Vanessa Frias found her life’s purpose in a hospital.
After working as a translator in Mexico City, Frias moved to Fort Worth. When her mother, who didn’t speak English, was diagnosed with breast cancer, Frias attended appointments as her translator.
At the doctor’s office, she soon found herself helping other Spanish-speaking patients who needed assistance understanding providers who only spoke English.
“I was determined, I am going to do this full time,” Frias said. “Because going with her through this process, it was eye-opening for me that you can help so many people. I do this to help others.”
Today, Frias’ mother is in remission and Frias has a new job, working as the city’s first full-time Spanish translator/interpreter since the 1990s.
Frias will translate webpages and communications on the city’s social media and communications platforms. For example, when a boil-water notice goes out, that information will now be available in both English and Spanish. Previously, city employees could complete a certification process and receive a stipend to be on call if translation services were necessary, said communications director Reyne Telles.
“Not having a sole individual that I know I could go to, in emergency situations or something like that, gave me heartburn,” Telles said.
Frias knows the challenges of emigrating to a new city and country well. She was fluent in English when she moved to Fort Worth, but she had difficulty integrating into a new culture, Frias said.
Fort Worth has grown dramatically since the ’90s. Much of that growth, according to researchers, is attributed to immigrants. Just translating signs and instructions to pay bills can help immigrants feel more confident navigating their new home.
“Every time I have an encounter, every time I have the opportunity to do my job, you’re making a difference,” Frias said.
The city’s lack of consistent translation services was apparent to council member Carlos Flores, who served for about seven years as the only Hispanic and Spanish-speaking member of Fort Worth’s City Council. When he was elected in 2017, no one could translate for Spanish-speaking residents who called the city with a question.
“Resources were extremely scarce,” Flores said. To help bridge the language gap, he made sure to hire a district director who spoke Spanish. With Jeanette Martinez’s election in 2023, there are now two Spanish-speakers on the City Council who have bilingual staff.
Frias’ hiring creates an opportunity for the city to deeply engage Spanish-speakers in city decision-making, Flores said.
“Communication is only a first step in engagement,” he said.
Live translation services will now be available at key public meetings, including presentations about the Panther Island project and issues such as short-term rentals, Telles said. Part of the city’s challenge is letting Spanish-speakers know that this new service is available.
“We’re starting from reaching out through social media … and from there we will continue developing the promotion of the services,” Frias said. “It’s building that trust.”
Translation services have room to grow
The city is lagging behind when it comes to non-English language resources, Annette Landeros, president and CEO of the Fort Worth Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, said.
“I don’t think that people are aware of how many new immigrants and refugees we welcome here in Fort Worth,” Landeros said. “Once they get here, they’re our neighbors or community members, and making sure that they and their families are safe is important.”
The problem is especially acute for Spanish-speaking business owners seeking permits or business with the city. The city’s forms are often confusing to native English speakers like her, Landeros said. Having staff facilitate that process or translate the forms would have a large impact on business owners, she said.
Now that translation is available, the city should think critically about how to shift to a fully multilingual environment, and embrace it with “positivity and warmth and inclusion,” Landeros said.
For three years, the city of Dallas has offered a three-person team devoted to making city materials accessible to Spanish-speakers. The department translates written city materials and reviews vendor contracts for consistency. The department also uses a Government Access TV channel to broadcast information about city programs in Spanish.
Telles hopes to expand the city of Fort Worth’s translation offerings for other high-demand languages, such as Vietnamese.
In the meantime, Frias hopes her work will help integrate Spanish-speakers in Fort Worth and put them on a path to learning English and engaging with the city in new ways.
“I think this city has a very unique way to make you feel welcome,” Frias said. “I have experienced that myself, because I am an immigrant. … What the city is doing now is just going to open the door even more for not just Spanish [but] for other languages.”
Rachel Behrndt is a government accountability reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.