For meteorologist Joseph Trujillo, good translation is more than a matter of language, especially when it comes to weather warnings.
“A lot of times people don’t get this information in their native language and that stops them from going to the shelter and, I have to be clear: this is the difference between life and death,” said Trujillo, 25. years, researcher at the university. of Oklahoma and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The work of Trujillo and his fellow researchers has led to changes in how Spanish-speaking communities across the country – regardless of their country of origin and different ways of saying a particular word – receive clear, easy-to-use weather alerts. to understand.
“We found dialect-neutral forms to be able to translate these risk words and get the risk messages across. For the first time, the National Weather Center has adopted the terminology that we have proposed, and as we move forward with these investigations, it is already a victory for us. Trujillo said with a broad smile in a video interview with Noticias Telemundo.
No warning, serious consequences
In 2013, seven members of a Guatemalan family in Oklahoma heard tornado sirens and took refuge in a storm drain near their home because they had not heard or understood that there had also been storm and flood warnings. All seven died after flash floods killed them, dragging them amidst turbulent currents and debris.
In Hazardous Weather Communication En Español: Challenges, Current Resources, and Future Practices, an essay published last year, Trujillo and his colleagues cite the case of Oklahoma as an example of the dangers faced by immigrants who do not understand the messages of warning. A NOAA assessment found a lack of weather resources in Spanish that could have helped communities take action to save lives.
Investigators found that despite the lead time provided by meteorologists, a lack of adequate communication in Spanish had “catastrophic” consequences.
According to the latest 2020 census figures, nearly 1 in 5 people in the United States, or 62.6 million, are Latino. Although only about a third of Latinos were born outside the United States, 37% of immigrant Latinos are fluent in English, according to Pew Research.
There are over 590 million Spanish speakers in the world, and the richness of the language is evident in the dialects and particularities of different countries. But these language differences can pose great challenges when translating emergency information, such as weather alerts, for all Hispanics.
Trujillo and his fellow researchers worked with language experts at Penn State University who found that translations of existing weather alerts were not always relevant due to different community dialects. They devised a new list of categories that better reflect climate emergency risk in simpler terms: minimum, low, moderate, high and extreme.
“The most important detail of the survey was determining universal meanings in Spanish for what is an immediate possibility, but not yet real,” said John Lipski, a linguist and scholar at Penn State University. .
To ensure that the new terms are universally understood across all dialects, researchers conducted a representative survey of 1,050 Spanish speakers in the United States. Based on the responses, investigators confirmed the new words they were using to translate weather terms and warnings into Spanish. a better job of conveying urgency than some of the previous terms that had been used.
Climate emergencies and vulnerable groups
Michael Méndez, a researcher at the University of California, Irvine, is among experts studying how climate change poses greater risks to vulnerable communities, including Latinos and other immigrants without legal status and Indigenous Latinos, who talk about languages other than Spanish.
“They are disproportionately affected by racial discrimination, exploitation, economic hardship, lower English and Spanish proficiency, and fear of deportation in their daily lives,” he writes, with other experts in the essay “The (in)visible Victims of Disaster: Understanding the Vulnerability of Latino Immigrants and Undocumented Indigenous Peoples.”
In this investigation, Méndez and his colleagues analyzed the federal government’s response to the Thomas Fire in California in 2017 that lasted more than 40 days, destroying 1,063 structures, causing massive power outages, forcing evacuation over 104,000 residents and costing over $2 billion in damage.
“Resources have been directed to privileged people, leaving local immigrant rights and environmental justice groups to provide essential services such as language access to emergency information in Spanish and Indigenous languages;” the study found.
And yet, with a changing climate, Trujillo said, Hispanic communities must prepare for events such as hurricanes, storms, heat waves or extreme cold.
“Our climate changes every day, and although sometimes it can make us a little nervous, I believe that with the correct information we can move forward as a community,” he said, stressing the importance of understand weather phenomena.
Shania Twain, a budding interest in the weather
Trujillo was born in Lima, Peru. When he was 5 years old, his mother emigrated to Dallas in search of better educational and other opportunities for her son.
In her mother’s case, her discovery of a new culture and her early fascination with the English language came through the powerful voice of Shania Twain. Her friend recommended that she listen to country music because the words were spoken more slowly and it was easier to understand.
“I was just trying to learn the words, but I didn’t even know what they meant. So one of my first phrases in English was “Man! I feel like a woman!” Trujillo said with a laugh as he recited the lyrics to Twain’s song.
A big event from his childhood literally fell from the sky. Since Lima is a desert city, it never rains, so Trujillo was unaccustomed to torrential downpours in Texas, as well as hurricanes and other weather events he had never witnessed.
“The sky was starting to explode and I was screaming, ‘Why is there lightning? What is thunder? Why is the hail falling?'” Trujillo said, describing how his mother allegedly dragged him out from under the bed where he would hide.
Gradually, Trujillo went from panic to wonder, and from his early school years he became obsessed with weather. In high school, for a science project on meteorology, he contacted all the television stations in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.
“Only the meteorologist Néstor Flecha, from Telemundo Dallas, called me back and he became my first mentor. He invited me to his station when I was 18 as a baby and I got to learn how a TV station worked and how Telemundo and NBC were one big family,” he said. . The NBC News and Telemundo broadcast networks are part of NBCUniversal, which is owned by Comcast.
This early experience led him to pursue meteorology and his investigative work, which he presented to the National Weather Service.
“I remember when he started doing this research and he didn’t understand the process of finding data, doing analysis, etc. And I told him that the results had to be validated in front of experts so that it was something irrefutable. It was a great experience and now it makes me proud to see that he is a real scientist,” Néstor Flecha, weather manager at Noticiero Telemundo 39, in Dallas, said of Trujillo.
Struggling with his DACA status
Trujillo has received numerous accolades, including the American Meteorological Society’s Early Career Achievement Award.
However, he still cannot work full-time in any federal government office because he is a DACA recipient; he has no legal immigration status. DACA recipients can work and study in the United States without fear of deportation, but it is a temporary and renewable program and the program could be overturned by a court.
As one of many “dreamers” — young people brought to the United States when they were not children without legal immigration status — Trujillo is one of those who hope Congress will offer them a path to citizenship.
“I am not someone who tries to hurt our nation. It’s where I grew up and it’s where I want to contribute, but there’s a chance the program will be wiped out. If the DACA is revoked tomorrow, I lose the opportunities I’ve worked for all my life,” he said. “And that’s not fair.”
An earlier version of this article first appeared on Noticias Telemundo.
Follow Latin NBC on Facebook, Twitter and instagram.