Wednesday evening’s public input meeting on how to mitigate gentrification erupted into several shouting matches in English and Spanish after organizers said there would not be simultaneous translation of all comments.

This meeting at Tafolla Middle School was to be the community’s first chance to give feedback on recommended policies and plans from the Mayor’s Task Force on Preserving Dynamic and Diverse Neighborhoods, also known as the Gentrification Task Force. Organizers spent an hour coming up with a format to satisfy the most vocal audience members: everything gets translated.

English is the language in which city, state, and federal government operate.* Simultaneous translation doubles the time of an already long information/comment session, said Mimi Quintanilla, the meeting facilitator hired by the City.

Still, given the subject matter and the Spanish-language dominant population of the near-Westside, where the meeting was held, audience members said it was wrong for the City to not provide simultaneous translation.

Quintanilla said the City will try to arrange for simultaneous translation at Thursday night’s Eastside meeting, 6 p.m. at Ella Austin Community Center, 1023 N. Pine St., although there is no certainty that the next audience will benefit from Spanish-language translation or want that service.

The auditorium was filled with more than 50 participants just after 6 p.m., when the meeting was set to begin. The task force invited community members to ask questions regarding the recommendations made in its recent report, but first offered context to the audience in English and Spanish.

Councilmember Shirley Gonzales (D5) spoke in English and Spanish during the first Gentrification Task Force town hall meeting at Tafolla Middle School. Photo by Iris Dimmick.
Councilmember Shirley Gonzales (D5) spoke in English and Spanish during the first Gentrification Task Force town hall meeting at Tafolla Middle School. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

About 30 attendees, several with the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center, chanted “Reset,” to reschedule the meeting with a proper translator. City staff offered to host a separate meeting for Spanish speakers in the near future. ‘That’s segregation!” shouted an audience member. “It has to be bilingual.” shouted another.

The “Spanish only” meeting was immediately cancelled.

Jessica O. Guerrero (right) speaks while Iris Duran, program manager for the City's planning department (and temporary translator), looks on during the first Gentrification Task Force town hall meeting at Tafolla Middle School. Photo by Iris Dimmick.
Jessica O. Guerrero (right) speaks while Iris Duran, program manager for the City’s planning department (and temporary translator), looks on during the first Gentrification Task Force town hall meeting at Tafolla Middle School. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

So for the rest of the evening, all testimony brought by community members was translated for either English or Spanish speakers. Though not official translators, staff members were pulled in for the task.

“This meeting is an example of how the city runs, unprepared,” shouted community activist Jessica Fuentes.

Some task force members looked surprised by the outbursts. Some were frustrated with the lack of communication.

“(The City) did not even have the courtesy of letting me, a member of the task force, have prior access to the pre-submitted questions,” Netti Hinton said to the audience. “I’m reading them for the first time just as you are hearing them for the first time, so I feel disrespected as well.”

Westside resident Arturo Trejo tells City representatives that Spanish translation will be key to obtaining public input. Photo by Iris Dimmick.
Westside resident Arturo Trejo tells City representatives that Spanish translation will be key to obtaining public input. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

The task force began to hear community input on its recommendations an hour behind schedule. Quintanilla invited community members to a podium at the front of the room to ask questions about the report, which aims to “identify policies and programs that encourage investment in inner city neighborhoods but minimize or prevent displacement of people or adverse impacts related to history, culture, and quality of life of unique neighborhoods.”

The Esperanza Peace and Justice Center read a list of its own recommendations, which representatives said they began working on before the task force was formed.

“People are what make the flavor of each neighborhood. People are what make the culture of each neighborhood. It is not buildings. It is not new housing. Who is protecting our people?” Marylou Mendoza asked.

Westside community member Ronald Rocha asked the task force why the City hasn’t created a historical district or implemented a beautification project on the Westside.

Task force members listened and took notes without answering questions.

The task force was initiated by former Mayor Julián Castro in response to the Mission Trails Mobile Home Park community evictions announced last year. The mobile home community is on San Antonio’s near-Southside along the San Antonio River, an area of town that is beginning to redevelop. The trailer park was badly neglected by its Colorado corporate owner. Dozens of trailers were vacant and in a state of advanced deterioration. Standing water was evident weeks after storms.

The property was sold and a $75 million multi-family apartment complex will be constructed on the site where residents and activists say 300 Mission Trails residents lived in trailer homes in various stages of neglect, although far fewer people appeared to reside there last year when the sale was first announced.

Mission Trails Mobile Home Park former residents and supporters speak during the the first Gentrification Task Force town hall meeting at Tafolla Middle School. Photo by Iris Dimmick.
Mission Trails Mobile Home Park former residents and supporters speak during the the first Gentrification Task Force town hall meeting at Tafolla Middle School. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

Evicted residents of the park stood in front of the task force and asked for justice while fighting back tears. Former residents held up a large, black cross to represent a fellow Mission Trails neighbor who died shortly after her eviction. The residents said her death was a result of stress, but no evidence as offered to support the claim.

View the entire draft report here. The task force will consider the community input and present the final report on April 29. After the meeting Thursday night, one more is scheduled for 6 p.m. at the Central library on March 26. After Wednesday night’s display, however, its possible that more meetings will be scheduled into April

*CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article attributed the sentence “English is the language in which city, state, and federal government operate,” to Quintanilla. This was an editing error, she had only commented that simultaneous translation would double meeting times.

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Joan Vinson

Former Rivard Report Assistant Editor Joan Vinson is a San Antonio native who graduated from The University of Texas with a bachelor's degree in journalism. She's a yoga fanatic and an adventurer at heart....