Is it true that interpreters must abstain from public commentary?

December 10, 2017 § 3 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

I have recently read many comments about the court interpreter in California who decided to talk to the media after she provided her services to the defendant in a high profile criminal case. To my surprise, must comments promptly endorsed the position that a court interpreter cannot make any public comment. Such extreme “black and white opinion” is quite concerning.

Before expressing such a sweeping opinion, interpreters should reflect on the purpose of their professional service, the reasons for the rule or legislation, and what the consequences of failing to observe it really are. Let’s see:

The main topic concerning this analysis is confidentiality. The nature of the duty of confidentiality is based on two things: the subject matter or area of interpretation, and a scale of values.

Different subject matters or fields of interpreting will be governed by different legislation, interests, and goals. If the interpreter’s professional practice involves intellectual property, diplomacy, or national security, there will be many limitations and restrictions as to the things the interpreter can share with others. Most of these duties will come from legislation, not canons of ethics of regulations. Many others will derive from contractual obligations regarding commercial brands, patents and copyrights.

The scale of values is also important: The more important the value, the stricter the responsibility.

Revealing the content of diplomatic negotiations could have implications of war and peace, and the interpreter could even go to prison, or at least lose his job and reputation.

Revealing medical information can disrupt a patient’s health or treatment, impact insurance coverage, kill a patient’s future employment opportunities, and generate legal problems for hospitals, physicians and interpreters.

When we provide diplomatic or military interpreting services at certain level, we are required to undergo a security clearance process and we take a legally binding oath to secrecy. Breaching this legal obligation will bring catastrophic consequences to the interpreter.

The California case gives us the opportunity to revisit a court interpreter’s duty of confidentiality, so we can see how sweeping statements like those made by some of our colleagues last week, most of them in good faith, are not so categorically right.

First, we need to understand what is protected by the duty of confidentiality, and who imposes the restrictions on the court interpreter.

Interpreters exist because there must be equal access to the administration of justice, regardless of the language the court or the parties to a controversy speak. Here we must make a distinction:

(1) The court interpreter as a communication tool to the litigant.
When a plaintiff, defendant or victim cannot actively participate in their legal case because of a language barrier, the court interpreter acts as the ears and voice of the foreign language speaker in communications with the court, his attorneys, and the opposite party. Interpreters render a complete, accurate interpretation of everything that is said during the hearing, and interpret to the court and parties everything the foreign language speaker says. These interpreters handle three types of information: public record, confidential information, and privileged communications.

These are the interpreters hired by the court, paid from the courthouse budget, and selected from a roster kept by the clerk’s office.

When a plaintiff or defendant want to be represented by a private attorney, but they cannot communicate with their attorneys because of a language barrier, those privately retained attorneys can also hire professionals court interpreters in private practice to help them communicate with their foreign speaking client, their client’s relatives, and with those witnesses who do not speak the language of the attorneys. In this case it is the attorney who selects the interpreters from prior experiences or referrals from others; and it is the attorney, not the court, who pays the interpreters’ fees (very likely from the plaintiff or defendant’s assets). This interpreters handle three types of information: public record, confidential information, and privileged communications.

As we can see, in both cases, interpreters work with information that is public record. This means that everybody has access to what was said or done. For example: As a rule, court hearings are open to the public. Anybody can go to the courthouse and sit in the courtroom during a trial. At the State-level, many jurisdictions broadcast their proceedings in public and even commercial TV. All legal arguments, court rulings, and witness statements are heard by all interested individuals.

Both, court appointed and privately retained interpreters are privy to confidential information not because of who the interpreters are as individuals, buy because of what they do for living. This information is sensitive in nature and if disclosed, it could adversely impact third party innocent individuals. For these reasons, interpreters are usually barred from sharing this information. Details surrounding a case that come to the knowledge of the parties, but are irrelevant to the outcome of the controversy are kept from the public. Names of business partners, financial information, paternity, personal health information, sealed court cases, juvenile court records, are just some of the examples that fall under this category.

While working with an attorney, all interpreters learn what is called privileged information. This is crucial, intimate information about the subject matter of the controversy that lawyers need to know to represent their clients and defend their interests. This information is treated differently because it is only when a person knows that statements made to their attorney in confidence cannot be disclosed to anyone, not even the judge or jury in the case, that clients can truly open up to their attorneys and share all details of a case. Those acting as agents of the attorney, such as paralegals, investigators, and interpreters, are covered by the client-attorney privilege, and nobody, not even a judge can compel them to disclose said privileged information.

(2) The court interpreter as auxiliary agent to the administration of justice.
The court system has a vested interest on the perception that the administration of justice within its jurisdiction is equally fair to all citizens, even those who do not speak the language of the court. For this reason, courts have set policy to clarify this principle, and reassure all potential litigants of the impartiality of the court, even in those cases when a foreigner is party to a controversy, especially in criminal cases where life or liberty are at stake.

This principle has motivated some courts (not all of them), in particular in the United States, to go beyond what many would consider reasonable, and impose the strictest restrictions to some of the things court interpreters can and cannot do. Based on this one-sided extremely restrictive rules, the federal courts of the United States abide by the United States District Court Code of Ethics for court interpreters, who have been sworn as officers of the court for the duration of the assignment, and interpret under contract with such court, “…to follow the Standards for Performance and Professional Responsibility for Contract Court Interpreters in the Federal Courts…” (USDC Code of Ethics. Preamble)

The Federal Code of Ethics contains some important principles needed to practice the court interpreter profession that are free of controversy, such as Rule 5: “Confidentiality. Interpreters shall protect the confidentiality of all privileged and other confidential information…”

It also covers other situations where restrictions seem unreasonable and arbitrary, like Rule 3 where it states that: “…During the course of the proceedings, interpreters shall not converse with parties, witnesses, …attorneys, or with friends and relatives of the party, except in the discharge of their official functions…”, or Rule 6: “Restriction of Public Comment. Interpreters shall not publicly discuss, report, or offer an opinion concerning a matter in which they are or have been engaged, even when that information is not privileged or required by law to be confidential…”

Dear friends and colleagues, we must remember that the above restrictions by the United States District Court Code of Ethics only apply to court interpreters who are providing their professional services when they “…are sworn in (and) they become, for the duration of the assignment, officers of the court with the specific duty and responsibility of interpreting between English and the language specified. …In their capacity as officers of the court, contract court interpreters are expected to follow the standards for performance and professional responsibility for contract court interpreters in the federal courts…”

In other words, said restrictions, as they are not the law, but a mere contractual obligation, only apply to those who are providing their services in federal court pursuant to a contract with the court. These blanket restrictions do not apply to any of us when working as interpreters in federal court if we have been retained by one of the parties.

