LocationAlhambra , CA United States
A relatively rare occurrence took place at Monday’s City Council meeting, when several speakers at public comment addressed the Council in a language other than English.
Speaking mainly in Cantonese, five residents expressed their concerns about issues ranging from high rents and a lack of affordable housing in Alhambra to the presence of crime and homelessness in the city. They also complimented the city on providing essential services like the Senior Ride public transportation program. Their overall goal was to ask the city to make translation services more widely available so that immigrants like them who weren’t proficient in English could more readily participate in public discussions.
“Even though we speak different languages and have different cultures, but our lives are the same, [such as the need] for making housing affordable for people,” said Thanh Vuong, a Vietnamese immigrant who has lived in Alhambra for 21 years and who was able to address the Council in English. “And we want to [advocate] for everybody.”
The women were accompanied by Li’i Furimoto, youth and parent leadership project director for Asian Americans Advancing Justice, who teaches English as a Second Language to many of the speakers. She told the Council about discussing civic engagement issues with the immigrant parents who come to her classes, and how regular translation services would bolster their participation.
“The parents in our program want to continue to engage with the City Council members and elected officials on these issues,” she said. “However, although the parents work very hard to learn English, they would need increased support in terms of language accessibility to fully engage the democratic process in the city of Alhambra.”
Furimoto suggested not only providing interpretation of any public comment made in languages other than English, but providing oral and written translations of meeting proceedings upon request. She also suggested that the translation be of professional quality so that residents who are not proficient in English could grasp various complex legal terms and other similar concepts.
Providing these types of services is especially important in a city like Alhambra, where a little more than 50 percent of the population are Asian and almost 40 percent are Latino, according to the 2017 American Community Survey. Around one-third of the city’s population reported speaking English less than “very well.”
Eric Sunada, the president of local non-profit Grassroots Alhambra, also attend the City Council meeting in support of the speakers. “This is something that GRA fully supports: the civic engagement of our immigrant community and clearing roadblocks that have for far too long resulted in disenfranchisement,” he said via email.
The City enlisted two city employees to work as translators for Monday night’s meeting. Mable Yu, who works as a revenue manager for Alhambra, provided Cantonese translation, while Shannen Sisavath, who works as a library services manager, provided Vietnamese translation. The city tries to accommodate all requests for translation if they are received with sufficient notice, said City Clerk Lauren Myles via email.
Alhambra resident Lola Armendariz spoke in opposition to providing regular translation services, saying that such an undertaking would be expensive, given the many different languages spoken in the city, and that perhaps Alhambra would incur liability for any misinterpretation that comes from providing translation services. She suggested that people who want translation provide their own interpreter or find an English as a Second Language class, and that her relatives sought out similar resources when they immigrated to the United States from Mexico in the 1920s.
“The opportunities that are out there now for people to learn English and other languages, just to get in to the American culture, at that time were nil, and now there’s so much out there,” she said, adding that the city could perhaps fund more English-language learning classes.
Jeff Maloney was the first City Council member to express his receptiveness to increasing translation services during this meeting. “I think that a language barrier shouldn’t be a barrier to participation, and we as a city should be looking at all best practices to make sure we are effectively communicating with our residents,” he said.
Maloney added that the time was right to set translation as a priority at the City Council’s upcoming strategic planning meeting on April 18, where they set yearly goals to improve city services.
Mayor Adele Andrade-Stadler echoed Maloney’s sentiments and recognized the residents and translators who participated in the meeting. “We know that communication is key for all of us understanding each other better,” she said. “There are multiple languages we want to promote.”
There was already a bridging of cultures occurring at Monday’s night meeting, with Councilmember David Mejia informing one resident, Sophia Mei, about the presence of neighborhood watch groups, as well as translation services at the Alhambra Police Department, if she wanted to report a crime. Mei said that although she had recently moved to Arcadia, she would let her friends know about these services.
The City Council also unanimously approved the creation of an underground utility district on Chapel Avenue from south of Mission Road to north of Los Higos Street and from south Linda Vista Avenue to San Marino Avenue, as well as on Commonwealth Avenue from Olive Avenue to Palm Avenue, locations that the city chose with the Southern California Edison Utility. Alhambra’s Department of Public Works would work with Southern California Edison to move overhead wires underground and remove utility polls from the public right-of-way, and that doing so would enhance safety and system reliability and could increase property values. Public Works Director Mary Chavez said that Southern California Edison had set aside $6.5 million for this project and that the new underground utility district would affect 272 households.
Two residents questioned the necessity of the project, expressing concern over how long it would take, whether underground utility facilities would be constructed citywide and whether construction would disrupt neighborhood quality-of-life, especially overnight street parking. Chavez said that Public Works would do everything possible to make sure disruption is minimal to nearby residents.
The city also presented Chavez, who is retiring after 35 years, with a certificate of service. “You have made our city cleaner, neater, safer, more well lit, better decorated, a whole assortment of things,” said Alhambra Chamber of Commerce CEO Sharon Gibbs, who presented the certificate. Former City Councilmember Barbara Messina and the current City Council also spoke in Chavez’s honor.
*Full disclosure: Eric Sunada is a member of the Alhambra Source advisory board. Advisory board members have no editorial control or access to stories before publication.