At Pacific Bell, the Latino Line's Busy


The phones ring 14,000 times a day in a nondescript office building in downtown Santa Ana. And every caller is someone speaking Spanish, in need of a translator.

This is Pacific Bell's Language Assistance Bureau, a hubbub of computerized switchboards and 90 bilingual operators who field calls en espanol from all over the state. If a woman in San Jose calls 611 for repairs but can't communicate, she is patched through to Santa Ana within seconds. If a man in Santa Barbara needs a phone number but can't ask in English, his call is routed south.

The Language Assistance Bureau, the only one of its kind in the state, is open seven days a week, 24 hours a day. Inside, the modern-looking bureau is busy but hushed. There are no buzzers or bells; each incoming call is signaled by a flashing light. Conversations are peppered with the word gracias.

The calls transferred to the bureau vary from simple requests to reports of emergencies that require split-second decisions by the operators.

One operator, Lando Silva, remembers a call that left him shaking afterward. A woman from Los Angeles dialed 0, screaming for help because her husband threatened to beat her up. The Los Angeles operator, who could not speak Spanish, patched the call to Silva, who kept the woman on the line to get more information. The two operators managed to find out where the woman lived and sent the police to her home.

"That was so stressful, I almost couldn't talk afterwards," said Silva, who has worked in the bureau for nearly two years.

Another time, operator Marty Nelson received a call from a frightened 3-year-old girl who was left alone in the house with her younger sibling. The girl dialed 0 for an operator because she thought she heard a noise in the house. The operator, who couldn't speak Spanish, established a three-way conversation with Nelson.

"I had to calm her down and keep her on the line so the police could trace her call. She was so scared," said Nelson. The police found the girl, who was unhurt but shaken.

Nelson said she went home that day and gave her own 10-year-old extra hugs.

The operators, who range in age from 17 to 65, take an average of 250 calls a day. Some of them specialize in particular Spanish dialects--Cuban or Costa Rican Spanish, for example. Callers who need help in other languages, such as Chinese, Korean and Vietnamese, are referred to other centers for ordering telephones or requesting repairs, but the telephone company does not provide translators for directory assistance and other operator services.

Most of the calls forwarded to the bureau are less dramatic than the memorable pleas for help. They tend to deal with simple requests, such as finding phone numbers for residents or businesses.

But some requests are more difficult for the bilingual operators. For example, many of their calls involve taking part in a three-way conversation with another operator or a repair worker to help a Spanish speaker who cannot understand English instructions. And there are times when the operators have to be sources of news and reassurance to their callers.

When the San Francisco Bay Area was jolted by a 7.1 temblor on Oct. 17, many of the operators had to break the news of the earthquake to callers, who could not reach their families because the lines were busy or out of order.

"We had to tell the callers not to dial their relatives and friends, no matter how much they wanted to. We had to convince them not to tie up the lines," Nelson said.

The operators, almost half of whom live outside Orange County, must pass Pacific Bell's regular test for employment as well as qualify in language fluency.

Working at the Language Assistance Bureau gives the bilingual operators a chance to work for the Latino community, said Rosemary F. Padilla, who co-manages the bureau.

"It's a job where many of the operators can help out people who really need their bilingual skills," Padilla said.

A handful of area codes cannot be patched to the Language Assistance Bureau because Pacific Bell does not have the technology to provide the translation services to some cities, said Linda Bonniksen, a Pacific Bell spokeswoman. For example, Spanish speakers in the 818 and parts of the 415 areas can be helped with repair service, but cannot be transferred for directory assistance translation, she said.

For the operators, the busiest day of the year traditionally is May 10, Dia de las Madres, which is the Mexican Mother's Day. On that day, operators take one call after another.

But the job can often be amusing.

Take, for example, the man who needed help in making a long-distance call.

Nelson told the man to dial "00," for the long-distance operator. The caller told Nelson to hold on. She then heard several seconds of fumbling.

The caller then told Nelson that he couldn't make a long distance call because he didn't have a "00" button on his phone.

And there are always requests for the home phone numbers of internationally known Latino movie stars and musicians.

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