Once we understand this limitation, and the different role interpreters play when they act as a communication tool to the litigant with his attorneys, and in those cases when they also act as an auxiliary arm to the administration of justice and are paid by their judiciary. It is obvious that legal restrictions and limitations such as client-attorney privilege and confidentiality will apply to all interpreters as they are part of the essence of the legal representation, but other limitations that go beyond that scope will not apply to privately retained interpreters as they exist to assure impartiality and transparency to the extreme. This is not necessary with private attorneys and their interpreters as they are publicly known as part of a team: plaintiff’s or defendant’s.

To the latter group of interpreters, sharing what is already public record should be no problem; and in my personal opinion, I do not believe that even court appointed interpreters should be sanctioned for sharing public information with the media. I believe that telling a reporter that a hearing was moved from 1 pm to 2 pm and saving her the trouble to go up 20 stories to read the same information on the court’s bulletin board will hardly raise suspicion of prejudice, particularity when we know that interpreting is a fiduciary profession. To me, it looks very weird when the interpreter refuses to answer such silly questions and reacts by moving away without an explanation.

As far as confidential information, please be aware that the prohibition is not absolute either. A court order can compel you to testify. Please remember that the client holds the right to said confidentiality, and as such, he or she can always give consent. When this happens, confidentiality goes away. Will these ever happen in your professional career? We do not know, but we should always be aware that it is a possibility.

Even client-attorney privilege is not absolute. There are certain exceptions in the law that allow you to pierce the veil of this sacrosanct privilege. Among other possibilities, the client, who holds the privilege, can also lift it by giving consent; you can also pierce it when defending yourself from the actions of the client who holds said privilege. Let’s say that the client sues you arguing that the interpreter did nothing in the case. Under those circumstances you can pierce the privilege to prove that the client is not telling the truth and show the work you did, as long as the privileged information you divulged is limited and tailored to the point you are trying to prove in court. Statements and information provided during a client-attorney communication that include future illegal activity is not covered by the privilege either, and you as interpreter must disclose it to the authorities.

We must remember at all times that different jurisdictions will have different policy, rules and legislation, so we must adhere to all applicable rules, as long as they apply to us, depending on the type of professional service we are going to provide.

In the case of California, please keep all of the above in mind, and understand that Rule 2.890(c)(4) states that: “…An interpreter must not make statements to any person about the merits of the case until the litigation has concluded…”

Notice how the rule does not go beyond the conclusion of the case, because the rule (erroneously in my opinion) does not make a distinction between interpreters privately retained by the parties who act as a communication tool to the litigant, and those retained by the courts who also must play the role of auxiliary agents to the administration of justice and therefore be impartial at all times. Once there are no more appeals, there is no reason for the restriction on the first type of interpreter.

Finally, a couple of thoughts: I was saddened to see how must of my colleagues immediately assume the role of a criminal court interpreter retained by the court. I am always hoping that more interpreters view themselves as independent professionals working with private attorneys. There is an abysmal difference in professional fees, and the work is about the same. I ask you to please think like a private practitioner, instead of accepting the rules without any reservation. Question the rules and try to understand why they compel you to do or abstain from doing something.

It also concerned me how so many of our court interpreter colleagues rush to “obey” anything the courts say without even checking the source of the “command”. Many people criticized and condemned the interpreter who spoke to the media because of what the “Professional Standards and Ethics for California Court Interpreters” say. Please understand that this is just a manual, not legislation, regulations, or a court decision. It is just a didactic tool for those who are trying to understand the profession. Use it as such. Observe the California Rules of Court.

I hope we all understand that professional rules include universal standard values, but they also incorporate local culture so necessary for an administration of justice that reflects the values of the community it is meant to serve. For this reason, I. Sincerely hope we all come to understand that asking for universal rules or codes is not the best legal option. A system like the one we have is an appropriate one. We just need to understand the rules better, and fight to change those we believe constitute a hurdle to our profession. I now ask you to please share your founded legal arguments on this issue that could adversely impact our profession.

Will my clients find me in this association’s directory?

April 17, 2017 § 10 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

I am tired of getting this call repeatedly: “Hi, I got your name from the ATA directory and I was wondering if you would be available for a medical evaluation (or a worker’s compensation hearing) this Friday…”

Maybe those providing the service would be happy with these calls, but I am not.  Every time I must answer the phone to tell somebody I don’t do that work, and that I refuse to work for peanuts, is a waste of my time.  I do conference interpreting and I don’t like to explain two or three times a week I do not work for fifty dollars an hour.

For years I have almost exclusively worked as a conference interpreter, doing some court or legal interpreting for established Law Firms I regularly work with, generally in civil cases or some federal criminal matters.  Motivated by ATA’s outreach campaign regarding the credentialed interpreter designation and database, I thought that maybe, if I clarified it on the ATA directory that my credentials are United States Department of State Conference-level, and Federal court certification, all these people would stop calling asking me to do work that I do not provide.

I have been an ATA member for many years, and even though the association does many things I am very much against, I also get many benefits from my membership: a monthly publication with some very good articles, a discount on my errors and omissions insurance, good divisional activities, valuable webinars, and a well-known directory.

I logged in to the members section of the website to update my information and take advantage of the new credentialed interpreters’ database in their directory. This happened:

I must start by confessing that I rarely access ATA’s website, so I found it a little bit too crowded; maybe appealing to translators, but I believe it could be a little intimidating for clients looking for an interpreter or translator. After I accessed the “members” section, I looked for a section called “Interpreters’ credentials”, or something similar, but I found nothing. I clicked on the menu where it says “update your contact information” and “update your online directory profile”.

