Language Holding Back New York’s Bengali Voters?

BY NINA PORZUCKI ⋅ NOVEMBER 2, 2012 ⋅ Barbershop in Queens, New York (Photo: Nina Porzucki)

Barbershop in Queens, New York (Photo: Nina Porzucki)

Once a month Zain Ahmed treks from the Upper East Side of Manhattan to a windowless basement shop in Jackson Heights, Queens, just to get his haircut. “I take 3 or 4 trains just to get here,” says Ahmed. “That’s dedication, right?”

Ahmed works in finance, as a bond researcher. When it comes to the election, he’s most concerned about the economy and “where we’re headed.” Ahmed is a Democrat, and Tuesday he will be voting for Obama.

Ahmed was born in the US but his parents are from Bangladesh. He grew up speaking both English and Bengali. For him, language assistance at the polls isn’t an issue. He didn’t even know that Bengali translations of the ballot would be available—or for that matter that the local Bangladeshi population has grown as much as it has.

According to the latest census, there are enough limited-English speakers of South Asian decent to require language assistance in Bengali, Punjabi and Hindi at certain polling places in Queens. Of those languages, there are more Bengali speakers who speak limited English. While there will be interpreters available for all three languages, officials chose to translate the ballot into just Bengali.

Glenn Magpantay of the Asian American Legal and Education Fund says language assistance to non-English speakers is crucial. If people “are not proficient enough [in English] to read a ballot, should they be denied their right to vote?”

Under the federal Voting Rights Act, more than 5,000 Bengali speakers in Queens should have been able to cast their ballot in Bengali. But ballot translations will not completed in time. The New York City Board of Elections has not explained why and didn’t respond to requests for comment. However, there will be some language assistance at the polls, including interpreters and signage. There will also be sample ballots in Bengali. Just not the real thing. “It’s nice to have a sign which identifies the poll’s site,” says Magpantay. “But really the ballot that you mark to vote for the president or senator or member of congress needs to be in a language that the voter actually understands.”

Magpantay isn’t quite sure how the lack of Bengali ballots will affect those 5,000 potential voters. Jackson Heights Barber Sonatan Sil is one of them. When I ask Sil about the importance of voting in his mother tongue, Sil brushes off the question. He’s more concerned about deciding who to vote for. Sil says he still hasn’t made up his mind between Obama and Romney. “I am not Democrat,” he says. “I am not Republican.”

Sonatan Sil’s assistant gives Zain Ahmen a haircut (Photo: Nina Porzucki)

This surprises his Upper East Side customer Zain Ahmed. Ahmed shakes his head at the barber. “To me that’s absurd. I mean I’m a religious middle-class minority,” says Ahmed. “The opposition is not in favor of people like me.”

The undecided barber shakes his head back at his Obama supporting customer. For Sil the biggest issue this election season is jobs. “Romney’s policies [are], I think, good policies,” he tells his customer.

Ahmed gets upset. “What are you saying?” he says to the barber. “What are you talking about? Not for people like us.”

The discussion continues on just like that throughout the entire haircut. Sil, the barber talks about his dislike of Obamacare. Ahmed, the customer continues to disagree.

There’s no consensus in sight—just like discussions in barbershops in Ohio or Florida. In a small basement shop in Jackson Heights, Queens, democracy certainly is alive and buzzing. But while Ahmed and Sil have the language skills to easily navigate the English ballot this election day, many of their neighbors may not.

Crossposted from OneWorld

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