Seventeen-year-old Ángela López remembers her mother handing her the telephone, when she was about 5 years old, to help her mother contact her employers. It’s something she still does today.
“Sometimes for work… she gives me the phone and she tells me what she wants me to say in Spanish so I can text it for her in English,” says López.
Her story is not uncommon in immigrant communities such as Boyle Heights, where many parents don’t speak English. For many first-generation kids, being their parents’ interpreter is part of their day-to-day life.
Youth serve as “navigators” for their parents in medical offices, schools or places where sometimes an interpreter isn’t available. They are confronted with situations that, to the outside world, seem to be too mature for a child to understand.
For many, it is a long-term commitment, something that they continue to do for their parents well into their adult lives. For the parents who rely on their children for help, the role-reversal can be daunting. In situations like these, the parent becomes dependent on the child for information and communication.
Ángela López: Happy to help
López, a recent graduate of Francisco Bravo Medical Magnet High School, has translated for her mother Veronica for as long as she can remember. She also recalls spending her weekends translating for an uncle or a grandmother.
“Since they don’t speak or understand English like at all, they usually want me to go with them to places,” López says. “Like when they lost their dog I had to go with them to the animal shelter to translate for them.”
López tries to make sure she translates accurately, but says it’s sometimes difficult. “I feel like there’s some English words that sometimes you can’t say in Spanish so you kind of just have to explain it since there’s not a direct translation,” she says. “Or vice versa with Spanish to English.”
Instead of spending weekends hanging out with friends or cruising the city, López says she sometimes has to spend the entire day at a doctor’s office, translating the visit for her grandma.
“It’s time consuming because it takes a while to translate and the process can go a lot faster if there wasn’t a need for a translator,” she says.
But while she says it sometimes can take a lot of time, she didn’t feel like it was a burden.
“I’m happy to do it– I’m happy to help them,” she says.
Lorena Sánchez: Translating over a lifetime
Lorena Sánchez, of Boyle Heights, has interpreted for both her parents since she was 8 years old and, at 38, continues to assist her elderly parents during their doctor’s visits.
Sánchez, the eldest of five siblings, was born to immigrant parents who spoke little English. She says mainly because of language, she took on the certain roles in her family and set out to find places where her family could be medically attended.
“I was the person who walked in and said, “I know you’re a clinic, what services do you provide?,” she remembers. “And, we don’t have health insurance or a lot of money, but can we still see a doctor here?”
Sanchez says she “navigated” the health care system for her family when she was young, and continues to do so today.
“Navigators are people that are there to assist people trying to access health care whether it’s through giving them a Medi-Cal application and helping them fill it out or directing them where to go—-my story is that I became that person for my parents and myself,” Sánchez says.
Today, Sánchez works as the Senior Manager of Strategic Initiatives at the Children’s Defense Fund, a child advocacy non-profit. Sánchez says she helps design and implement a school-based health insurance outreach program, to inform children and their families about free and affordable access to medical care.
Sagrario Anselmo: A role reversal
Sagrario Anselmo, 47, relies on her son for information regarding school conferences as well as for help translating bills, rent, and city letters that arrive at her home.
Anselmo moved to Los Angeles from her home in Oaxaca when she was 16 years old. Like many migrants who cross the border, she moved into a neighborhood of predominantly Spanish-speaking residents. Because Anselmo could communicate with others in her community, she didn’t feel the need to learn English. But that changed after the birth of her son, Jesse.
“My husband studied English and finished high school here, “ she says, “ and he got really upset and said I had to make an effort to learn English,” says Anselmo.
Anselmo says she’s tried taking English classes in the past, but struggles with learning the language, especially because English is her third language. Anselmo is from a region of Oaxaca where the primary spoken language is the mixe dialect.
She says she often has to ask her son Jesse for help to read mail that arrives written in English. Her apartment building recently had to undergo retrofitting construction, and she couldn’t read the letter sent by the landlord.
Anselmo says she feels embarrassed to ask Jesse for help at times, especially when he was younger. “When he was smaller, it embarrassed me that a child was translating for me and I felt that I, as an adult, should make the effort to learn English.”
She also sees how having Jesse translate has negative effects on him. She says that because he has to translate, he has become aware of “grown up” affairs such as finances and legal issues ahead of time.
“Sometimes there are family issues that children shouldn’t know about, and Jesse does,” says Anselmo.
While she still feels embarrassed that she has to rely on her son to understand simple things like coupons, she does feel that their relationship is better and they are more united.