As I got to the profile section, all my information was already there (so I had entered it before). I did not need to change anything. Since I was already inside the program, I reviewed it anyway to see if I needed to make any changes. When I got to the “Interpreting Services” section, I saw that I had previously highlighted “consecutive”, “court”, “escort”, and “simultaneous”. Since I saw a “court” category, I scrolled down to see if I could also highlight “conference”, but the only category left for me to highlight was “sign language”. I thought it was odd. On one hand, if all you are listing are the interpreting you do, then “court” does not belong in here. If they added “court” to make the search easier for the clients, then I would like to see “conference” as an option. I suppose that healthcare interpreters would argue the same for their specialization.

Under the “Certifications” section, I entered my federal court interpreter and my two state-level court interpreter certifications from the drop down menu. I saw nothing for other credentials that are not certifications, but equally important, such as AIIC, U.S. Department of State, European Union, etc. The menu had another category: “other” where I entered my conference interpreting credentials, constantly wondering why I could not find the so much talked about “credentialed interpreter” menu for the new database ATA has been advertising so much. I thought the reason the place to enter that information was somewhere else, perhaps later on the form, was because these other credentials are not certifications and ATA had included them separately.

I kept looking, and my search only found a different category towards the end of the page called: “Additional Information”. That was it. No other place to enter conference interpreter credentials. Knowing I would not get what I wanted, I tested the directory, so I looked myself up. On a simple search I found my information, not as advertised with the credentialed interpreter information, but as I had entered it earlier. I immediately thought of the unwanted agency phone calls that would keep on coming as before.

I ran an advanced search just for English<>Spanish interpreters in Illinois, where I live, asking for State Department conference-level credentials, and the result was “we found none”.  I found this interesting, so I dug deeper to see if there was a problem with the directory search engine. The first thing I tried was a search for interpreters with that same language combination and credentials in the largest state: California. I know several colleagues there with the credentials and are members of ATA. The result was: “we found none”.

At this time I decided that maybe it was a glitch on the search engine, but before concluding that, I wanted to see if I had missed the section where you enter these credentials. I went over the form two more times and I found nothing. At this point I am thinking that maybe I needed to submit my credentials for a verification before the information was displayed, so I went back to the form once again. I read it carefully looking for some instructions or description of such process. I found nothing.

I did the only thing left: I went to the search menu at the top of the page and I typed: “credentialed interpreter process”. The search took me to a page with all the results. At the top I saw one that looked like the information I was looking for, so I clicked on it.

I finally found the explanations and instructions, with a link to a form to start the process. The first thing the program asks you to do is to reenter your ATA membership information. Once you are in the form, you are greeted by a message in red that tells you to submit a separate form for each credential and that you must pay $35.00 USD. As an attorney I must confess that although the red-inked message clarifies that one fee covers all requests, it is ambiguous on a second matter: it reads: “A $35-administrative fee covers all requests for one year.”  I did not understand if this means that for your information to continue to be available indefinitely you must pay $35.00 USD every year, or that any request filed after twelve months is no longer covered by the initial $35.00 USD fee and therefore you must pay again for the new credential.  Finally, I also learned that the process could take up to something like forty days.

After reading this, I stopped for a minute and reflected on what I was about to do: I was ready to send $35.00 USD to ATA (with my documentation) to be a part of this new database, but so far I had had a miserable time looking for, and finding any colleagues with the desired credentials; so far I had found zero conference interpreters. I even had a difficult time finding the instructions to get my credentials reviewed.  My friends, I am pretty active on social media, and even though I am not a computer genius, I am resourceful. Can you imagine how tough it would be for a regular individual looking for an interpreter to navigate through these? Even if I do this, send the documents, pay the fee, and wait the forty days, will my clients find me?

I concluded that I had to do more research first, so I did.

I went back to the directory and tested it:

I did this trying to think like a client and not like an interpreter or an ATA member. The first thing I noticed was that to look for an interpreter, the person doing the search must go through the translators’ section of the advanced search; they must scroll down passing through a section with very confusing questions for somebody who, let’s say, wants to hire an interpreter for a marketing conference at the Marriott downtown. Without being an interpreter, I would not know what to do when asked to indicate if I want an ATA certified or non-certified translator, or what translation tools I will need. As a client, even before reaching the interpreter questions, I would probably close the page and look for a conference interpreter in Google or somewhere else.

Since I had already tried Illinois and California with a result of zero interpreters, I looked first for any conference interpreters with an English<>Spanish combination, with a U.S. Department of State Conference-Level credential in New York State. The result was: none. Then I did the same thing for Washington, D.C. (where most conference interpreters live) Again there were zero. I got the same result in Florida and Texas. Next, I searched the same states for any interpreters with the same combination, but with the AIIC membership credential. The result was: nobody. I considered doing the same for every state in the Union, but (fortunately) I decided against it. Instead, I looked for any conference interpreters with any credential and living anywhere in the world. The result was: 2 interpreters. One U.S. Department of State Seminary-Level colleague in the United States, and one AIIC member in Argentina!

Based on these results, I looked for interpreters in all listed categories. I found this: Under certified court interpreters I found 10 colleagues. Under Healthcare certified I found 4 (2 were also listed as part of the 10 court certified). Under conference credentials I found 2 (one of them is also one of the 11 under court certified). I found 1 telephonic interpreter (also found under another category), and I found zero sign language interpreters.  Looking for simultaneous interpreters I found 10, under escort interpreters I saw there are 9, and as consecutive interpreters they have 14. As expected, all interpreters under the modes of interpretation categories are the same ones listed by specialization. I also noticed that some interpreters I found in this group are ATA Board members.

The page also asks the person doing the search to state if they are looking for a “consecutive, court, escort, sign language, simultaneous, or telephonic” interpreter. My relevant question was stated before in this post, but it is worth repeating for another reason: If I am a client looking for a conference interpreter, how can I find one under this criteria? Ordinary people do not know that conference interpreters do simultaneous interpreting. Even worse, they also do consecutive interpreting in many events such as press conferences for example.

