Hoop Dreams: Communicating with Spanish Speakers

Spanish Speakers Blog

Dear Hoop Dreams,

Our nonprofit wants to share information about our programs with Latino individuals. In addition to translating text into Spanish, how else do you suggest we tailor our materials for this audience?

Lost In Translation


Dear Lost in Translation,

Thank you for asking this question, which I believe will open doors to increased understanding for hopefully many readers.

I have one simple recommendation: Get help from those with experience.

To answer your question more directly, I reached out to some experts myself. When I reflected on the suggestions they shared, I identified four distinct approaches for engaging Spanish-speaking audiences, which I’ll organize into phases that demonstrate increasing commitment to such efforts.

Providing shared language

“Targeting the Hispanic and Latino community is like aiming at a moving target,” says Francisco Miraval, founder of the bilingual news and consulting agency Project Vision 21. Even the terms “Hispanic” and “Latino” are outdated, he says, as these communities are becoming increasingly multi-generational and multi-lingual. “It’s unusual to find a monolingual Spanish speaker,” he adds. If you don’t translate materials, they will find a way to do so themselves.”

Translation may not only be unnecessary, it may actually increase barriers between your organization and Latino audiences. “When you just provide translation, it is just a way of emphasizing differences,” he points out.

What’s the alternative? For starters, make it clear that there is no dominant language. Advocating for language justice is part of the mission of Community Language Cooperative, where Rose Snyder works as a translator and interpreter. She suggests also avoiding jargon as much as possible, which can be especially difficult to translate.

Supporting shared growth

“There’s a perception that Latinos don’t get involved because they are not interested or they are apathetic. But the way meetings are set up is from a perspective of privilege,” Rosa says. “We ask, ‘How do you remove barriers?’” Considering the time of day you host meetings or events, providing on-site childcare, and ensuring transportation access are a few things that can demonstrate your commitment to inclusivity.

As with all audiences, you also need to use channels that they use to communicate. Word of mouth is how most Latinos hear about things, says Mechelle Little, who volunteers as a translator with Colorado Lawyers Committee. She suggests going beyond just sharing your own services and helping point them in the right direction for other resources as well.

It’s even better if you can maintain relationships with other organizations offering services, especially if they do so in areas that you don’t serve, says Deborah Schaffer, Citizenship Program Coordinator at the Littleton Immigrant Resources Center. These partnerships can be mutually beneficial as referrals generally go both ways. Her organization partners with foreign language media, for example, who share informational PSAs without taxing their small marketing budget.

Not only is a strong network of organizations important when no “wrap around” services are available, but it can also help clarify and combat all of the misinformation that Lations are exposed to, says Deborah. Individuals may be nervous about working with the most qualified people, for example government officials, so intermediaries can provide a vital, reliable source of information.

Developing shared understanding

Deborah suggests attending events and engaging in conversations to learn from culturally competent people and organizations. Cultural competence, she says, is evident when someone is a good listener who uses thoughtful strategies to ensure that the audience understands.

“Before you even begin to translate information, you first need to transfer trust,” Francisco says. A good starting point is exploring whether your nonprofit’s programs are addressing the needs that Latino audiences think they have. “The problem is not miscommunication, it’s assuming that Latinos want to be connected with resources. Instead you need to connect with the roots of a person, to connect them with their own future,” proposes Francisco.

“‘How do we approach community in a way that respects their truth?’” is one question Rosa poses. “Set a precedent for valuing folks as experts in their community. They have solutions to problems in the community,” she says.

Non-Spanish speakers can also work to better understand their own cultural norms. For example, English speakers trust numbers and facts, but Latin Americans trust emotional connections, says Lhotse Quintanilla, who led intercultural communication workshops for English speaking volunteers in Bolivia with Conexiones entre Mundos. “In Latin America, we mix feelings and work a bit more. It is very important to consider how we feel about things.

“It’s totally worth it for management to research and invest their own time in understanding cultural differences,” adds James Archer, founder of Share Lingo, a social enterprise that brings English and Spanish speakers together to practice language and share culture. Another significant difference is that in Latino cultures direct eye contact is not a signal of respect but rather of defiance.

Creating shared experiences

“By creating a safe space for people to meet,” says James, “something magical happens. [English speakers] find out that not only are [Latinos] there to learn from [them], but to teach [them].” This increases the confidence of Latinos and it makes them more willing to share their stories, which is helpful when you are seeking to understand their needs and perspectives. For example, Share Lingo helps connect school teachers and administrators with Latino parents who play a major role in student and school achievement.

“Community is not about geography,” Francisco reminds us. “It’s about connections.”

“When you experience time [with other cultures], you realize there are millions of people living in different ways,” says Lhotse. “You can’t change how others live, but you can find a way to [work together].”

What these experts shared with me (and hopefully you, dear reader) is that the communication breakdown between English and Spanish speakers isn’t about language at all. It’s about the barriers that are created when our language, experiences, understanding, and growth are not shared.

Organizations that seek to bridge this gap need to go beyond sharing information and be open to receiving it as well. Those that do have an incredible opportunity to impact a growing number of people who share our community.

Please share your nonprofit marketing and communications questions and obstacles with me by emailing [email protected].

Lydia Hooper is a designer and consultant who specializes in communicating about complex issues and relationships. She has partnered with more than 30 mission-driven organizations, offering services and trainings in data storytelling, graphic recording, and communications strategy. Learn and read more of her blogs at www.fountainvisualcommunications.com.

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