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LANGUAGE ACCESS AND THE AMERICAN WAY OF LIFE: With Liberty and Justice for all? by Maribel Alonso



I remember the day I learned how to read. I was 4-years old.  I was given the vowels and the consonants and explained the way to put them together.  By that afternoon I was reading!  Everyone around was amazed, including me!

Letters and words seemed to have been my natural inclination from the beginning, in the same way singers or actors show their natural talent from a very early age.

When I was 18 years-old, my mother gave me 20,000 pesetas to pay for my college tuition, approximately 150 dollars … a lot of money at that time.

I had no idea what major to choose. I had heard about some college major assessment tests to match your skills and personality with the best possible career. I knew my family wouldn't be able to afford such an expensive and sophisticated assessment, so I paid attention to a tip I heard on TV: "Choose a career that combines all the subjects in which you always stood out in school in a natural way".

In my case it was clear: Spanish Language, Spanish Literature, English and Composition.

So, it boiled down to two options: Journalism or English Philology.

Philology is the study of the language and literature of a nation/people. For my generation that was the closest to the current translation/ Interpretation degrees.

That morning, and with the 20.000 pesetas in my pocket, I took the subway to Moncloa, and walked down toward the Campus of the Universidad Complutense of Madrid, strolling down the beautiful boulevard escorted by green trees enjoying the smell of summer.

I passed first by the Journalism building and stood quiet watching from the opposite sidewalk.  As I was pondering my options, trying to make the final decision, I spotted some preppy upper-class girls at the main entrance and thought: "I'm not going to feel comfortable here".  So I kept going and ended up in Philology B, the last building that houses the students of English Philology at the end of the Campus.

That was the beginning of my career as a Linguist, a truly natural inclination that years later opened up many doors for me professionally.

I am 53 years-old now.

Born in La Habana, Cuba in 1961, I grew up in Spain from the age of 4 after my parents, Spanish Immigrants from the mountains of Leon, lost all their properties after Castro's revolution and returned to Spain.

When I was 26, I married my English teacher, an Irish red-haired Bostonian and moved to the US with him. The Spanish consulate in Boston advised me to start working for Berlitz.

I soon realized my Castilian accent was highly regarded here and assignments to teach Spanish and do written translations were pouring in.

At that time, late 80's, the internet didn't exist for most of us; computers were still those large white monitors with black screens and green letters where traumatic surprises, losing your hard-earned files, were not uncommon.

The Mobile phone business was just emerging.

In 1995, I moved to Florida and started working as a telephonic Interpreter at the time of the Olympic Games in Atlanta.

Interpretation services were just beginning to bud hand in hand with an incipient expansion of the Internet, operating systems, cell phones and the like.

As interpreters we used to receive training materials or important documents on hard-copy via regular mail or fax.

Interpretation services was a foreign idea for most people in the same manner most families didn't have a computer.

But we are now in 2015, and this is the 21st century.

Today, I am a Certified Court Interpreter and I've been helping people understand each other for 20 years.

Today, the network of Interpretation Services that has developed in this country is absolutely amazing, and that includes Telephonic Interpretation Services, on-site interpretation in every medical and legal setting, translation engines for Web pages, etc. They cannot live without us any longer!

Medical and legal personnel have learned how to work with interpreters in perfect synchrony, pausing when necessary, understanding our role. We are respected as professionals and appreciated for what we do.  Even the security guard recognizes when I try to cut through the line at the Courthouse: "Court cannot start without her!”

Not only the Enactment of Language Access Laws ensures the right to Language Services to every LEP; nowadays, in the United States of America, there is not a single LEP who hasn't heard of or become familiar with the use of professional interpreters for any of their legal, medical, or purchasing needs.

This is magical!

It is difficult to think of examples, there are so many, thousands!

I remember in my early days helping an old man in New York City make payment arrangements with the Gas Company.  He started crying....knowing that my help allowed him to sleep warm that winter night.

I remember instructing a woman in labor for 20 minutes to push, until the Head Nurse stormed in her room screaming "PUSH" and when I screamed "EMPUJE!!!!!" through the phone, the child came out!

I remember the face of a Venezuelan woman applying for political asylum desperately reaching for the headphones making sure she understood every word at her hearing. It was so beautiful to see the entire family hugged together, crying after they were granted asylum.  They came and shook my hand with the same respect they shook the hand of the Judge and the Government Attorney.  Then they turned and they looked at me in the eyes and told me: "Muchas gracias, Señorita."

We have all grown accustomed to daily miracles!

The other day someone told me we have passed from the Industrial Age into the Information Age or Knowledge Age.

Wikipedia defines it this way:

"The Information Age (also known as the Computer Age, Digital Age, or New Media Age) is a period in human history characterized by the shift from traditional industry that the industrial revolution brought through industrialization, to an economy based on the information computerization."

This Information Age needs Information transmission.

We, the Interpreters, are a KEY component in this Information Age, as much as the Internet or the cell phones.

Most of us have come from “different” backgrounds, who for political, economic or personal reasons or for whatever reason had the opportunity to be exposed to two worlds; who through dedication, study and human empathy…we, the Interpreters, have become bridges between two cultures.

Yes! We are the ones who - understanding the mentality of the poor, the unprotected and defenseless - bridge the gap, day after day and reach to the other side of the mirror!

We are like the wheel, the airplane, the Internet, the cell phones!  We are a major breakthrough in communication; we elicit people from all-over-the-world to feel at home in this melting-pot of cultures that is the United States of America, the home of the brave!

I love my profession and thank God every morning for allowing  me to do this.


 
This essay was the winner of the Fernando A. Ortega Scholarship for Excellence  (Click on image)

This essay was the winner of the Fernando A. Ortega Scholarship for Excellence (Click on image)