If people we deal with regularly have a hard time referring to consecutive or simultaneous interpreting by their correct name, why would everyday people looking for a conference interpreter know who they need based on this question? If ATA included “court”, and even “telephonic”, they should include conference. Once again, I am sure my healthcare interpreter colleagues want to be heard here as well.

After reviewing the directory my decision was simple. Why would I want to pay $35.00 USD, and perhaps wait up to forty days, to be part of a directory listing a microscopic portion of the interpreting community? Should I encourage my clients to look for a credentialed conference interpreter in a directory that does not even list us as an option, and flatly ignores conference interpreting in their most common questions section, where all explanations and examples are geared to court and telephonic interpreting? And why as interpreters should we reward the work of an association that continues to treat us as second-class professionals by including the interpreter search criteria after the translator search options, instead of having two separate search pages: one for interpreters and one for translators to make it easier for our clients, and to give some respect to the many interpreters who are ATA members? There is no excuse or justification for this.

I know there are plenty of capable people at the helm of the American Translators Association whom I know and respect as friends and colleagues. I also appreciate many of the good things they do for the profession, but at this time, for all these reasons, until we interpreters get from ATA what we deserve as a profession: Unless the search criteria and credentialed interpreter designation process is as prominently displayed on the website as is the translators’ certification; and only when the search criteria addresses the conference interpreter community on a client-oriented, user-friendly platform, I will stay away from the “advanced-options” directory. I hope this post is welcomed as constructive criticism, and as the voice of many interpreters all over the world. It is not meant as an attack on anybody; it is just an honest opinion and a professional suggestion from the interpreters’ perspective. I now invite you to share with the rest of us your thoughts about such an important issue for all interpreters and for the image of ATA.

Do some state courts treat foreigners as second-class litigants?

February 22, 2017 § 1 Comment

Dear Colleagues:

For years, and especially during the past few months, there has been a lot of talk about the communities of foreign-born individuals who are physically present in the United States.  All aspects of their lives have been debated and scrutinized: from their immigration status to their religion, from their ethnic origin, to the language they speak at home. Many articles have been written, and many discussions have been held about their right to stay in the country, the impact they have on the economy, and the actions of the federal government regarding their admission to the United States and the exclusion proceedings instituted against them. The policy the federal government has adopted towards foreign-born individuals in the United States has been rightfully questioned, criticized and denounced.

As interpreters, we deal with foreign-born people on a daily basis. We see what happens at the immigration courts (EOIR), the United States Immigration and Citizen Services’ (USCIS) interviews, Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) hearings, and the federal judicial system.  The news are not always good, but at least they are on the spotlight.  Scandals such as SOSi’s abhorrent practices towards immigration court interpreters, the White House’s six-country travel ban, and the talk about the wall between Mexico and the U.S. are forcing the issue, and eventually things will have to change.

Unfortunately, foreign-born individuals physically present in the United States as immigrants, non-immigrants, and undocumented, face another terrible injustice that is turning into a reality, and eventually it could become an everyday threat: I am referring to a practice followed by state courts in many places that is gaining popularity and acceptance by the establishment, sometimes due to ignorance or indifference, and many times because of incompetence and greed.

This modern form of potential discrimination by state-level Administrative Offices of the Courts against people whose first language is not English has to do with access to justice: It is evident to me that state governments could be systematically discriminating against people who lack fluency, or do not speak English, by denying them the services of certified court interpreters in languages with a certification program, just because state government officials want to save money.

It is undeniable that those states where the language access program is not managed by a professional interpreter are at a tremendous disadvantage because there is a person with neither knowledge nor interpreting background at the helm; but the problem is even worse. Some states where the head of the program is an interpreter, and many state-level courthouses with full and part-time staff interpreters are just passively allowing for this to happen without moving a finger for fear to lose their jobs.

The potentially discriminatory practice goes like this:

During the Obama administration, state-level courts were made aware of the fact that the federal government was going finally to enforce, after almost forty years, Title VI of the Civil Rights Act which allows the withholding of federal funds dedicated to the states when the latter do not provide universal access to all the services offered, even if some accommodations need to be made in order to avoid discrimination based on many categories, among them not being able to speak, or fluently speak English. This included all state-level courts.

Before this development many states were running court interpreter certification programs. California had its own program, and in July 1995 Minnesota, New Jersey, Oregon and Washington State founded a consortium. Other states joined the consortium, and many states began to offer the services of certified court interpreters for criminal cases. A handful of states even provided certified court interpreters for certain litigants in civil cases.  Unfortunately, lack of vision by the Administrative Offices of State Courts and by State Legislatures made the profession’s growth difficult because they refused to pay certified court interpreters a professional fee commensurate to the difficult, and sometimes dangerous, services provided.

This reality, coupled with judges’ ignorance that permitted non-certified court interpreters to appear in court, even though the needed language pair has a certification program, and certified interpreters were available, created an exodus of many of the best interpreters who migrated to more profitable interpreting fields, and made the profession less than attractive to new generations.

When the notice of enforcement of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act arrived, the states were faced with the possibility of losing huge amounts of money from the federal government. They knew that to save “their” money, they would need to provide access to justice to all individuals who did not speak English.

They finally realized what they had done (although they did not recognized it, or refused to acknowledge their fault). There were not enough interpreters to fulfill the federal mandate, and they did not want to lose their subsidies!

The best thoughtful solution to this problem would have been to boost the popularity of court interpreting as a profession by actively promoting the career and by making it more appealing. Responsible States would have developed a plan to encourage teaching of court interpreting at universities, colleges and community colleges. They needed to launch a campaign among high school students informing them of the potential opportunities as certified court interpreters. They needed to increase the times they offered their certification examinations, and they needed to pay an attractive professional fee, with cost of living adjustments, to all certified court interpreters. They needed to do this by lobbying State Legislatures for more funds, and if unsuccessful, by cutting or reducing other non-essential services and devoting those resources to the certified interpreter program. It was a matter of priorities and doing the right thing.

