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The Daily Tar Heel

Orange County May Use Bilingual Signs

County Commissioners are looking at the possibilty of translating several Orange County signs into Spanish.

Due to rapid growth of the Hispanic population in the county, the board has decided to implement a plan that may translate signs at key government buildings. Alex Asbun, director of El Centro Latino, said the population shift has made translated signs necessary.

"We realize the need of translating when Latinos come asking questions because they don't know how to access government buildings," Asbun said.

Data from the 2000 U.S. Census show that the Hispanic/Latino community has increased from 1,275 to 5,273 since 1990, now making up 4.5 percent of Orange County's total population.

Since June 2000, an Orange County Risk Management team has been compiling information in hopes of accommodating Hispanic citizens.

County Commissioner Barry Jacobs said the board has decided to begin with universal signage such as a bathroom sign depicting male and female characters and few words.

Translated signs could include rest room, safety, directional, department name, and internal department signs. Other possibilities are safety signs saying, "No Smoking" and "No weapons" in both English and Spanish.

Initially, the pilot project will replace temporary signs at the Register of Deeds Office with permanent signs.

After judging citizen response, the board will then make decisions about the continuance of the project.

Three phases have been discussed for the complete project, but the board will wait for results from the test run before refinements are made, said Greg Wilder, assistant to the county manager.

Jacobs described the project as a work-in-progress, adding that the board would try to be cost-effective when implementing the project. "We need to be as frugal as we can in government and if we're not accomplishing something, we shouldn't do it," Jacobs said.

He also said some concerns came up during the meeting. One board member suggested that other languages should be included on the signs, reflecting the many cultural groups in the area.

But Jacobs - referring to the Biblical Tower of Babel - said the board didn't want the project to lead to extremes.

It was also raised at the meeting that the county should do more to teach Hispanics English instead, but some say the signs meet a more immediate demand. "You can't expect a mother with three children in the Health Department because she is ill to go through a dictionary," Jacobs said.

He said the Board of Commissioners hopes the signs will make Hispanics feel more welcome and involved in Orange County.

Silvio Romero, who recently moved to Durham from El Salvador, said bilingual signs are a good idea because like himself, many area Spanish speakers cannot read English.

Although some Hispanics may understand spoken English, it is more difficult to read and write in the language, Romero said.

The most important need for Hispanics is to learn how to read and write English, he said. But this will be difficult, if not impossible, for some families, and signs will help many people.

Carrboro Alderman Diana McDuffee said they have long been interested in having Spanish-language signs in Carrboro. She also said there are some in Spanish now. Carrboro has a 12-percent Hispanic population share, higher than in neighboring towns, McDuffee said.

Jacobs said the board hopes to use signs to inform Spanish speakers of the services available to them.

Asbun said he thinks the Spanish signs will receive a positive response, just as translations on emergency and park signs did in the past.

"These signs will show (Hispanics) that their government is paying attention to the Hispanic/Latino population," he said.

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Ashley Williams can be reached at

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