Development Center, said calls often drop when transferring to an interpreter. One time, she added, a client was put on hold for an hour.
City officials from the department of human resources said they support the idea of hiring more bilingual staff, and said they are trying to find people through Linkedin. Baltimore public schools officials said they are also looking for Spanish-speaking candidates, including through newspaper advertisements in Puerto Rico.
Báez, who has helped recruit bilingual candidates as one of the few bilingual staff in the department, says the salary offered to bilingual candidates is not competitive and that the city needs to choose to make this investment.
As the city continues to loses population, it needs to serve the needs of Hispanic and other non-English speaker immigrants that are arriving to Baltimore, said Pat Shannon Jones, executive director of Immigration Outreach Services Center.
“So they will choose to stay,” Jones said.
Ramos said this was first hearing on the topic of translation and hiring of Spanish-speaking staff.
“It will not be the last,” Ramos said.
Weeks after the call, Escoto received a letter from social services in the mail, saying that Escoto failed to show for a phone interview. If she didn’t reschedule by Feb. 15, she would likely have her food stamps delayed, which she needs to take care of her four children.
But she had called. She had done everything right, she said.
There were times when it had been less difficult for her to receive financial assistance in the past, when she communicated with community advocates who were Spanish speakers. But without that help, she said she feels like she is driving a car, no idea where she is headed.
“It’s the hardest and ugliest thing about this country,” she said.
This story has been corrected to say that under state law Madeli Escoto should have been provided an interpreter.