This did not happen. Instead of doing these things, state officials got together to see how they could keep the federal money coming their way. This is how the states came up with the Language Access Services Section (LASS), the Language Access Advisory Committee (LAAC) and the Council of Language Access Coordinators (CLAC). A system designed to protect their federal funds while giving the appearance of granting language access to all foreign-language speakers in State-court systems.

As a result of these developments, states opted for the easiest and cheapest solution, which basically follows three major principles: (1) Use video remote interpreting (VRI) as much as possible to reduce costs of an in-person interpreting service, and pay less to the interpreter as they would get paid by the minute, or in more “generous” states by the hour at a much reduced fee; (2) Use all those who demonstrated that they are not fit to become certified court interpreters, by creating a “new classification” of “credentialed interpreters” (Nevada) or “Justice System interpreters” (New Mexico) so that individuals who failed the court interpreter certification exam can work interpreting court proceedings; and (3) Use certified court interpreters as little as possible, while giving the appearance that these questionable new classifications had to be retained because no certified court interpreter was “reasonably available” to do the job.

This is happening in many states, and I ask you to please include in the comment section a report of what is going on in your own states. Because what is currently taking place in Nevada and New Mexico has come to my attention, I will share the main points with all of you.

The Nevada Administrative Office of the Courts is considering implementing this new category of paraprofessionals by rewarding those who fail the court interpreter certification test with access to work in court as interpreters. These decisions are being considered by the Nevada Court Interpreter Advisory Committee which is integrated by judges and administrators, and no independent certified court interpreter is part of the committee. Interpreters do not get notice of the Committee meetings, and so far, the person in charge of the interpreter program at the Nevada Administrative Office of the Courts apparently has shown no desire to inform interpreters ahead of time so they can at least attend the meetings.

Nevada courts use the services of way cheaper paraprofessional non-certified court interpreters even when certified ones are available, and currently, this state’s certified court interpreters are among the lowest paid interpreters in the country, despite the fact that judges and administrators make six figure salaries in Nevada.  It is clear that there is a problem with the state judiciary’s priorities.

The New Mexico Administrative Office of the Courts is already rewarding those who fail the court interpreter exam by using the services of these much cheaper paraprofessional “justice System interpreters” (JSI) even when certified court interpreters are available.  Under the excuse of unsuccessfully attempting to find a certified court interpreter, they are retaining the services of these individuals even when certified court interpreters were ready and willing to do the job. The State is also resorting to the way cheaper video remote interpreting (VRI) even when interpreters appear from other states and are not familiar with New Mexico law and procedure. It is very concerning that they are using this system and these interpreters for hearings of such importance as sentencing hearings.

The New Mexico Language Access Advisory Committee does include a disproportionate minority of independent interpreters; however, it is said that its meetings are sometimes hostile towards independent interpreters who raise objections to the dismantling of the certified court interpreter program, and that some interpreters have been refused work in the state court system even after all possible grounds for denial have been dissipated and proved unfounded.

Despite the fact that judges and the Director of the Administrative Office of the Courts make six figure salaries, New Mexico certified court interpreters have not seen a fee adjustment in a number of years, their expense reimbursements have been significantly reduced, and instead of having a professional relationship with a judiciary that makes an effort to prioritize access to justice and find funds to do it, they have been warned by the AOC that there is no money. They face an administration with an attitude that could be interpreted as contempt towards foreign language litigants, moved by a philosophy at the top that apparently believes that the AOC only has a legal obligation to provide “an interpreter”, not a certified court interpreter. To me, this is the pull the rabbit out of the hat principle where you create an “interpreter” category in order to get federal money. It is not about having a warm body next to the non-English litigant. It is about quality.  The federal law requirement had in mind a professional service.

I do not believe that this is the time for interpreters to take it on the chin. There is a lot of turmoil in the country at this time, but the rights of foreigners are center-stage. Let’s seize the moment to protect the profession and make sure that states do not get away with this plan which could potentially discriminate against speakers of a foreign language by treating them as second-class litigants.

I suggest you educate your communities, talk to your state legislators, and speak to your local media. All of it is necessary, but I also propose you do two additional things that could make the difference:

First, I wonder how many litigants are aware of the fact that the individual provided by the court to “interpret” for them is not a certified court interpreter; that in fact, they will be dealing with somebody who has already demonstrated that he or she is not fit to be a certified court interpreter because he or she failed the exam. I would approach people in the courthouse and make them aware of this circumstance; I would even print a flyer explaining to them that this “interpreter” categories are as good as a three dollar bill, regardless of what the government tells them. Ask them how they would feel if instead of a licensed physician, their outpatient surgery was going to be done by somebody who failed to become a licensed doctor.  Ask the foreign language speaker’s attorney what she or he would do if the court were to appoint a person who failed the state bar as the litigant in a divorce proceeding because there were no children to the marriage. You will see how fast they demand a real certified court interpreter for their case.

Second, organize yourselves either through your local professional interpreter association, or independently, and volunteer to attend court hearings where this paraprofessionals are “interpreting” (after all court is open to the public) and keep score. Write down every time one of these individuals is late for court, acts unethically, does something unprofessional, and makes an interpreting mistake. Write down how they enter their appearance in court, see if they claim to be certified court interpreters. After a few months, or during election time, send this information to the State Bar, to the publishers of voters’ guides, to the political parties, to non-for-profit organizations with tremendous weight in court elections such as Mothers Against Drunk Drivers (MADD) and to the local media. This way people will know who are the judges who care about access to justice, and who are the judges who only care about getting federal money.

I do not believe that these actions will solve all problems, but they will help to expose these programs for what they really are. If you do not do it, nobody will; not because they do not care, but because they do not know. I now invite you to share with the rest of us the current situation in your own state administrative office of the courts.

U.S. Immigration Court interpreters’ other enemy.

October 18, 2016 § 4 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

About two months ago the California immigration court interpreters started a movement to force the hand of SOSi and the EOIR with the goal of achieving better work conditions, a professional pay for the services rendered, and to keep the authorities from hiring new interpreters and interpretation students for a lower fee.  This entry will not deal with the merits or the outcome of such movement. We will talk about the elephant in the room: the big obstacle to the professionalization of the interpreting services in American immigration courts that can be changed by the interpreters themselves.

