Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

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Evanston residents, government organizations confront language barriers

Illustration by Shveta Shah
Spanish-speaking residents encountered language barriers during public comment of city council meetings.

As the child of Spanish-speaking parents, 5th Ward resident Adriana Gomez has been the de facto translator for her parents since her childhood. 

When her father, Alvaro Gomez, owner of Al Gomez Landscaping, struggled with following Evanston’s 2023 leaf blower ordinance, she offered to help him and other local landscapers — many of whom speak little or no English — work with city officials.

“It takes his child who did go to school here and does understand the language to help him navigate these challenges with the city,” Adriana Gomez said.

In April 2023, Evanston banned gas- and propane-powered leaf blowers, citing environmental and noise concerns. In response to the concerns from small landscaping businesses — many of which are owned and staffed by Spanish-speaking residents — over the cost and effectiveness of electric tools, the city considered, but ultimately rejected, a pause on the ordinance this spring.

Adriana Gomez said landscapers like her father had received tickets and been “harassed” by community members taking photos and videos of them working with prohibited leaf blowers to report to the city. Al Gomez Landscaping suffered to the point that her father was contemplating selling his house, she said.

After the city announced it was considering a pause on the leaf blower ordinance, many community members attended city meetings to share how the ordinance has impacted their businesses and neighborhoods. Those present included environmental advocates, who spoke in favor of requiring electric leaf blowers.

Landscapers like Alvaro Gomez also attended these meetings, but Adriana Gomez said there were no translators present at most of the meetings they attended.

“(Other community members) can organize and go make a public comment to the City Council, and they make an influence,” Adriana Gomez said. “What about the Spanish-speaking folks from Evanston?”

During public comment at the March 11 City Council meeting — before the council voted 4-5 against the pause on the gas leaf blower ban — local landscaper Hector Hernandez said the leaf blower ordinance had not been relayed in Spanish when it was introduced. Alvaro Gomez spoke at the same meeting, with Hernandez translating his Spanish comments into English.

Even when the city offered to provide electric leaf blowers, the applications were online and lengthy, making them difficult for landscapers to complete, Adriana Gomez added.

“It’s a lot for a non-English speaker,” she said.

While the city has no official translators, Adriana Gomez said city staff who spoke Spanish, including City Clerk Stephanie Mendoza and Sustainability and Resilience Manager Cara Pratt, were helpful in facilitating the distribution of city-purchased electric leaf blowers.

In a statement to The Daily, City spokesperson Cynthia Vargas said Evanston uses CityFront Innovations, a technology platform for local governments, to address language barriers, and a group of staff members have volunteered to help when possible.

“We offer several options to identify the language, including in-person video remote interpreters, language identification guides, or language access posters that are easily accessible to our customer service team,” Vargas said.

Vargas said that the city covers costs to ensure language is not a barrier to receiving city services.

Also aiming to expand its reach across language barriers and ensure equity in services, the Evanston Public Library provides translated materials to many patrons, according to Jenette Sturges, EPL’s marketing and communications manager.

Previously, bilingual library assistants would translate library information. In 2022, the library shifted to using third-party translators to avoid placing the burden on assistants, Sturges said. That year, 231 people who signed up for library cards said they speak Spanish at home.

More than 7% of Evanston residents speak Spanish at home, according to 2022 Census data, making it second only to English as the most spoken language in the city.

“What we’re really concerned about here at the library is: Who are we not reaching?” she said. “That’s a little bit harder of a metric for us.”

Having grown up in Evanston, Adriana Gomez said she was frustrated to see her family and community struggle in the city due to persistent language barriers.

“The system was unfortunately not made for people like my father to succeed,” Adriana Gomez said.

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