“Hello is Mrs. Lopez home?”
“She is but she can’t come to the phone, I’ll be translating for her”
“How old are you?”
Normally a 5 year old isn’t calling the doctor’s office to make an appointment for herself. This was however common practice in my home. It was one of the many things that made me different than my Anglo, English as a first language peers. I had to lose my fear of speaking to people because it was my job, and at any moment my services may be needed. By the time I entered kindergarten I had my own key to the house, walked myself to and from school every day and had the job of translator that would later develop into document transcriber. As I grew older I often served as the translator for other families and became the person called on to explain what something meant in Spanish. Unfortunately for me, when I started this role I was still 5 years old and had just started learning English. There were many words I did not know when I served as a translator because words that professionals use to communicate aren’t usually in the vocabulary lists for a kindergartner. I equally struggled to translate from Spanish back to English. “Madrina” became “Fairy Godmother”, “Liquadora” became “Liquidfier”, “Prima became “like a sister but not”, “Chocar” became “choked”. Don’t even get me started on trying to explain to my Anglo peers the definition of nieces and nephews even though my only sibling was 3 years old. (To be honest I probably lost their trust when I insisted I had a fairy godmother)
It’s a role that’s common for children of immigrant parents. One of the children has the responsibility to serve as the resident linguist.
I learned a lot at my first job. I learned how unaccommodating people are of people of different cultures and language backgrounds. My parents were expected to know perfect English but hardly did people try to meet them half way and learn a little Spanish to communicate better. I’ve seen this slowly shifting over time but I still notice and get angry when a mono linguist freezes at the hint of a foreign accent even if the person speaking in an accent is speaking English pretty well.
I learned that when you don’t speak English you are perceived as less intelligent as evidenced by the history teacher who was surprised my mom read books.
I learned that when you speak in another language around people who don’t understand you they always assume you are speaking about them (even when you’re not) and will give them more reason not to like you. It was one of the reasons I tried to speak in English if I could unless the other person didn’t understand English at all. Sadly to my detriment because as my English flourished my Spanish stayed at a very basic level until I could take classes in college.
I also learned that when you are gifted with being bilingual you have a responsibility to help any and every time someone is in need of translation unless you want to appear like a traitor to the Raza (I’m speaking to you lady that works at the secretary of state)
I also learned that when you help someone from the graciousness of your heart they repay you in blessings and good wishes. If not directly said to me but to my mom, I was constantly told how I was a good daughter and that I would become something great.
Which felt like a great pressure. I didn’t feel particularly special or smart. I started to feel at a young age that I was deceiving everyone, without wanting to, about my real intelligence.
Yes I am bilingual but I couldn’t grasp multiplication or fractions, and it wasn’t like I could turn to my parents to teach me, they were just as lost. And my social skills were equally pitiful. When my frustration about not being able to master something got the better of me I would want to vent to my mom. She would say things like I am so lucky to live here, and that there are children that would give anything to be in my situation. What my mom meant to be encouragement only served to teach me another lesson, don’t talk about your problems and you are responsible for making all of us proud. I learned to keep my head down, don’t speak up, and figure out how to get through that shit on your own. I got through math and I’m proud to say that I regularly keep in touch with one friend I made during high school but I’m very aware that these are still my weaknesses.
When you serve as a translator you become acutely aware of adult issues way before you’re emotionally prepared for them. When my dad was deported, when we lost the house, the expensive hospital bills, when we didn’t have health insurance, when my mom was laid off, when we were denied welfare benefits, when we couldn’t afford to pay the lawyer fees I started to realize that our financial situation was very precarious. I started to feel guilty if I asked for anything. I didn’t dare ask for a ride to get to morning tennis practice during the summer because I didn’t think we had money to pay for gas so I quit the team (which the team was probably happy about, I wasn’t very good).
I didn’t feel I had the right to explore my talents. I enjoyed and had gotten some recognition for writing when I was younger but due to being savvy on our financial situation and doing some digging on the lifestyle of a writer I concluded I needed to pursue something practical. I let the fear of disappointing my family push me to do well in school.
Now at 24 with all that angst we millennials are known for I can’t shake this feeling that I haven’t accomplished enough. The words “you will become something great” echo in my head and there’s this feeling that the ship has sailed.
Guilt. It’s a common theme. Guilt about not being good enough, guilt about wanting something that you know you can’t have, guilt about feeling like you’ve disappointed the most important people in your life. It felt like the whole success of my family was riding squarely on my back. It felt like a lot of pressure, but I don’t think it’s unique to my experience. Children of immigrant parents often have the whole pride of their parent’s sacrifice and their countries reputation riding on their success.
Maybe I’m wrong and this feeling is unique to me, but I’m willing to bet that there are many children of immigrant parents that feel like they’ve all but fallen short of the expectations their family has. That feeling of disappointment is hard to swallow, whether it was being passed up for that promotion, following a career that your family doesn’t understand, or dating someone that doesn’t fit their ideal profile.
When you are the translator for so long you become the medium for which the voice of others is heard. Your opinions and feelings do not have a right to be expressed concerning the matter. But as I get older and I start to free myself from some of the guilt I’ve internalized, I’m allowing myself to find my voice again. Writing here on this blog even if no one ever read any of my posts is helping me find my voice again. And as I find my voice I start to recognize all the blessings I truly have. And slowly the message my mother was trying to teach me at a young age isn’t just a mantra I keep telling myself but I can finally start to believe it.