I know that this blog entry will make some uncomfortable, and I do not like to do that. Unfortunately, my life-long effort to fight for the professionalization of interpreting does not allow me to keep silent. To me, that would be equivalent to betraying my own professional standards. I write this piece with respect and with no desire to offend, knowing that by the time some of you finish reading this article, you will feel offended. I only ask you to reflect on what bothered you, and honestly acknowledge, at least to yourself, that you are not really up to save the profession (as a true profession, not as a laborer’s occupation) in the immigration court arena.

For several years now, there has been a tendency to credentialize interpreters who provide services to the public, who perform a fiduciary function.  Because of the wide variety of languages regularly spoken in the United States, and due to the millions of people who do not speak English at all, or at least good enough to go through a legal or medical process, most efforts have been applied to the certification of Spanish interpreters, by far the most popular foreign language nationwide, and finding other solutions for the other languages.

Court interpreters had an early start and developed the federal Spanish court interpreter certification exam. Many States followed and the States’ Consortium for State Court Interpreter Certification was born, later taking us to the current Language Access Advisory Committee (LAAC) and Council of Language Access Coordinators (CLAC).

Healthcare interpreters followed suit and developed two different interpreter certification programs (the Certification Commission for Healthcare Interpreters: CCHI, and the National Board of Certification for Medical Interpreters’ CMI program) both of them widely spread and recognized throughout the United States. Granted, the term “medical interpreter” to describe the functions of these professionals is less accurate that “healthcare interpreter”, and compared to the court interpreter certification federal and state-level exams, both healthcare certifications are way behind in content and degree of difficulty; but unlike court interpreter certification programs, healthcare interpreters have achieved something extremely valuable that court interpreters can only dream of: an examination administered by an independent entity, just like lawyers and physicians, instead of the uncomfortable government-run court interpreter programs that always raise the issue of the real conflict of interests when the entity certifying interpreters is the same one who hires them.

At any rate, healthcare interpreters in the United States now have a way to prove that they are minimally qualified to do their job, that they adhere to a code of ethics, and that they comply with continuing education requirements that will keep them current in language, interpreting, terminology, and medical issues. In other words, healthcare interpreters sitting at the table with court interpreters can now bring up their credential and feel at the same professional level than their legal colleagues, instead of having to give a speech about how certifications do not mean a thing, that it is working in the trenches that makes you a good interpreter, and that your field is so unique that no existing certification exam could test what is needed to work in that field.

Well, dear friends and colleagues, this takes me straight to a very real, and somewhat uncomfortable problem, faced everyday by immigration court interpreters in the United Stets: They have no certification program requirement to work in court, and for that reason, there is no way to prove a certain minimum level, thus allowing bad interpreters to work in the immigration court system for years.

Court interpreting is a highly skilled occupation that requires of a professional provider. By its nature, it is also a fiduciary function where a judge, attorneys, respondents and witnesses must trust the knowledge and skill of the interpreter who will speak throughout the proceedings while at least half of those present will not understand a word of what was said. It is an awesome responsibility that cannot be left to the paraprofessional or the untested.

Presently, all Article Three courts in the United States, at all levels (federal and state) have a Spanish language court interpreter certification program that includes minimum requirements to take the exam, passing a comprehensive and difficult test (at least at the federal level), observing a code of ethics, and (with the exception of the federal program) complying with continuing education in the legal, interpreting, and language fields to be able to keep the certification. These courts are part of the Judiciary Branch of government.

Immigration Courts are not a part of the Judiciary. They are in the Executive Branch of government and are referred to as Article One courts because of their legal basis in the U.S. Constitution. The thing is, my colleagues, these courts deal with societal, family, and personal values and interests as important as those heard by Article Three judges. They are courts of law that abide by a set of substantive and adjective laws.  For practical reasons, they operate just like any judicial court: there is a judge, there are parties (one of them will be the government just like in criminal law), there are witnesses, and there are attorneys.  Although the controversies are different, immigration proceedings also include a first appearance, motions hearings, a court trial, and a verdict. There is a burden of proof, rules of evidence and procedure, and the possibility of an appeal to a higher court (Board of Immigration Appeals). The fact that the terminology calls these hearings “master calendar”, “bond redetermination”, “credible fear”, or “individual hearing” does not make much difference.   The cases are as different from those interpreted in an Article Three courtroom, as a criminal case differs from a civil or a family law proceeding.

The skills required to interpret are the same as in any other type of court proceeding: There is a need for simultaneous and consecutive interpreting, as well as sight translation. Interpreters use equipment just the same (in fact, in many cases even the same brand), and the expected ethical and professional conduct of the interpreter is the same.

It is a fact that immigration court interpreters are disrespected by their client: the EOIR on a daily basis. There is no denial that they make little money, work long hours, and they do it solo, regardless of the complexity or duration of a hearing. It is also well-known that they are treated in humiliating fashion by being forced to jump through many administrative hoops that no other court interpreter will ever face, in part because they are subcontracted by a multinational agency that tries to keep control over the interpreters without physically being at the courthouse, but also in part because interpreters are not considered professionals, they are not acknowledged as officers of the court.

I firmly believe that the only way to earn the credibility they need so much, Spanish language (for now, and ideally all widely used language combinations later) immigration court interpreters in the United States must demand a court interpreter certification requirement to be able to work.  They need it for their credibility among their peers and with the public opinion.  Once they have a credential, together with a code of ethics and continuing education requirements, they will be in a much better position to negotiate with anybody.

Because immigration court is a federal matter, and the services provided by the interpreter are the same as the ones in all federal courts, I think that the certification they need to have is the already existing FCICE. It would be very simple, all they need to do is convince the EOIR of this need. The exam already exists, all these interpreters would need to do is register and take the test. Then, if both, EOIR and the immigration interpreter community think it is appropriate, there could be a short immigration terminology exam (although I don’t think it necessary just like current certified court interpreters do not need to test every time they interpret a different kind of hearing. Part of an interpreter’s duty is to get ready for an assignment and that professional obligation should be enough).  This would be the best way to demonstrate that their simultaneous, consecutive, and sight skills are at a minimum level to deserve that trust we discussed above. In fact, by getting EOIR to agree, immigration interpreters would have until the Summer of 2018 to take and pass the written portion of the federal exam, and then until the Summer of 2019 to take and pass the oral test. In the meantime, it could be agreed that those currently working would continue to do so until the Summer of 2018.

