As Latinos deepen roots in Columbia, Spanish-language services expand

Tuesday, July 31, 2012 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 12:02 a.m. CDT, Friday, August 3, 2012
Columbia is expanding its resources to provide services to the growing Latino population. Columbia está aumentando sus recursos para proveer servicios a la creciente población latina.

Editor's note: This story has both an English and Spanish version online. It was translated by Missourian photographer Tatiana Fernandez, who is from Dominican Republic.

COLUMBIA — Stacey Alvarez Fuentes, 10, has been "Citizen of the Year" at Blue Ridge Elementary School two years in a row. On a recent Saturday, the star math student snuggled on the family recliner in the living room reading "Ella the Rose Fairy" next to her sister, Jasmin, 7, who was reading "Louise the Lily Fairy."


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On the floor below them, Juanito, 4, dropped blocks into an orange recycling truck and ran it across the carpet and into a wall. 

The sisters sometimes fight in English, because they think their mother, Martha Fuentes, won't understand. Martha moved to Columbia 10 years ago from Toluca, Mexico, and says her daughters can't fool her. She's learning English slowly from movies, the cartoons the girls watch and a yellow-cover Spanish-English dictionary carefully placed under the television.

The Alvarez Fuentes family loves Columbia because they find it calm and beautiful. They're part of a demographic trend seen in higher census numbers and growing Spanish-language services around Columbia.

Some businesses and social services — in faith, finances, health and child care, for example —  are striving to meet the needs of clients who speak Spanish more comfortably than English. They have adapted by hiring more Spanish-speaking employees and even creating new positions. It's a small but noticeable step to narrow an ever-present language gap. 

Columbia's Hispanic population has increased 115 percent since 2000, with an estimated 3,729 Latinos now living here, according to census figures. Anecdotal evidence suggests the recession and more punitive immigration policies have decreased the number of undocumented immigrants. Spanish-speaking attorney George Batek said he's getting fewer walk-ins and clients from the restaurant industry. Less demand for construction and agricultural workers has prompted some clients to leave the area, he said.

Still, many migrants who have come to Columbia are here to stay.

"Families with children adapt themselves to a place, and hardly think about moving away," said Rosa Nava, who relocated to Columbia from southwest Missouri eight years ago with her husband and three children.

There are signs throughout the city of a population that is putting down roots.

The language of faith

Father Herb Hayek began as pastor at Sacred Heart Church in downtown Columbia on July 1, after he relocated from River Forest, Ill. He was offered the position because he speaks Spanish, which he learned studying in Costa Rica and Bolivia.

One Sunday in July, 150 people came to the 1 p.m. Spanish-language Mass.

Toward the end of the service, children’s voices echoed through the gold-trimmed dome. Congregants raised up their arms, palms to the heavens, and linked hands down the pew.

Hayek led the Lord’s Prayer in Spanish.

Padre nuestro, que estás en el cielo, santificado sea tu nombre ...

(“Our father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name …”)

Hayek stumbled slightly over some words during Mass. He said he doesn’t consider himself fluent.

“It’s a humbling experience,” he said. “You’re not the native; you’re the outsider.”

Hayek's possessions are still in boxes, and learning about Columbia and the needs of Sacred Heart are at the top of his “to-do” list.

“I’m just in the process of asking lots of questions, and meeting lots of people, and seeing what needs to be done,” he said.

As in other congregations where he's worked, integrating the English- and Spanish-language congregations will most likely be a challenge.

“How well can we get them to mix and work together?” he asked.

The pews weren't always so full during the weekly Spanish-language Mass.

Originally from Mexico, Nava remembers how sparsely attended the services in Spanish once were, and how many fewer resources were available all over Columbia when she arrived.

“I didn’t know a single translator, I didn’t know doctors who could speak Spanish," she said. "But now they exist.”

Now, not only is Sacred Heart full on Sundays, Nava lists three other places to worship in Spanish that have sprung up since she moved here — and that’s just off the top of her head.

Nava can get by in English, but said communicating with people around Columbia has never been an issue because one of her children is always there to interpret. 

