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This Latino meteorologist helped spur Spanish-language changes to weather alerts. Studies show it can save lives.

Joseph Trujillo, 25, and his fellow researchers figured out neutral terms that Spanish speakers, regardless of their different dialects or countries of origin, could understand.
Joseph Trujillo, meteorólogo hispano que trabaja en la Universidad de Oklahoma y la Oficina Nacional de Administración Oceánica y Atmosférica.
Meteorologist Joseph Trujillo.Joseph Trujillo

For meteorologist Joseph Trujillo, the right translation is more than a language issue, especially when it comes to weather-related warnings.  

“Many times, people don't receive that information in their native language and that prevents them from going to shelter and, I must be clear: that is the difference between life and death," said Trujillo, 25, a researcher at the University of Oklahoma and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The work of Trujillo and his fellow researchers has led to changes in the way Spanish-speaking communities across the country — regardless of their countries of origin and varying ways of saying a particular word — receive clear weather alerts that are easy to understand.

“We found dialect-neutral forms to be able to translate those risk words and get the risk messages across. For the first time, the National Weather Center adopted the terminology we proposed, and while we’re moving forward with these investigations, that’s already a victory for us.” Trujillo said with a broad smile in a video interview with Noticias Telemundo.

No warnings, grave consequences

In 2013, seven members of a Guatemalan family in Oklahoma heard tornado sirens and sought shelter in a storm drain near their home — since they hadn't heard or understood there had also been storm and flood warnings. All seven died after flash floods killed them, dragging them amid the murky currents and debris.

In Hazardous Weather Communication En Español: Challenges, Current Resources, and Future Practices, an essay published last year, Trujillo and his colleagues cite the Oklahoma case as an example of the dangers faced by immigrants who don't understand warning messages. A NOAA assessment revealed a lack of weather-related resources in the Spanish language that could have helped communities take action to save lives.

The investigators found that despite the lead time provided by meteorologists, a lack of proper Spanish-language communication had "catastrophic" consequences.

According to the latest figures from the 2020 census, almost 1 in 5 people in the United States, 62.6 million, are Latino. Though only about a third of Latinos were born outside the U.S., 37% of immigrant Latinos speak English proficiently, according to Pew Research.

There are more than 590 million Spanish speakers globally, and the richness of the language is evident in different countries' dialects and peculiarities. But those linguistic differences can bring great challenges when translating emergency information, such as weather alerts, for all Hispanic people.

Trujillo and his fellow researchers worked with linguistic experts from Penn State University who found that existing weather alert translations were not always relevant due to the different dialects of the communities. They designed a new list of categories that better reflect the risk of climate emergencies in simpler terms: minimum, low, moderate, high and extreme.

“The most key detail of the investigation has been to determine universal meanings in Spanish for what is an immediate possibility, but is not yet real," said John Lipski, a linguist and academic at Penn State University.

In order to ensure that the new terms are universally understood across all dialects, the researchers conducted a representative survey of 1,050 Spanish speakers in the U.S. Based on the responses, the investigators confirmed the new words they used to translate weather terms and alerts in Spanish did a better job of conveying urgency than some of the previous terms that had been used.

Climate emergencies and vulnerable groups

Michael Méndez, a researcher at the University of California, Irvine, is among the experts who study how climate change poses greater risks to vulnerable communities, which include Latino and other immigrants who lack legal status and Indigenous Latinos, who speak languages other than Spanish.

“They are disproportionately affected by racial discrimination, exploitation, economic hardship, less proficiency in English and Spanish, and fear of deportation in their daily lives,” he writes, along with other experts in the essay "The (in)visible victims of disaster: Understanding the vulnerability of undocumented Latino/a and indigenous immigrants." 

In this investigation, Méndez and his colleagues analyzed the federal government's response to the 2017 Thomas Fire in California that lasted more than 40 days, destroying 1,063 structures, causing massive blackouts, forcing the evacuations of more than 104,000 residents and costing more than $2 billion in damage.

"Resources were directed toward privileged individuals, leaving local immigrant rights and environmental justice groups to provide essential services such as language access to emergency information in Spanish and Indigenous tongues;" the study found.

And yet with a changing climate, Trujillo said, Hispanic communities have to prepare to face events such as hurricanes, storms, heat waves or extreme cold.

“Our climate is changing every day, and although sometimes that can make us a little nervous, I believe that with the correct information, we can move forward as a community," he said, stressing the importance of understanding weather phenomena.

Shania Twain, a budding interest in weather

Trujillo was born in Lima, Peru. When he was 5, his mother emigrated to Dallas seeking better educational and other opportunities for her son.

In his mom's case, the discovery of a new culture and her early fascination with the English language came through the powerful voice of Shania Twain. Her friend recommended that she listen to country music because the words were pronounced slower and it was easier to understand.

“I was just trying to learn the words, but I didn’t even know what they meant. So one of my first sentences in English was "Man! I Feel Like a Woman!" Trujillo said laughing as he recited the lyrics to Twain's song.

A big event in his childhood literally fell from the skies. Since Lima is a desert city, it never rains, so Trujillo was not used to torrential Texas downpours, along with hurricanes and other weather events he had never witnessed.

“The sky was beginning to explode and I was shouting: ‘Why is there lightning? What is thunder? Why is hail falling?’" Trujillo said, describing how his mom would have get him out from under the bed where he would go hide.

Little by little, Trujillo made the transition from panic to wonder, and from his first years at school he became obsessed with meteorology.  In high school, for a science project on meteorology, he contacted all the television stations in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

“Only the meteorologist Néstor Flecha, from Telemundo Dallas, returned my call and he became my first mentor. He invited me to his station when I was 18 years old, there as a baby and I was able to learn how a television station worked and how Telemundo and NBC was a big family,” he said. The NBC News and the Telemundo broadcast networks are part of NBCUniversal, which is owned by Comcast.

That first experience led him to pursue meteorology and his investigative work, which he presented to the National Weather Service.

“I remember when he started doing that research and he didn’t understand the process of looking for the data, doing an analysis, etc. And I told him that you have to validate the findings before experts so that it is something irrefutable. It was a nice experience and now it makes me proud to see that he is quite a scientist,” Néstor Flecha, head of meteorology at Noticiero Telemundo 39, in Dallas, said about Trujillo.

Grappling with his DACA status

Trujillo has received multiple recognitions, including the American Meteorological Society's award for early-career professional achievement.

However, he still can't work full-time in any federal government capacity because he is a DACA recipient; he does not have legal immigration status. DACA recipients can work and study in the U.S. without fear of deportation, but it's a temporary, renewable program and the program could be struck down in court.

As one of many "Dreamers" — young people brought to the U.S. as children who lack legal immigration status — Trujillo is one of those hoping that Congress offers them a path to citizenship.

“I’m not someone trying to hurt our nation. This is where I grew up and this is where I want to contribute, but there’s a chance the program will be eliminated. If DACA is revoked tomorrow, I lose the opportunities I’ve worked for throughout my life," he said. "And that's not fair."

An earlier version of this article was first published on Noticias Telemundo.

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