Immigrant parents rely on kids’ English

Los Angeles Daily News, CA
Nov 15 2004

Immigrant parents rely on kids’ English

By Rachel Uranga, Staff Writer

Maribel Palafox was just 11 when she stood in a medical office,
translating the doctor’s news that her mother was pregnant.
At 17, Maribel was called on again to serve as a go-between for a
doctor and a parent — this time telling her father that he had

Like tens of thousands of bilingual children in Los Angeles County,
Maribel has spent much of her life translating for
non-English-speaking relatives — a high-stress role that has put her
in delicate situations where no youngster should be.

Academics call them cultural brokers. Some policy makers call them
exploited. Parents say they are a lifeline to the English-speaking

“I have been doing this ever since I can remember,” said Maribel, the
oldest of seven children born to Mexican immigrants. “I stutter when
I can’t find the words. It’s sad — but that’s the way it is.”

Publicly funded hospitals and clinics are prohibited from
discriminating against those who speak limited or no English, and
federal regulations require that translators be provided if patients
request them.

But in reality, few of these patients request translators, and they
often wait hours for care or do not understand what kind of care they
are getting. Even when medical centers provide interpreters,
advocates say services are often inadequate. The result is that
bilingual children are pressed into service.

In Los Angeles County, where more than one-third of the residents are
foreign-born and more than 90 percent of those speak a language other
than English, it has become a way of life. Children explain utility
bills to their parents or become the de facto interpreters on
parent-teacher night.

“Who else would I trust?” asked Katherine Pinchuk, a 46-year-old
Ukrainian immigrant. Pinchuk relies on her 8-year-old daughter,
Mariya, for basic translations at school, at the dermatologist and
even returning clothes at the mall.

“It’s the American way. It’s acculturation,” said Gregory Rodriguez,
a New American Fellow who studies assimilation. “It’s unfortunate,
but international migration is a cataclysmic process and sometimes

Maria Perez, 17, who suffers from chronic eye problems, must act as a
translator as doctors talk to her parents about her numerous
surgeries and treatments.

“Sometimes I go to the doctor and the words are so difficult I cannot
understand,” said Perez, who had to translate her doctor’s gloomy
prognosis for her condition.

“There are times I feel nervous. I don’t know if I am going to be

Advocates say one of the biggest problems is that most immigrants do
not realize they have a right to an interpreter, or they are afraid
to speak up and ask for one.

The problem became so acute in Los Angeles County’s welfare offices
that it became the subject of a federal probe. Under a federal
agreement, similar to a consent decree, the offices were ordered to
post signs in all county-run facilities informing clients of
interpreter services and to make a greater effort to hire more
bilingual employees.

Several years ago, a similar agreement was imposed on the county
Department of Health Services, which operates five hospitals and more
than a dozen clinics.

Without more money to hire in-house translators, the department has
had to rely on staff members — most of whom have no formal cultural
or linguistic training.

“These are unfunded mandates,” said Mya Iwataki, director of
diversity programs for the agency. “It’s tough. Everyone here has to
do multitasking.”

Still, the financially strapped department has made strides and is
working to expand its third-party translating programs in its
hospitals and larger outpatient centers.

Heng Foong, director of PALS for Help — an organization that
provides free interpretation in health-care settings and was formerly
called Pacific-Asian Language Services — has heard all sorts of
horror stories.

One involved an Armenian man who sought treatment at a county
hospital for fluid in his spine. With no translator available,
doctors enlisted the help of an Armenian-speaking painter working at
the facility to explain consent forms for surgery.

It’s no wonder, experts say, that many parents rely on their children
to translate what doctors, creditors and neighbors say.

“It’s practical for both me and my daughter,” said Josefina Lopez,
31, who relies on her 9-year-old daughter, Monica Aguas, to help her
communicate with her English-speaking boss.

Monica, a bubbly and talkative fourth-grader, says she’s happy to

“If I help my mom and my dad, it makes me feel special. I am happy to
show them what people are saying.”

But for others, like North Hills resident Martha Ugarte, 22, who has
translated for her mother for as long as she can remember, the work
can strain their relationship.

“To her, it’s my job. … A lot of parents … say it’s your job as a
son or daughter. I have no choice.”

From: Emil Lazarian | Ararat NewsPress