Nava takes English classes and tries hard to improve her vocabulary. Still, she said people in Columbia have been kind to her when language failed, such as doctors at the clinic who guess which word she is trying to say, or teachers at her children's school who look for translators to communicate with her. 

“People are adapting to the population that is arriving,” Nava said. 

Communicating health

University Hospital recently hired Sara Riek as the MU Health Care system's second full-time Spanish-language interpreter. The first position was created in 2005. Riek's first day was June 25, though she worked part time for three years.

When Riek first started at the hospital, she said, she would assist with two or three patients a day. Now she can see as many as seven.

“We are in such high demand,” Riek said. “The demand gets higher by the day.”

That surprised Riek. She grew up bilingual in the southwest U.S., speaking Spanish at home and English at school, so she never experienced the language barrier her clients face.

When patients come to the hospital — for anything from ER visits, to checkups, to follow-ups after surgery — and need help talking to the doctors, billing department or laboratories, Riek is there.

"They can count on us being there for our patients from the moment they arrive to the moment they leave," Riek said. 

Being able to “make a difference” is gratifying, she said.

“Most of them are very thankful that we are there,” Riek said, “They get the right care.”

A number of other hospitals and clinics around Columbia employ Spanish-speaking medical professionals, including the Family Health Center and Boone Hospital Center. 

A bilingual social worker helped Martha Fuentes when she was pregnant with Stacey 10 years ago. She continued to escort her from one doctor's appointment to another for two years after Martha gave birth. 

If Martha's family needs help now, she's confident she can find health care in Spanish, even if the interpreter is available only by phone.

Adapting to new families

Recent demographic changes in mid-Missouri have unfolded across the eight counties where Mernell King directs Head Start, a federally funded program that provides child care and educates families. 

More and more parents were sending their kids through the program but couldn't communicate with Head Start teachers or management. 

King realized Spanish-speaking children picked up English quickly. But it was a struggle for their parents, who would sit with blank looks on their faces as Head Start staff explained the requirements of the program, King recalled. It became an ethical issue.

“We were asking people to sign official documents and they had no idea what they were signing,” King said.

Children became the conduit for information between parents and teachers — including details of their own bad behavior.

“We saw children put in a position they shouldn’t be put in, helping to make our jobs work," King said, "It was a problem.”  

Five years ago, King created a new position, interpretive services specialist, currently filled by Pilar Garcia Breton, a native of Santiago, Chile.

Garcia Breton leads Spanish-speaking parents through the mountain of paperwork — now translated into Spanish — and thinks up ways to get them involved in the program. She also makes sure simultaneous interpreters are in place for monthly parent meetings, where Spanish is communicated through special ear pieces to each person who needs it.

“It looks like the United Nations,” King said.

Today, in Columbia, about 10 percent of the children who attend Head Start are from Spanish-speaking households – a huge increase from five years ago. Other counties, such as Audrain or Moniteau, have about 40 percent.

The parent manual is now bilingual, as is the menu of breakfast, lunch and snacks the children eat at Head Start. That includes manzana en rodajas, or sliced apples, and galletas graham, or Graham crackers, on the menu for snack one Monday.

Some local food doesn’t translate so easily.

“There is no ‘Sloppy Joe’ in Spanish,” Garcia Breton said.

Garcia Breton aspires to make the program even more bilingual. She'd like children to learn in English and Spanish on alternating days. The "dual-language" instruction could start as early as fall 2013 in the Worley Street Head Start center, although details are still being worked out.

Word of mouth

Commerce Bank is one of a few Columbia banks that now provide Spanish language help for customers. There are now four bilingual Spanish speakers on staff who have been hired in the past 10 years. Three work at specific branches; another goes where needed.

Valerie Shaw, director of retail at the Ninth and Broadway branch, works to ensure the bank’s retail lobbies, teller lines and mortgage lending facilities are representative of the broader community.

“Having Spanish-speaking staff and Spanish-language brochures available is something we recognize as being important,” Shaw said. 

It also helps that happy customers bring in their friends and family to do business at the bank. 

