Some stammer and stutter, but Los Angeles city officials are persistent in their efforts to reach out to their increasingly Latino constituents in their native language. When more than 40 percent of Los Angeles residents speak Spanish in their homes, they say it only makes sense.
“I think I am able to serve people more thoroughly, more comprehensively and get to a much deeper level because I speak Spanish” says Councilwoman Jan Perry, whose 9th District encompasses parts of Downtown Los Angeles – including Little Tokyo and Central City East (Skid Row) – and stretches through South Central LA. “When you represent a diverse area like I do, it’s good to speak more than one language.”
Perry is among the long list of city officials for whom bilingual press conferences have become the norm. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, City Council President Eric Garcetti and at least six of his colleagues, do so as well.
In what has become an increasingly bilingual City Hall, official communications are often issued in Spanish, translators are available in all public meetings and elected officials’ Web sites often address their constituents in Spanish.
Some, like Councilwoman Wendy Greuel, have taken private Spanish lessons. Others, including City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo and City Controller Laura Chick, have participated in Spanish-language immersion programs in Mexico.
For Perry, it’s weekly lessons with tutor Oscar Szmuch, which has helped her polish her Spanish throughout the years. She still has a heavy accent, sometimes struggles with pronunciation and stammers over rolled double r’s, but she can now comprehend what a concerned parent wants to tell her during a school event. And she responds effectively, albeit a few stumbles and a few “lo siento”s (“I’m sorry”) when she gets something wrong.
“I think that the ability to speak Spanish or to speak to people in their own language, whatever it is, gives people a sense that it’s their government, and that government is there to work with them,” said Garcetti’s Chief of Staff, Ana Guerrero. She is one of several people in Garcetti’s office who speak Spanish.
Garcetti, who is half Mexican, has worked to polish his choppy Spanish throughout the years to better communicate with the residents in his District where 62 percent of the population is Latino. The Council President comes prepared to speak the language not only at news conferences but also at District meetings, and when he meets with constituents during his regular office hours to hear their questions and concerns.
During a recent discussion on the foreclosure crisis, many residents who showed up to offer public comment addressed the Council directly in Spanish.
“It’s very useful for the Council President, as the person who is presiding over the meeting, to be able to answer questions or speak in Spanish to folks that are there,” Guerrero said.
For Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, using Spanish is a matter of reaching out and promoting a sense of community.
“The mayor wants to communicate with as many residents as possible and make them feel that they are part of this community, inform them about their rights and responsibilities as residents and about services available to them,” said spokeswoman Jazmin Ortega.
Villaraigosa, who’s been giving bilingual press conferences since his days in the State Assembly, has largely influenced this Spanish-speaking trend at City Hall. He was one of the first to appreciate the broad reach of Spanish language media and use them to facilitate direct communication with residents. Other elected officials soon caught on.
“The interesting thing for me is I tend to get more coverage on Telemundo, Azteca and Univision than I do on regular stations,” Perry said.
For some of these elected officials, including the Mayor who is Latino, a smooth Spanish delivery can be tricky. Many fall prey to traps of words that sound the same in both languages, but mean different things. Some have learned the hard way – often on national television – that the translation of the word excited is not “excitada”, which means sexually aroused, and that the word “embarazada” does not mean you’re embarrassed, it means you’re pregnant.
But regardless of their mistakes, or embarrassments, these elected officials continue to plow through, determined to conquer the Spanish language barrier.
“I know that Eric Garcetti’s Spanish has gotten much better,” says Guerrero who has seen Garcetti’s Spanish language proficiency progress from before he was first elected to office.
Regarding the use of Spanish in city government she says: “It’s definitely something that I think everyone is beginning to consider a priority.”
This article originally appeard exclusively on PublicCEO.com in April, 2009.