According to data from the 2000 U.S. Census, 34.14 percent of the Spanish-speaking population in Boone County speak the English language less than “very well.” Elizabeth Mendez and her husband, Heriberto Uribe, are members of Columbia’s Spanish-speaking population, and for them the language barrier is an issue to be dealt with on a daily basis.
Heriberto works in a custodial job at University Hospital, but Elizabeth has to stay home during the day because they have only one working car. Their two children, Anthony and Erik, are both too young to attend school.
Because of his job in an English-speaking environment, Heriberto’s English has improved tremendously, whereas Elizabeth’s has not.
While both Heriberto and Elizabeth hope to improve their own English and are teaching their children both languages, Elizabeth hopes people understand that a language barrier doesn’t imply incompetence on behalf of Spanish-speakers.
“We’re normal people,” Elizabeth says. “Yes, I say that there are many people who don’t care for us. Because they already believe that, they don’t know how we live.”
Elizabeth and Heriberto are both originally from Mexico but have lived in Columbia for about eight years. For them, Columbia provides a home where they have family and a safe environment to raise their children. Their goal is to live here long enough for their children to go through school, but eventually Elizabeth hopes to move back to Mexico.
“This country is stressful, I believe,” Elizabeth says, “I think there is more pressure on a Hispanic (person) for being Mexican. One time I felt it — I went to apply for a job, and they told me ‘We don’t want Mexicans here’, so I left.”
Despite the language barrier and understanding that the ability to speak English is important in the United States, Elizabeth emphasizes that speaking a different language doesn’t implicate the inability to understand or that a person is in any way different.
“If there are people that see us differently, I would just tell them that we’re equal,” Elizabeth says. “We have hands, eyes, I don’t know what makes us different. What is it that makes us different?”