This solution would immediate put immigration court interpreters at the same negotiating level as their Article Three federal counterparts; In fact, it would benefit everyone: Currently federally certified Spanish court interpreters would consider working in immigration court as the pay would be the same (or almost), and newly federally certified immigration court interpreters would have the opportunity to broaden their professional horizons and work in federal courts.

Of course, this means that two things must happen: First, the certification exam cannot be a “Mickey Mouse test” like the ones offered to immigration court interpreters by multinational agency contractors; they have no scientific value and a very poor reputation. And second, immigration court interpreters need to understand that those who do not pass the exam must go, regardless of the time they have been a fixture at the immigration courthouse. Any other “solution” would defeat the purpose and discredit the credential. This, my friends, is the “other” enemy of the U.S. immigration interpreter: the bad interpreter who has never been able to pass a court certification exam, knows that they never will, and spend all their time and energy trying to convince others that certifications are worthless, exams are rigged, and that the only way to learn the profession in in the courtroom.  These people have to go away. They are like a cancer that is slowing down the progress of the rest of their colleagues.

To argue “unity” to protect and keep these individuals is misleading. Professional unity can only happen among professionals, and the individuals I just described above may be paraprofessionals but they are definitely not professional material. Imagine for one moment going to the hospital for emergency surgery and being told that the person who will operate on you has never taken or passed the Board, but has a lot of experience. Would you let this non-doctor cut you open?

I understand it is very hard to set aside our emotions and empathy for these individuals, but it is time to think of yourselves, your families and your peers. Unless you want to continue to struggle as an immigration court interpreter, you have to get certified. A decision to dodge the certification issue, or to settle for a lower standard of certification, because someone who cannot pass the test convinced you to support other options, will be a vote for the status quo, sacrificing the good ones to protect those who do not deserve to be there.

How baseball terminology impacts the interpreter’s work.

October 4, 2016 § 2 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

It is baseball postseason time in the United States once again, and with the playoffs and World Series excitement, American speakers resort to baseball analogies and terms more frequently. Some of you may be very knowledgeable on the American national pastime as baseball is widely known, but many others may not know enough or maybe do not even like the game. For this reason, I have decided to tackle one of the most American and complex subjects to interpret: the terminology of baseball.

The first thing we should settle is the name of America’s Major League Baseball championship series: “The World Series”.  To those of us who grew up with this wonderful sport, and after hearing the championship referred to as the “World Series” during our entire lives, the small detail that this “worldly” event only involves teams from the United States (and one from Canada since 1969) tends to be overlooked; however, to the rest of the world, this seems a little odd to say the least. Well, for my fellow interpreters who now live in the States, and for those of you who are abroad and have never understood the reason for such as international title, the most widely accepted explanation is as follows:

In 1904 the sports publication “Reach Guide” reported on the first official “World Championship Series”, played in 1903, using a name coined by the “Spalding Baseball Guide” in 1886 when referring to the championship game between the champions of the two existing professional baseball leagues: Chicago and St. Louis. “Spalding” wrote that since both teams were already “Champions of the United States” in their respective leagues, the winner of this post-season championship series would be the “World Champion”, therefore, the event should be called the “World Championship Series”.  Eventually the title for the championship series was shortened, and when the “Reach” and “Spalding” Guides were replaced by “The Sporting News Guide” (that I remember from my childhood) the name became the “World Series”. This has been the official name of the championship since 1964. So you see, there is nothing mysterious behind the peculiar name. In case you are wondering, the only non-American team ever to win the “World Series” are the Toronto Blue Jays in 1992 and 1993.

We should now turn our attention to the most common American idiomatic expressions that come from baseball terminology. I will quote each one of them, and then I will give the baseball meaning and its application to our everyday life in the United States.

  • “To get to base”. In baseball, a team “scores” one point, called “a run” when a player is able to get to a plate called “home” after running through all three bases (respectively named: first, second and third base) in a diamond-shaped court called the “infield”.  Getting to first base is somewhat easier than going to second, and second comes before third base. When a player cannot hit the ball for three consecutive good pitches, he “strikes out” and cannot get to any base, not even first.

After World War II when many young Americans came back to their country, they arrived in a prude society where talking about sex was taboo. For this reason, these youngsters created a metaphor to describe their “sexual adventures” without disturbing the ways of the older generation. Because there were different levels to physical intimacy with a partner, Americans came up with the following “code words” that continue to be used today:

“Getting to first base” meant that the couple got to kiss, especially French kissing (mouth to mouth).

“Getting to second base” means that there was skin-to-skin contact, oftentimes it means that there was touching and kissing of the breasts.

“Getting to third base” meant that there was some touching below the waist, and even oral sex.

“To score” meant that there was intercourse; and

“To strike out” is used to describe that there was no foreplay or any other sexual activity.

  • “Switch hitter”. All baseball players get a chance to get to base by facing the other team and hitting the baseball with a bat. The ball is thrown by the main defensive player of the other team called the “pitcher”. Pitchers can be left-handed or right-handed and so can the batters.  There are a few players who can bat as a righty and as a lefty, but in baseball, instead of calling them ambidextrous, they are called “switch-hitters”.

In American society, the term “switch-hitter” is also used to refer to a bisexual individual. A homosexual person is also referred to as “playing for the other team”.

  • “Homerun”. “Hitting it out of the ballpark”. There are times when the batter hits the ball so hard that it leaves the playing field and ends up behind the fence. When that happens, the player can simply run around the infield, step on each base, and continue all the way home to score. This play, very exciting and powerful, can change the game in a second, and it is called a “homerun”, and because the baseball physically leaves the baseball field, and sometimes even the stadium, it is very common to describe this play as “hitting it out of the ballpark”.  By the way, baseball stadiums are not called stadiums, but “ballparks”,

Outside baseball, this metaphor is often used to describe a situation when an individual does something very good and spectacular, pleasantly surprising everybody, and leaving critics and opponents speechless. “Johnny had a wonderful presentation at the meeting today. He hit it out of the ballpark”.

