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Boston City Council President Michael F. Flaherty, visited the restaurant el buen gusto in East Boston and owners, Ingrie, son Ricardo, and husband Francisco Perlera (partially obscured).
Boston City Council President Michael F. Flaherty, visited the restaurant el buen gusto in East Boston and owners, Ingrie, son Ricardo, and husband Francisco Perlera (partially obscured). (Janet Knott/ Globe Staff)

Councilors try branching into Español

Leader arranges classes in Spanish for communicating with constituents

Saying he and other city councilors need to learn to speak to a changing Boston, the City Council president, Michael F. Flaherty, is arranging to hold weekly Spanish classes at City Hall for council members and their aides.

''I'm encouraging everybody to take advantage of this opportunity," said Flaherty, who has hired a tutor to provide instruction for two hours each Thursday in a City Hall conference room. Flaherty, who speaks rudimentary Spanish and who plans to take the classes himself, said he sent a memo this week to the City Council's 12 other members.

''The 2000 Census data puts Spanish as the second-leading language spoken behind English," he said. ''If residents are linguistically isolated, then they're not getting involved, they're not telling us how to make things better for them. We need to open up the lines of communication for everyone's benefit."

The effort is the latest example of Boston's tradition-bound political apparatus trying to keep up with a changing city, where a majority of residents in sections of some neighborhoods, like East Boston and Jamaica Plain, are now Spanish speakers.

Almost 14 percent of the city's population speaks Spanish, and from 1990 to 2000, the number of Spanish-speaking residents increased by almost 50 percent, to more than 75,000, a 2002 report by the Boston Redevelopment Authority found. Half of the city residents who speak Spanish do not speak English very well, according to the report, which was based on 2000 US Census data.

Even in corners of the city where Spanish had been relatively rare, councilors said they are encountering the language more often.

''By far the largest non-English-speaking language in my district is Spanish," said Councilor Michael P. Ross, who represents Beacon Hill, the Back Bay, the Fenway, and Mission Hill. He recently participated in a one-week Spanish immersion course in Puerto Rico. ''I believe it's incumbent on me to try to communicate with those constituents."

Boston's political leadership, historically dominated by Irish-Americans, is just beginning to respond to the demographic shift. Only one councilor speaks fluent Spanish, Councilor at Large Felix D. Arroyo, a native of Puerto Rico and the city's first Hispanic councilor. Arroyo finished second to Flaherty in last year's at-large race, as he did in 2003, despite spending a fraction of what Flaherty spent.

Six of the councilors have fluent Spanish speakers on their staffs. Several others have aides who can hold basic conversations; a few have no Spanish speakers in their offices.

The course, which will be taught by an instructor from the Boston Language Institute, will give participants the equivalent of one college semester. It will include basic grammar, practical situations, and ''some introduction to Spanish culture," Flaherty said.

After completion of the course, participants should at least be able to ask and answer questions in the present tense, greet people, and use expressions of courtesy, according to the language institute's website. Each student must pay for a $90 textbook, but the cost of the course, $240 per student, will be covered with money left over in the City Council's budget for fiscal 2006.

If the course is a success, Flaherty said, the City Council could consider putting money in next year's budget for more Spanish lessons -- or, possibly, a course in another language, he said, such as Chinese, Russian, or Vietnamese, languages spoken by thousands of other Bostonians.

One indicator of a growing interest in Spanish among city politicians came during last year's campaigns for mayor and city council. Both mayoral candidates distributed yard signs and campaign literature in Spanish.

The Service Employees International Union Local 615, a janitors' union whose membership is largely Hispanic, made live telephone calls in Spanish and canvassed Hispanic neighborhoods with Spanish-language campaign brochures for several candidates, including Arroyo, Sam Yoon of Dorchester, who won his first citywide race, and Council District 6 candidate Gibran Rivera, who lost his bid to unseat Councilor John Tobin of West Roxbury.

Flaherty, an Irish Catholic from South Boston who has made no secret of his desire to run for mayor in 2009, and whose moderate politics have sometimes led him to clash with more liberal Hispanic activists, including Arroyo, invited his friend Alex Padilla, a city councilor in Los Angeles, to campaign with him in Spanish-speaking neighborhoods.

More recently, district councilors who represent the largest Spanish-speaking neighborhoods in the city have been trying to overcome the language barrier on their own.

Tobin, who represents Jamaica Plain and who was criticized by Rivera in last year's campaign for not having a fluent Spanish speaker on his staff (one of his aides is proficient but not fluent), has been trying out a few words he has learned by listening to instructional CDs.

''I know I am not going to be fluent in Spanish by the end of the year," he said. ''But I think it gives people the sense that you care about all your constituents, and it's a way of reaching out and making a connection with them."

And at the end of last summer, Councilor Paul J. Scapicchio of East Boston invited a Spanish schoolteacher to hold six or eight classes for him and his staff. He said they had learned phrases to help answer phone calls from Spanish-speakers (''I don't speak Spanish," ''I'm not sure but you can check with the Office of New Bostonians") and the translations for the names of city departments.

Scapicchio said he has spoken about his initiative with Flaherty, who liked the idea. ''At the time, we said we should probably do this as a council," he said.

Ross, Tobin, and Scapicchio said they planned to sign up for Flaherty's course.

Some Hispanic activists commended Flaherty for offering the classes, but said the City Council must do more to make itself accessible to immigrants and to be aware of their concerns.

''There is a big difference between speaking a language, which I think is a good first step, and cultural competency," said Rivera, Tobin's former opponent, who works for The Public Policy Institute, a Boston organization that helps nonprofits to build political clout.

''It would be better if councilors who represent Latino communities had Latino people on staff who have the cultural competency to communicate with and understand the experiences of these communities."

Caprice Taylor Mendez, director of the Boston Parent Organizing Network, said the City Council should also offer translation services to make its hearings and weekly meetings accessible not only to Spanish speakers but also to other immigrant communities.

The council, she said, could learn from the Boston public schools, which had Haitian Creole, Cape Verdean Creole, and Spanish interpreters available at its first school budget hearing this year.

''Taking a class may help somewhat, but if my priority is to make sure they meet the needs of my constituents, I would try to find someone who speaks that language to support me in my work," she said.

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