Hands reaching over to look through paper, bilingual brochures.
Librarian Sara McNeil looks through bilingual brochures at the Evergreen Community Center and Library. (Trace Salzbrenner/The Wichita Beacon)

Roughly one in 14 people in Wichita say they speak English — the primary language used to access taxpayer funded services — less than “very well.”

Ask Ana Lopez. She is the Spanish-speaking community services representative for City Council District 6 that covers the heavily Hispanic North End neighborhood in North Wichita along Arkansas Avenue. 

Because most city council and county commissioners do not speak Spanish — or have staff who do — people needing help often find their way to Lopez.

“I am helping people from all over the city,” she said, “not just from my district.” 

Whether the need is simple, such as getting potholes fixed in your neighborhood, or something complex like persuading police to interact differently with your community, the entry to dealing with local government often starts with a website or calling a city council member. 

And Lopez can’t help everybody. That means tens of thousands of Wichitans have limited access to government services because of language barriers. Activists for increased language access say they want more translation — in writing and in conversation — to make residents aware what services they’re entitled to. 

Translation services come with a cost. Spanish Ad Hoc Translations LLC, a Wichita company, lists on its rate sheet a cost of 20 to 25 cents per word for written translations and $70 an hour for live spoken translation. 

A search of the City of Wichita’s 2023-24 434-page budget shows no mention of allocations for “Spanish,” “translation” or “interpretation.”  Sedgwick County’s 2023 Budget – which comes in at 857 pages – contains a single reference to translation on page 138. It mentions the use of a private grant to translate voter materials into Spanish and Vietnamese in advance of the 2020 elections. The exact cost of that is not broken out. 

Maria Kury, president of the Wichita Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, said Wichita will get more contributions from a fast-growing sector of the city’s population by providing resources in their language.

Over the past 20 years, Hispanic and Latino residents have grown from 10% of Wichita’s population in 2000 to nearly 18% today. Kury said language is segregating them.

Language is segregating a population that could be more fully contributing to Wichita, Kury said. 

“It takes time to learn a language,” she said. “And In that time, they still want to be able to help and get involved with their community.”  

Wichita lacks Spanish resources

Alce Su Voz, a language access advocacy group, and the Wichita Hispanic Chamber of Commerce want to remove barriers to Spanish-speaking residents.  

Rachel Showstack, an assistant professor of Spanish at Wichita State University who created Alce Su Voz, has been studying ways to get Spanish-speaking families involved in civic affairs. 

“Our community is often unable to participate because we do not have those language resources,” said Alondra Aguilera, one of Showstack’s research assistants

The United States Census estimates 15,000 people say Spanish is their preferred language. Kury says statistics available on the Hispanic chamber of commerce’s website show about 10,000 Wichitans speak only Spanish. 

But Kury said bilingual people also often better understand information in their native language. 

“Even though I think of myself to be very proficient at English,” she said, “I want the information in Spanish sometimes. When I was having my child seven years ago, I wanted a doctor that had Spanish resources because in a moment so important like that, I didn’t want to miss any important detail.” 

Aguilera, a researcher with Alce Su Voz, said language shouldn’t shut people out from understanding and weighing in on laws and ordinances that affect them. 

Recently, the Kansas Legislature passed new rules on what constitutes human smuggling. The law sparked concern and anger in Hispanic and Latin American communities in Wichita worried that its broad language could be used to discriminate against their families. The Wichita police chief and Sedgwick County sheriff held a press conference to attempt to allay those fears locally. The press conference was conducted in English, though a police officer later conveyed the information in Spanish in an interview with Spanish-language TV, said Yeni Silva-Renteria, who also spoke at the conference. 

“You can see in that example why all people need to be able to be civically engaged and why language resources need to be available,” Aguilera said. 

She added, a lack of input from Hispanic and Latino communities left the bill open to interpretation that could be used against those communities. And, lack of information on the bill in Spanish contributed to panic. 

Kury said language barriers between residents and the government can also cause issues for workers and business owners who are not always able to find all of the regulations they must follow.

This language barrier can be compounded by cultural differences. Many people who migrate don’t understand local government structures in the United States, she said.

“Most know how our national government works on some level,” Aguilera said. “But they don’t know how locally you can make an impact or how to access city and county government.”

That applies to simple requests. Without language access, it is much harder for a family to get permits to renovate their homes, provide input at public meetings, or participate in areas of government that many take for granted.

