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Small town wrestles with language barrier Justice Department steps in to help fill Spanish-English gap

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Nearly everyone in this small farming community in eastern Washington speaks Spanish - nearly everyone except those in city government and the Police Department, where English is spoken.

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And almost everyone who speaks one language does not speak the other.

It is a language barrier that has engulfed the community, which has grown over the last 20 years from 300 to about 3,200 year-round residents. Nine out of 10 Mattawa residents speak Spanish at home and 8 out of 10 adults speak English "less than very well," according to the 2000 U.S. census.

The Columbia River basin community, surrounded by miles of fruit orchards and vineyards, has tried to deal with its language barrier informally. From the first gas station to the last retail shop, signs advertise goods and services in Spanish and English. The tiny library offers bilingual story time for families. For years, police often relied on bystanders to translate at crime scenes. City administrators grabbed bilingual speakers as ad hoc interpreters.

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