Juan of Words

Translating For My Parents

¡Ay, Ay, Ay!

At times I didn’t want to translate.  It was embarrassing to be the interpreter.  To not understand what that person was saying or how exactly it was my parents wanted me to convey their message.  It was unnerving, uncomfortable, even shameful.  The way people would look at me sometimes.  The tone they’d use.  The frustration in their voices.  In my own parents body language.  We knew the English language and we were supposed to be able to express their emotion and context all of the time!

But in all honesty, it was hard.  It still is.  I’d flutter around in half English words, half made up Spanish vocabulary, trying my best to dialogue in conversations far beyond my comprehension level, not to mention my age.  There was a lack of sophistication in my vocabulary.  I didn’t understand technical terms, industry specific terminology and much less indirectas or habladas.  My mother would finally just end up getting frustrated and either muster up as much of the English language as she could or resort to telling off the cashier at the grocery store in a very fast paced, pissed off Spanish.

This variety was always much harder to understand because it was all emotion, and most of it pure anger and frustration.  We’d storm out of the store, leaving all of the groceries behind, either in the cart as we had collected them, or on the register in bags and on the conveyor belt, my mom going on and on about how the cashier had tried to overcharge us and act like she didn’t know what we were saying.  I can’t tell you how many times we played out this same scenario, in multiple stores, over the years, but to my mother’s credit, it did take a hell of a lot to infuriate her to the point of leaving everything behind.  Especially since she was shopping for the entire household and didn’t have the time to go back through and pick everything out all over again one by one.  Though, to this day, she’s not above cursing someone out in Spanish and walking out on them if she feels she’s being wronged.

You can understand why as soon as I turned into a teenager I tried my hardest to avoid these confrontations.  With much more reason when one of my parents weren’t the ones requesting the interpretation.  If they had an appointment I’d run to the restroom right when they were about to get called in, I’d play dumb, like I didn’t understand what was being said, or I’d just plain refuse to be the official translator.  It’s a little embarrassing to admit now, but I did.  A few times I even allowed us to walk away with our heads bowed down in shame after somebody humiliated us for not being able to communicate “properly” in the English language.

If I felt degraded I can’t imagine what my parents were feeling.

It wasn’t until complete strangers began asking me, more often than not, if I spoke English, that it hit me: to a lot of people, not everyone, we Mexicans were all the same.  It didn’t matter if my parents had come to the United States as adults and I had been born and raised in this country, we were all Mexicans, Latinos, Hispanics… whatever they wanted to call us – a docile people who could be reproached, directed, reprimanded, and insulted, especially if we didn’t know the official language of the nation.  I decided to stop stepping down and stepping back.

Now I’m the first one to tell anybody to stick up for themselves however they can.  In English, Spanish, Spanglish, or whatever other vocabulary they can muster.  I guess being a pelionero runs in the family!

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