“Satisfied clients let people know that you can go to Commerce, you can go to this branch or that branch, and be able to communicate,” Shaw said. 

Over her decade of residence, Martha Fuentes has learned how to negotiate the language barrier and get the goods and services she needs. She has also noticed how Columbia is changing to cater to Latinos: Walmart sells Mexican soup mix and mole, Dollar General offers maize flour and cookies, and Moser's even stocks fresh nopales, or cactus.

Stacey Alvarez Fuentes and her siblings, Jasmin and Juanito, have lived in Columbia all their lives and have never seen their parents' country of origin. 

Stacey toys with the idea of moving to California and becoming a fashion designer one day, but barring that, she never wants to leave Columbia. 

"You feel like you're going to live here forever," Stacey said. "It's just awesome."

Supervising editor is Katherine Reed.

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Ray Shapiro July 31, 2012 | 11:47 a.m.

How many illegal occupiers from Mexico are currently in Missouri?
Does anyone know for sure?
("A state senator who wants Missouri’s anti-immigration laws to mirror measures passed in Alabama and Arizona is stirring up a fight with advocates for refugees and other foreigners.")

(Report Comment)
Sandra Hayes July 31, 2012 | 12:34 p.m.

Its the beginning of the end Columbia. When your tax dollars are going towards teaching English to eventual high school drop outs and not towards helping American kids who are behind in subjects you will rue the day. Why do you think States like Georgia and Alabama are passing the type of legislation they are??? This is the reality in GA, the ESOL (english as a second language) teacher comes to the door of your kids classroom and 12 kids leave with her. What if those 12 kids werent even at the school how much is that costing and thats just one class. The drop out rate is 60% or higher among hispanics, the parents average a 3rd grade education.

(Report Comment)
Tracy Greever-Rice July 31, 2012 | 2:27 p.m.

To paraphrase the timeless pithy wisdom of one of the arguably best-drawn TV sit-com characters ever:

"Bigots, Can't live with'em, pass the beer nuts."

- Norm Peterson

(Report Comment)
Sandra Hayes July 31, 2012 | 5:54 p.m.

Its also difficult living with people who constantly pander to the lowest commom denominator thinking that makes them a better person.

(Report Comment)
Sandra Hayes July 31, 2012 | 6:44 p.m.

I am not against anyone, I support legal immigration. Another example being a couple brings their kids with them illegally into the country. They drop them off at your public school not because they want you to educate them but because its free babysitting. The kids do not speak english, in a couple weeks your school is administering the CRCT test, these kids HAVE to take the test and their scores count. The federal govt comes in and says you did terrible in this sub group and put your school on the "watch list" and more money goes to these kids than anyone else. Except they are gone before the school year is even over but you are still on the watch list and all that that entails. If you have no kids in the system great you think it doesnt affect you, if you do you are wishing you could afford to move but hey the economy tanked a couple years ago BUT please lets invite more illegals into the country and make them comfortable.

(Report Comment)
Tracy Greever-Rice August 1, 2012 | 12:57 a.m.

"Cliffy, what color is the sky in your world?"

- Frasier Crane


(I consider bigots who mistake dogma for evidence to be the lowest common denominator and the greatest and gravest risk to the education and well-being of my children and all children.)

(Report Comment)
mike mentor August 1, 2012 | 8:51 a.m.

If you lived in a southern state you would not look to dogma to explain why you are paying out the wazzu for private school. Public school is not an option for San Diego parents that want their children to get a decent education. That is a shame!

I like the idea of private business's and churches catering to the needs of their customers/parishioners.

I do not like the idea of the government providing services for spanish speakers only, unless we are talking about an immigration official or something.

Are you o.k. with having a spanish translater hired to see 7 "customers" a day at all of our governmental offices?

Careful, if you answer honestly you might get attacked by someone who wants to feel better about themselves ;-)

(Report Comment)
Sandra Hayes August 1, 2012 | 10:06 a.m.


Try FACTS, I live in the south, the state of GA and the situations I described are things that happened in the classroom. Go give more of your hard earned money to someone who didnt earn it or something you think is productive, clueless.

(Report Comment)

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