What It's Like to Live Through Flint's Water Crisis When You Don't Speak English

For Flint's Spanish-speaking population, many of the warning signs about the lead water crisis have gone unnoticed.
May 12, 2016, 1:50pm

A billboard in Flint, Michigan: "Boiling water does not remove lead." All photos by the author

In a neatly decorated home on Flint's east side, Arendira Solis sat at a large kitchen table across from her son. The 50-year-old was explaining what many people living in the city can recall perfectly: the moment she found out there was lead in the water.

"In the morning, I watch television news in English," she told me in Spanish. "I don't understand exactly everything, but I do remember hearing that there was something happening with the water."

Because of her limited understanding, Solis started doing what seemed logical to her—boiling the water.

"I was born on a ranch in Zacatecas, Mexico. Usually when there were babies in the house, mothers boiled the water, so I came [here] with that experience," she explained. "It never occurred to me that if you boiled the water the lead wouldn't go away." Solis only stopped after she saw television ads showing an X over a pot of boiling water, and later, a series of billboards in Spanish with similar information.

That was in January, and by now, everyone knows that boiling water won't remove the lead contamination in the municipal water supply. But as Flint enters its fourth month in a federal state of emergency as a result of contamination in the city's water system, there's still a big problem: Basic information about the water still isn't reaching the city's Hispanic community.

Related: The Inside Story of How the State of Michigan Poisoned Flint

There are nearly 4,000 Hispanic residents among Flint's population of 99,000, according to recent data collected by Michigan's Department of Technology, Data, and Budget. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has been trying to warn all of Flint's residents, including Hispanics, about the consequences of drinking the water—lead poisoning can cause kidney problems in adults; in children, it can cause learning disabilities, stunted growth, and impaired hearing. The EPA's website presents this information in both English and Spanish, but it's still not reaching everyone.

"One of the challenges is getting the right information accurately translated," said Juani Olivares, president of the Genesee County Hispanic Latino Collaborative, an advocacy group in Flint. "Sometimes the information is too technical, or it seems like whoever is doing the translation is using Google Translate, so it doesn't make much sense."

There aren't any Spanish-language media outlets in the city, unless you count the two radio stations that play Spanish and Tejano music, so people who primarily speak Spanish end up getting information later than others.

A couple of months ago, Ralph Arellano, the director at the Hispanic Technology and Community Center, had the idea of putting the bilingual EPA pamphlets inside boxes of food distributed at a pantry he works with.

It's a step in the right direction, but Arellano said it's still not reaching everyone who needs access to this information. He pointed out that there are people in the city who speak Spanish, but can't read. "That's a difficulty," he said.

Other community centers, like churches, are trying other methods. At Our Lady of Guadalupe, a predominantly Hispanic congregation north of Flint, staff are constantly trying to get the word out. "We do social media, we also do bulletins and plenty of announcements at mass and at breakfasts after mass," said Deacon Omar Odette.

Eduardo Calzada, the pastor at La Familia Multicultural Community Church, a bilingual Baptist church, said the EPA has reached out to his congregation to communicate important information about the water crisis. "Not only that, but we've scheduled them to come to our church to talk a little more about it."

And while that's gone a long way to keep residents safer, there's still miscommunication—specifically among Flint's undocumented immigrants, many of whom fear their immigration status will be questioned if they ask for help or resources from the city. Until recently, water distribution centers required residents to show a valid ID to prove they lived in Flint, which prevented many undocumented residents from accessing filters and bottled water. Agustin Arbulu, executive director at the Michigan Department of Civil Rights, said his organization plans to hold a public hearing to determine whether the lag in communication constitutes discrimination against the undocumented residents.

Advocates like Arbulu say undocumented people need to know they won't be targeted by immigration officials for using the city's health services and free drinking water, "so this group can feel comfortable about asking for medical services without fear that ICE [Immigrations and Customs Enforcement] is going to pick them up and separate them from their kids," he explained.

Related: Flint's Water Crisis Is Leaving Undocumented Immigrants at Risk

Solis, who has been a US citizen since 2009, doesn't live with that fear. But the language barrier means she has to rely on her three bilingual sons for water-related updates.

"It's hard to comprehend the information, even in English—all the scientific information," said Emmanuel, Solis's 19-year-old son, who was born in the United States and is a native English speaker. "It's even more difficult trying to interpret the information and then helping my parents understand."

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