Language barriers, fear heighten woes in Flint crisis

Published 10:13 am Wednesday, June 8, 2016

FLINT, Mich. — Margarita Solis regularly drives to Flint distribution centers to load up on bottled water, as thousands of residents have done in the city coping with a lead-contaminated water crisis.

One stop is a little farther afield but feels like home: She goes to Our Lady of Guadalupe Church north of the city, where the conversation with volunteers may be in Spanish. It’s nice for the 21-year-old Solis — a church member and lifelong Flint resident who speaks English and Spanish — but necessary for her parents and others with Hispanic or Latino roots who speak little or no English.

“They always depend on me or my siblings, who do know how to speak English well,” Solis said of her parents, who moved to Flint shortly before she was born and now are U.S. citizens. “So, sometimes, like for my mom, she kind of has to wait around until we have free time, because we go to school and work and everything.”

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The city of nearly 100,000 has been dealing with the lead contamination since switching from the Detroit system, which draws from Lake Huron, to the Flint River in April 2014 as a short-term measure to save money while another pipeline to the lake was under construction. Last September, state officials acknowledged a failure to add chemicals to limit corrosion had enabled the river water to scrape lead from aging pipes, exposing people in some homes and schools to the potent neurotoxin.