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Found in translation: Bilingual Chevron employees serve special need in West Texas

Puentes means bridge in Spanish. But for 29-year-old Odessa native Luis Nieto, the word also means safety and opportunity for his colleagues in the oil field.

Nieto and a growing group of employees at the Chevron Mid-Continent Business Unit (MCBU) are part of the unique Bilingual Puentes Program, which provides translations on a wide variety of safety documents and processes to primarily Spanish-speaking colleagues.

What makes this program unique, of course, is that the translations must account for the Spanish dialect that is distinctive to West Texas.

“Out here we call it West Texas Spanish,” Nieto says proudly.

In other words, this isn’t as simple as entering text into Google Translate.

Due to the special dialect, borne from an amalgamation of cultures distinctive to the region, not all Spanish-language documents outlining processes and procedures will read the same to Spanish-speaking West Texans.

“Some versions of Spanish can be really hard to understand,” he said.

Nieto is among the many Odessa natives whose parents migrated from Chihuahua, Mexico and pursued careers in the oil industry. While his father became a skilled industry veteran, the language barrier was an obstacle in his career. The Bilingual Puentes Program aims to remove those barriers at Chevron, not just by providing information on important safety processes but also by communicating opportunities for career growth.

“The company’s investment in the program just kind of backs what Chevron always talks about in terms of safety and diversity,” Nieto said. “It’s not just something they put on a poster board, it’s something they put into action.”

Translating safety and opportunity

Chevron provided Nieto’s first job out of college, starting as an operator. The company would eventually help sponsor his second college degree, an associate’s degree in occupational health safety and a Bachelor degree. That would pave an eventual path to becoming a Health, Safety and Environment field specialist for MCBU.

Prior to the formation of the Bilingual Puentes Program, Nieto and several other bilingual colleagues who grew up locally were asked on a case by case basis to help with written or verbal translations. As a safety specialist, Nieto saw the need for accurate translations in the oil field, where a large number of workers are primarily Spanish-speaking.

Among the safety procedures that Chevron wants all workers to be clear about is the “Stop Work” rule. The company-wide practice mandates that any worker at any level of the company can stop work at any moment if they deem it unsafe. They are empowered to stop the work without consequence.

Chevron oil pumpjack in Odessa.

Once, when the Stop Work rule was being communicated to a group out in the field, Nieto noticed the workers nodding, but wondered if they really understood what was being said. So he pulled each worker aside and explained the rules one on one in their native dialect. Some colleagues were surprised to learn they had the power to stop work at any moment. But as Nieto notes, without the interaction in their native tongue something so important may not have been well understood.

The Bilingual Puentes Program works to replicate this line of communication more widely and efficiently.

“We’re closing the gaps wherever we can find them,” Nieto said.

Found in translation

Seeing its value, Chevron encouraged employees to formalize a program for translations. The Bilingual Puentes Program is now a central source for translations at MCBU, said Martin Ocampo, a facilities engineer.

“The program is being built with the framework so that all of MCBU knows that if they need translations, the Bilingual Puentes Program can do it,” Ocampo said.

Nieto said Ocampo was among the early translators tasked with formalizing the program.

“Martin reached out to me because he knew I had done some translations,” Nieto said. “I pretty much reached out to the folks that I know who are like me, whose families migrated from the Chihuahua or northern Mexico.”

Jose Mendoza, automation analyst for Chevron MCBU, said he became involved because he knew Luis in the field and their kids attend the same school.

“So we will see each other at events or school and we’d be, ‘Hey, we’re trying to implement this program, and I know you are from Chihuahua, would you be willing to help?’” Mendoza said.

Members of Chevron’s growing Bilingual Puentes Program pose for a photo in front of the company’s Midland headquarters.

When Mendoza came to the U.S., he knew a little bit of English, which became a barrier for him later in college and working in the oil field. Now, he helps provide translations.

“I know exactly how it feels to be like, ‘Ok, what is going on here, what are the rules, you don’t know,” Mendoza said. “It takes a lot to learn a language.”

Hugo Natividad, a field construction representative, said providing translations helps his colleagues in the field feel included.

“We want them to know they’re part of the team,” he said.

The program helps to orient workers within the company, added Hector Loya, a senior health safety specialist. Loya is also a member of the Chevron SOMOS employee-network, a company-sponsored, employee-run network aiming to foster education and advancement for Latin American and Hispanic employees.

“If we can make you comfortable…if we can communicate what’s needed in a way that you can understand it, you’re going to be able to get the job done better, safer and more reliably,” Loya said.

Translating into growth

Pamela Segundo, a facilities engineer, was raised locally speaking both English and West Texas Spanish. While helping to provide translations, she formed strong bonds with other members of the Bilingual Puentes Team.

“I encourage everyone to be involved, because it really is a team effort,” Segundo said.

Into the future, program members hope to grow and maintain a comprehensive database of translated documents. That way, most requests for translations can be fulfilled with a quick email attachment. The program is also producing videos in the local dialect as another tool to bridge communication gaps.

As a team, they’re making good progress, said Nieto. That’s good news to a safety specialist from Odessa who wants what is best for his colleagues, family and neighbors.

“This is what it means to build a bridge,” he said.

Listen to this story at 2 pm daily via the Recording Library of West Texas