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Residents, politicians decry poor treatment of Latinos at Pilsen post office

A spokesman for the U.S. Postal Service went into Pilsen’s post office to show reporters a “translation friendly” sign Monday. It wasn’t there.

Theresa Mah, Illinois State Representative, speaks to media outside the post office in Pilsen about staff at this post office allegedly discriminating against non-English speaking customers. Monday, Feb. 10, 2020, in Chicago. | Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times
Theresa Mah, Illinois State Representative, speaks to media outside the post office in Pilsen about staff at this post office allegedly discriminating against non-English speaking customers. Monday, Feb. 10, 2020, in Chicago.
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

After residents aired complaints that workers at the post office in Pilsen discriminated against non-English speakers, a spokesman for the U.S. Postal Service took the microphone at a press conference Monday and offered to show reporters a “translation friendly” sign inside.

The post office has been under scrutiny after a viral Facebook post from last week claimed a retail clerk disrespected several patrons because they couldn’t speak English — a problem many residents has been happening for years.

The “translation friendly” sign is designed to make it easy for patrons to translate retail signage at the post office into their preferred language “using their favorite translator app” on their smartphones, according to Tim Norman, the USPS spokesman in the Chicago area.

But Norman, with TV cameras rolling, couldn’t find the sign anywhere inside.

“It’s supposed to be here,” Norman said before leaving the post office, 1859 S. Ashland Ave.

Norman was summoned to the post office in Pilsen on Monday after activists and elected officials called a news conference there to echo allegations made by Evelyn Gonzalez, an eyelash technician who lives in the neighborhood and wrote the viral Facebook post.

Tim Norman, United States Postal Service Corporate Communications Representative, attempts to look for translation friendly signs he claimed were on display at all Chicago area Post Offices, at the Pilsen Post Office, Monday, Feb. 10, 2020, in Chicago. | Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times
Tim Norman, United States Postal Service Corporate Communications Representative, attempts to look for translation friendly signs at the Pilsen Post Office.
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

According to Gonzalez, a retail clerk at the post office told several customers, “I do not speak Spanish, I cannot help you.” Gonzalez also said the clerk threatened to call the police on her after stepping in to help those customers.

Norman told reporters Monday that USPS is “actively pursuing bilingual employees” and is investigating Gonzalez’s allegations.

But his failure to find the supposed “translation friendly” sign is indicative of how the post office in Pilsen is unable to properly serve the predominantly immigrant and Latino neighborhood, Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez (25th) said.

“It doesn’t sit well with residents when they hear there’s a sign that can help them and then it’s not there,” said Sigcho-Lopez, who was joined at the press conference by state Rep. Theresa Mah, a Democrat who represents the area in the Illinois Assembly.

Evelyn Gonzalez (center), flanked by Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez (left) and state Rep. Theresa Mah (right), speaks to reporters about alleged discriminating against non-English speaking customers at the Pilsen post office. Feb. 10, 2020.
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

The post office in Pilsen is named after late Mexican-American labor leader Cesar Chavez — an ironic and hurtful twist, said Rev. Emma Lozano of Lincoln United Methodist Church.

“The post office that bears the name of one of our community’s leaders has no one that speaks Spanish,” Lozano said at the news conference.

Lozano blames the lack of Spanish speakers at Pilsen’s post office on entrenched discrimination against Latinos.

“We don’t blame the workers here that don’t know Spanish. We blame the systemic racism that’s kept us out of representing ourselves in our true numbers in the city of Chicago.”

Latinos make up nearly a third of Chicago’s population and one in four residents are Spanish speakers, according to the Census Bureau.

In a letter to U.S. Rep. Jesus “Chuy” Garcia dated Feb. 9, Sigcho-Lopez called on USPS to immediately replace “any employee from the Cesar Chavez post office who has been accused of discrimination while an investigation takes place.”

A spokesperson for Garcia said Monday the congressman doesn’t support replacing the employee until USPS concludes its investigation.

Garcia sent a letter Monday to a USPS representative in Chicago asking for the agency’s policies on servicing non-English speakers.

“Government offices and agencies, including post offices, should accommodate and be responsive to the communities they serve,” the letter reads.

Carlos Ballesteros is a corps member of Report for America, a not-for-profit journalism program that aims to bolster Sun-Times coverage of Chicago’s South Side and West Side.