In the basement below United Educational Credit Union’s lobby on Riverside Drive, nine employees commit to memory the phrases, “This is a deposit slip,” and, “How can I help you?” in Spanish.
Some of its credit union tellers, asset managers and maintenance staff were learning a few banking-related phrases to help bridge language and cultural barriers for potential clients who do not speak English fluently.
“It won’t be perfect, but we are definitely making an effort,” said Joan Miller, an executive assistant who presented the 2009 marketing plan to her employers. “We think it will be a mutual benefit to both.”
Most Spanish-speaking residents in Battle Creek are from Mexico, where personal banking is not as common or accessible as it is in the United States, said Yolanda Campos, who is leading the eight-week language course.
Instead of opening a savings account where their money can earn interest, many people chose to carry their money with them or keep it at home. They tend to turn to predatory lenders offering high-interest-rate loans and check service centers that charge exorbitant fees, said Kate Kennedy, Latino/Hispanic Community Project director.
“They are very unbanked for the most part and use a cash economy,” Kennedy said. “They’ll pay $30,000 down for a house — in cash.”
About five or six years ago, local banks started to realize the potential for new business in the Mexican-American community and began hiring bilingual staff who could help people apply for tax identification numbers. The nine-digit number acts like a social security number for non-citizens who want to open a savings account, Kennedy explained.
“Still a lot of people are tending to use cash,” she said.
Kennedy said United Educational has done more than any other credit union in Battle Creek to reach out to the Spanish-speaking community. It is promoting a bilingual staff member, Elizabeth Hurtado, from part-time to full-time and it is planning to hire another part-time, bilingual staff member as well, Miller said.
“Quite honestly that’s what’s going to attract people,” said Kennedy, who has worked with Hurtado on the Latino/Hispanic Community Project. “They’ll seek Elizabeth out.”
But often the first contact potential clients have is with a teller, so it is prudent that the member services representative at least know how to say in Spanish, “Wait, I’ll get a translator.”
The students joke that after six classes the only phrases they know by heart are “nada” and “no comprendo,” but they say learning about Mexican culture has proven to be an enlightening experience. They won’t make the mistake of forming an “OK” symbol with their thumb and forefinger touching with fingers extended, they said, because they learned that the gesture can be offensive.
They also have learned that the husband typically handles finances for the family. They have become familiar with geographic names of states in Mexico and their proper pronunciation.
“You’re eventually going to see people from all of these states,” Campos told the class.
They certainly hope so.