CLEARWATER — Every chair, every sofa in the Southern Comfort clubhouse was taken Tuesday night. Older Anglos crowded shoulder to shoulder alongside young Hispanic mothers and fathers propping children on their laps. The one dog present had to lie on the floor. All were trying out democracy. Most didn't understand each other's language.
It was an episode of unforced, organic, civic assimilation. They were organizing two basic community institutions — a homeowners association and a crime watch. It was possible because of a Stetson University law student there to translate.
A few months ago, David Fernandez knocked on doors at the Southern Comfort Mobile Home Park just outside Clearwater. Fernandez volunteers for Gulfcoast Legal Services in St. Petersburg. He tagged along with staff attorney Christine Allamanno to translate when she visited to check on the needs of families. About two-thirds of the residents are Hispanic.
The small park lies on the lonely backside of a service road parallel to U.S. 19 at the Sunset Point Road exit. As far as the families knew, the rest of the world was indifferent to their existence. The visit last summer was the start of all sorts of bilingual transformations.
Said Allamanno: "If you had asked me before I went into that park if such a thing were possible, I would have said, 'You're kidding, right?'
"It was so easy. It all fell into place. This is the way America is supposed to be."
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Fernandez and Allamanno discovered that the 150 families there had no idea of their rights. They owned their trailers, but rented the ground underneath. They were unaware of a whole body of Florida law that protects the rights of people who live as they do.
They had typical complaints. They wondered why some tenants paid more rent than others. They were unhappy with maintenance, and angry about cars that sped through the park. They worried about complaining and maybe getting evicted.
Fernandez set out to copy the statutes that protected them. But they're in English. Many of the Hispanic tenants were learning to speak English, but couldn't read it — especially English legalese.
Two things happened simultaneously:
Allamanno began to help them organize a homeowners association.
Fernandez went back to Stetson and made a plan to translate Florida statutes into Spanish.
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At Stetson, Fernandez is president of the student Hispanic Bar Association. The law school in Gulfport has a strong Hispanic presence, including a faculty known for international activism and students from all over Latin America. Fernandez himself was raised in Miami, the son of Cubans.
He thought the translation of statutes into Spanish could be the perfect project for his association — starting with Mobile Home Park Statute 723.
If that worked, they could move on to other statutes. Because of the economy, Hispanics have shared the miseries of foreclosures and bankruptcies, but many have no understanding of those laws. Family law — including divorce, alimony and child support — was another giant possibility.
He got about 20 other students interested. They hailed from all parts of Latin America — Peru, Puerto Rico, Mexico and Colombia. He also got the support of Luz Estella Nagle, an international law professor and human rights activist who trains police agencies in investigations of slave trafficking. She won the 2009 Freedom Award from the Florida Coalition Against Human Trafficking.
"When David came to me, I thought his idea was crucial not only for the Hispanic community, but for businesses — for anyone who deals with people who don't speak or read English."
English vs. Spanish is an old controversy in Florida. Many argue that anyone who wants to live here should learn to speak English.
"But you can't wait for someone to be fluent to understand his duties," Nagle says. "We have to show the rules and say, 'These are your rights, and these are your obligations.' "
Nagle pitched Fernandez's project to Stetson's deans. She saw the project as a way for students to earn pro bono hours required for graduation. Nagle gave them an offer they couldn't refuse. If it wasn't designated a university project, she would make it a class project. The deans bought it.
The students have started translating. They plan to finish the mobile home statute by January.
Fernandez graduates in May and hopes to work for the Englander & Fischer law firm in St. Petersburg, where he is now clerking. Before he graduates, he and Nagle hope to enlist other law schools to make the translations a statewide project.
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At Southern Comfort on Tuesday night, Fernandez couldn't translate fast enough. Gulfcoast lawyer Allamanno updated the residents on the status of a complaint they filed with the Department of Business and Professional Regulation in Tallahassee. They had complained about improper notices of rent increases and changes in rules at the park that didn't follow procedures set out in Florida statutes. (The park's local managers and its parent company didn't respond to Times' calls for comment.)
The residents also heard promises from a Pinellas County deputy to help them organize a crime watch and check out problems with kids — some as young as 6 — roaming the park in the wee hours.
Since they organized, the management has installed a new fence and speed bumps.
That's a good start, said resident Matilde Baltazar, mixing his Spanish and English. "I've lived here seven years and never knew I had any rights."
It's good, and it's bad, said Jeff Fulford, who volunteered for a temporary board of directors until they have enough members to hold elections. He's a member of the Knights of Pythias, he explained, so he knows parliamentary procedure.
"But maybe I've learned too much. I had dinner at my mom's, and all we talked about was lawsuits."
Fulford closed the meeting by announcing the park's first potluck supper this Friday. He told everyone to bring a dish, but "no cerveza." Fernandez got applause when he translated.
A woman in the packed clubhouse called out:
John Barry can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2258.