Emergency Spanish

What happens when 911 “no habla Español”?

The day after Prince died, I decided to go on a morning mourning run. Instead of taking the usual two mile route that hugs the curves of Lake Merritt, I wanted to test out a new workout I’d read about in Runner’s World: a series of windsprints in the middle of a warm up and cool down jogs. I figured that I’m in reasonable enough shape, as one who runs ten miles a week, to handle these windsprints. Besides, just the previous evening I’d chased down a Broadway bus in street shoes and khakis, eager to get home without waiting 30 more minutes for the next bus. I knew I was still fast.

Longer story short, midway through the third and final sprint I felt a POP, an odd snap in my left leg, which gave way and sent me crashing to the ground. I. Bit. The. Dust. Shaken, I pulled myself up and limped over to a nearby park bench, where I lay trying to catch my breath after both sprinting and having the wind knocked out of me by the tumble.

As I sat up to assess the damage and make my way home, I knew wasn’t going to be heading anywhere without some assistance. Something was wrong. I propped my leg on the bench and tried to call out to the few morning exercisers who came within shouting distance, but my voice had no power. Several people passed by.

Some minutes later, a fiftysomething woman in a cheery pink cotton sweatsuit peeked at me from several steps away. “Necesitas ayuda?” She had just walked past me while talking on the phone, then doubled back to ask if I needed help.

“Sí, por favor,” I gasped. “Yo caí y me duele la pierna.” I fell and hurt my leg.

While I’ve never achieved the level of fluency that I’ve always wanted to attain, I guess I’m bilingual enough to make myself understood — especially in a pinch.

My good Samaritan told me that she only spoke Spanish. “Debo llamar alguien or 911 (nueve uno uno)?” Should I call someone or 911? I opted for the latter, knowing that my spouse was on a conference call and wouldn’t cut over from an unknown number. The good Samaritan dialed, tried to communicate with the dispatcher, and then handed me the phone.

The dispatcher didn’t speak Spanish. In California. In 2016.

This is the second time I’d had this experience.

Two years ago I swung by a Mexican restaurant whose enchiladas de mole came highly recommended by a colleague. As I waited to order at the front counter I sensed that something was unfolding; one of the workers twice burst from the kitchen to speak anxiously to the woman at the counter, and then skirted back to the kitchen. “They can’t be freaked out by the lunchtime crowd,” I thought, “it isn’t that busy here.” Just after I’d finished ordering, the server returned to the counter, this time bearing a phone. Both women tried speaking into the receiver but were unable to converse with the caller, so they thrust the phone towards me: “Emergency!”

I spoke with the dispatcher — who didn’t speak Spanish, in California, in 2014.

I ended up having to go into the kitchen to see what was happening. One of the cooks was convulsing on the floor. I translated between the dispatcher, who asked for the cook’s symptoms, his approximate height and weight, any allergens or health history, all of which I had to ask his restaurant colleagues. It definitely tested my abilities — “when you don’t know a word, substitute, describe, and improvise!” I recalled my high school teacher saying (I had excellent Spanish instruction throughout my public school education in North Carolina). Once the EMT team arrived and took over the scene, I handed the phone back to the woman at the counter. Minutes later she brought my to-go order, which I still had to pay for! So much for the value of translation. No free lunch that day.

In both cases, I was struck by the question: what do monolingual/limited English-speaking people do in emergency situations?


I never asked her name; that seemed secondary or inappropriate in the pain of the moment. La Buena Samaritana, while waiting for the ambulance with me, shared that she wasn’t sure if I was “playing a joke or something;” her husband had told her to “be careful around the Lake, especially with black people.” My heart sank as she said that. “But I told him that some people think that all Latinos are bad. There are good people and bad people of every color,” she emphasized with hands on hips, countering her husband in absentia.

“Eres de Puerto Rico?” she asked about my origins, trying to place my chocolate brownness somewhere in the Latin American diaspora. “No, soy de aquí.” From here. She raised her eyebrows in mild surprise, reminding me of my hubby’s Cuban cousin who always delights when I speak Spanish with her. “Ayyyyy, he speaks Spanish too!” Angelina will say, talking to my father-in-law about me. Maybe she’s just teasing with the replaying of that scene, or maybe it’s a true reminder that not all US-born Americans are rendered flat-tongued by our linguistic isolation.

After returning home from the ER with a fracture, leg brace, and crutches, I sent my Good Samaritan a profusely thankful text message. “Que de Dios te bendiga y que te cuides siempre,” she replied, sending blessings and well wishes.

And still, my question remains: what happens if you have an emergency and don’t speak fluent English? In asking around, I learned that EMTs receive limited training and dispatchers usually have to ask for a translator, who may or may not be available. I’ve also witnessed parents in social service settings relying on their kids as the go-between. Maybe the language one-sidedness is symptomatic of our resource-strapped public infrastructure.

In these times I also question if it’s part of the larger fear of The Browning of America. As one of our Senate candidates has entered the race solely “to raise awareness about a fall ballot measure that would largely over turn his voter-approved Proposition 227, the 1998 initiative requiring schools to teach in English”*, and another candidate has built his campaign on the acid reflux of anti-Latinx, anti-immigrant beliefs, I wonder if there is any empathy for the every day implications of this kind of English-first nativism.

Should we have to rely on the kindness — and bilingual abilities — of strangers to help in an emergency? I only hope that everyone would have a good Samaritan to come to their aid in a time of need, as I did. But good public policy around language access in emergency services would probably make me feel a lot better.

Just a thought.

* “Republican Ron Unz enters California US Senate Race,” Sacramento Bee, March 14, 2016

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