At the first Spanish legal panel at UNC Charlotte’s College of Education on April 24, four panelists encouraged UNCC’s Spanish for Law Enforcement students to work in local law and legal positions.
Bilingual skills are in demand in those jobs, according to the panelists: FBI Special Agent Ernesto Negrón, FBI Spanish language analyst Susan Conrad, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department Recruitment Director Estella D. Patterson and Mecklenburg County Courts Trial Court Community Support Coordinator Maura Elguera Chavez.
Mecklenburg’s Spanish-speaking population has less access to knowledge about the law because of the language barrier and past experience with different judicial systems from their native country.
“There are only three people who speak Spanish at the courthouse,” Chavez said.
“This creates a huge language barrier for this community.”
Chavez, who speaks Spanish and has been working at Mecklenburg County Courts since 1997, said communication is more than just knowing the language; it’s also understanding the values of those who move here from other countries.
As an example, Chavez discussed a common landlord-renter dispute: When a verbal agreement is reached before the court date, some Spanish-speaking communities believe this agreement voids the legal process, because the situation has been resolved.
Unfortunately, Chavez said, that is not the case. The dispute must be worked out judicially, as well.
“This causes a big misunderstanding and missed appointments, just for lack of knowledge of the way the system works in this country,” Chavez said.
Patterson and Negrón talked about the challenge of getting Spanish-speaking victims to report crimes, the most under-reported of which are robberies and domestic violence. Both Negrón and Patterson said there’s a fear of deportation, which is not a priority in the investigation process.
“At the CMPD, we want to build a partnership with our community,” said Patterson. “Undocumented citizens deserve to feel safe, regardless of status. It’s not our job to know their status, but to protect the whole Charlotte-Mecklenburg community.”
“Victims in Spanish-speaking communities are in fear of deportation, and we need to work to build a better trusting relationship to correct this,” said Negrón.
Negrón and Conrad encouraged students to immerse themselves in local Spanish culture.
Negrón, who works on the Charlotte FBI office’s Safe Streets Task Force, said, “It’s important to be mindful of cultures. … For example, being Puerto Rican, I know most Puerto Ricans need physical space when in conversation, so getting in their face for answers will not work in your favor.”
He also said some Spanish-speaking people come from corrupt societies, where the police and government officials cannot be trusted.
“It’s a fine balance of building rapport and getting answers,” he said.
Conrad said her position with the FBI creates contextual understanding of language, diminishing cultural barriers between Spanish-speakers and FBI agents. She told the students, “You have to be compassionate about their background and their needs by continuing to educate yourself in Spanish every day. … Read the news, engage in conversations and create friendships with people in the local Spanish-speaking community.”
During the presentation and question-and-answer sessions, 36 faculty and students took notes and asked questions geared toward internships and the application process. More than half the students stayed to shake hands or get further information and contact details from the panelists.
“It was very important for me to bring this opportunity to my students,” said panel host Susana Cisneros, who has been teaching Spanish at UNCC for five years. “Working together with local legal and law enforcement bridges the gap by connecting professionals with students.
“It will not only benefit my students but the growing Spanish-speaking community, as well.”
Cisneros also collaborated with CMPD to provide ride-alongs and with Mecklenburg County Courts to provide an official tour.
According to the 2010 U.S. Census, Latinos and Hispanics make up 12.2 percent of Mecklenburg County’s population, making that demographic segment the third-largest in the county.
In North Carolina, the Latino and Hispanic community are 8.7 percent of the total population.
The FBI, CMPD and Mecklenburg County Courts are looking for bilingual applicants, and the CMPD and FBI offer different wages to bilingual employees.