“A lot of Spanish speakers want to be engaged,” said Savannah Paschal, another of Showstack’s research assistants. “What we keep finding is that people want to be a part of the process, there just aren’t any resources for them to be as engaged as they want.” 

Making room for Español

Neither Wichita nor Sedgwick County’s government websites provide information in languages other than English. While most current web browsers can translate websites — often clumsily — images, PDF documents and other resources hosted on the websites cannot be translated as easily. 

The City of Wichita agrees and is working to address the problem. 

“Increased access is one of the reasons we’re redoing our website,” said Megan Lovely, a spokesperson for the city. “When completed later this year, the updated website will have built-in translation, plus options for those with dyslexia, low vision and more.” The city budgeted $183,000 for website work this year. 

Sedgwick County is working to improve its website, said Stephanie Birmingham, a county spokesperson. The county is looking for ways to provide more information in Spanish, but she gave no specific timetable.

Improve Spanish access in Wichita

A need exists not only for bilingual written communication but verbal. Rommy Vargas, Alce Su Voz’s director of education and engagement of interpreters, said having trained interpreters ready at public meetings increases accessibility, she said. Vargas also serves as a community engagement representative for The Wichita Beacon.

Vargas recently translated live presentations at the July 29 Latina Leadership Summit hosted by the Kansas Hispanic & Latino American Affairs Commission, speaking into a microphone broadcast to earphones of non-English speaking attendees.

“There is a lot more that goes into interpretation than just knowing two languages,” she said. 

She said that someone has to deeply understand subjects and know how to accurately translate spoken words quickly. 

“Think of it like this: You wouldn’t want someone who speaks English who isn’t trained in law to try to explain the law to you,” Vargas said. “It’s the same here. We wouldn’t want an interpreter who isn’t connected to the topic.” 

Wichita and Sedgwick County can also be more intentional with how they engage with the Hispanic and Latino community, activists said. They can provide direct resources, partner with Spanish language programs, and intentionally reach out. Then, they can continue to do the same for other major languages spoken in Wichita. 

“We are not just pushing for Spanish language access,” Aguilera said. “What we want for Spanish speaking communities should be used for all non-English speakers.” 

Kury and Aguilera want Lopez’s work repeated across the city and county. 

Along with being a liaison for her community, Lopez oversees the Evergreen Community Center and Library. District 6 representative Maggie Ballard has worked with Lopez to make the community center a place where all Spanish-speaking Wichitans can go to get helpful information. 

“In the lobby at Evergreen, you can find dozens of informational flyers in Spanish about events, resources and services available to the community from different local organizations,” Ballard wrote in an email to The Wichita Beacon. “More than half of the staff is bilingual. Evergreen Library Branch has the largest book collections in Spanish.”

Ballard also wants to see more community outreach from the city to make sure all needs from diverse communities are being met.

People sit around a table talking to one another at a Spanish resource workshop.
Alce Su Voz holds workshops to help Spanish-speaking Wichitans navigate systems such as healthcare and local government. (Courtesy photo)

Help now for Wichita Spanish-speakers 

If you know someone who does not speak English fluently but needs to interact with the local government, here are some options: 

  • Alce Su Voz offers workshops to help Spanish speakers navigate systems correctly and efficiently. More information is available on its website and  Facebook page. 
  • The Hispanic Chamber of Commerce can help with questions related to business and economy here in Sedgwick County. Its website has a page to send email inquiries. 

Both Wichita and Sedgwick County officials said they are equipped to receive and respond to email written in other languages — and that’s easier than phone calls. Sending an email in any language to a representative will be translated and sent to the appropriate channels to address the concern. 

If someone wishes to speak before the city council or county commission in their native language, a request would need to be made in advance so an interpreter can be found to assist. If the request is not made in advance, there is no guarantee that an interpreter will be available. 

  • Contact information for your city council representative can be found on their website.
  • If you need help contacting your representative, you can contact the Evergreen Community Center and Library at 316-303-8181. They are equipped to handle phone calls in Spanish.
  • Other inquiries for city government officials and request to speak before the council can be sent to DLCityCouncilMembers@wichita.gov 
  • Contact information for your county commissioner can be found on their website.
  • To speak before the county commission, contact Sabrina Young at Sabrina.Young@sedgwick.gov

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Trace Salzbrenner is a community journalist for The Wichita Beacon. Follow him on Twitter @RealTraceAlan.