  • “Grand Slam”. When a player hits a “homerun”, and all three bases were taken by his teammates,   they all score; therefore, instead of getting ahead by one run, their team goes up by four runs (one for each player on first, second, and third base, plus the batter who hit the ball out of the ballpark earning the right to go around the bases and score). This is the highest number of runs that a team can score from a single play. The play to describe the four runs scored due to a homerun is called a “grand slam” and to many fans, it is the most exciting play in baseball, as it can turn the score around in the blink of an eye.

In American society, when a person does something very important very quickly, and turns around public opinion, a business transaction, a college exam’s outcome, or anything g else in life, that person has hit a “grand slam”.

  • “Swinging for the fences”. “Homeruns” are difficult, but some baseball players seem to want to hit one every time they face the other team. For this reason, every single time a baseball is thrown by the pitcher, instead of settling for making contact and getting to first base, they swing as hard as they can as if attempting to hit the baseball over the fence and score a run. This very aggressive, but not necessarily smart, action by a player is referred to as “swinging for the fences”.

In the United States when somebody is trying to get something on a very ambitious manner, and sometimes out of desperation or with a “win at all cost” attitude, it is said that this person came out “swinging for the fences”.

  • “On Deck”. When baseball players are not on the field, instead of sitting on a bench by the sidelines like they do in football or basketball, they wait in a trench-like space below field-level assigned to each team. This place is called the “dugout”. When a team is at bat, its players must follow a pre-established order to face the other team called the “line-up”. For this reason, the players that are not batting at the moment wait inside the “dugout”, with the exception of the player who will bat next. This player is allowed to emerge from his trench to the field level to warm up.  Because this resembles the lifestyle of old sailors who used to live below the ship’s main deck, it is said that the player who is warming up before batting is “on deck”.

When someone in America is next for anything: giving a speech, taking an exam, getting a promotion, and so on, it is said that the person is “on deck”.

  • “Out Of Left Field”. Besides the players in the “infield” where the three bases and home plate are.  There is a larger section of the baseball field that is farther away from the place where the batter stands and the pitcher throws. This section is called the “outfield” and it is guarded by three “outfielders” who are distributed one to the right, one to the left, and one to the center. They are the last line of defense against the batter, they see less action than the “infielders”, and they are hard to see because of their distance from home plate.  There are two baseball parks still in use today that are over 100 years old. One of them is Wrigley Field, the home of the Chicago Cubs.  When the park was built over a century ago, there was an insane asylum in left field, so when something crazy or unforeseen happened, it was described as “out of left field”.

Nowadays, it is very common to hear Americans refer to a sudden, surprising, or unexpected event as coming “out of left field”.  “Mary asked for a raise. Just like that, she came out of left field”.

  • The “Bullpen”. As I mentioned before, the pitcher is the most important player in baseball. He is involved in every single play. For this reason, most pitchers do not play a full game, there are substitutions by other pitchers who are called “relief pitchers”. Because a pitcher must participate in every play, relief pitchers must be ready to perform as soon as they enter the game.  To be able to do this, they first warm up in a special section of the ballpark outside the baseball field. Presently, many baseball parks have located these warming up sections by the side of the field, but in the past, old ballparks used to have an enclosed location for each team where relief pitchers would warm up. This way, the opposing team would not know who was about to enter the game as a relief pitcher, and they would not know whether to get ready for a right-handed or a left-handed pitcher.  The area where pitchers used to warm up evoked images of a corral where animals would be kept contained before coming out to the fields; it especially reminded us of a pen where bulls are kept before a bullfight, and when released, they run into the ring. Relief pitchers do the same, once they get word that they are entering the game, they come out to the field like bulls. This is the reason why the pitchers’ warming up area is called the “bullpen”.

Today in the United States, an office workspace populated with desks without any separating walls or cubicles, resembling a corral where everybody is piled up, are called “bullpens”. “Roy was demoted at work and he now works in the bullpen”.

  • “Extra Innings”. A very important characteristic of the sports played in the United States is the finality of the outcome. Americans want to see a team win every time they play or watch a sport. A tie is considered rewarding mediocrity and it is not popular with U.S. sports’ fans (thus one of the main reasons why Americans are not crazy about “soccer” like the rest of the world seems to be). A baseball game is divided in 9 innings, and the team who scored more runs by the end of the ninth inning wins the game; however, when the score is tied after nine innings, the players must continue to play until there is a winner. Some baseball games have lasted over 20 innings before a team scores and wins. The innings played after the original 9 are completed are called “extra innings”.

These days, any continuation beyond the expected or scheduled time is referred to as “extra innings”“Those negotiations were tough. The parties went into extra innings before an agreement was reached late last night.”

  • “Home-field Advantage”. In baseball the two teams have the same opportunities to score by taking turns to bat. The visiting team goes first in what is called the “top of the inning”, and the home club follows during the “bottom of the inning”. Because baseball is played in 9 innings, the home team will always have an opportunity to score last. This gives them an advantage over the visitor, besides the obvious benefits of playing on the field they are familiar with and before their own fans.

On everyday life, Americans say they have “home-field advantage” when an event takes place in familiar surroundings, before a friendly crowd, or when their participation is the last one on the schedule.  “The meeting will take place in California, and that gives us home-field advantage”.

  • “To Throw a Curve (Ball)”. The pitcher has to face all players from the opposing team and his job is to get them out of the field before they hit the ball and reach first base. To do it, pitchers have an arsenal of different throws that they use to keep batters guessing what they will face next. There are fastballs, sliders, changeups, knuckleballs, cutters, splitters, and curveballs.  If a pitcher has been throwing several fastballs to the batter, he may surprise him by throwing him a curveball next. Curveballs are difficult to hit because as the name indicates, the ball moves around.

When Americans face a particularly difficult issue, problem or obstacle because of someone else, they often say that someone “threw them a curve” or a “curveball”“The teacher really threw me a curveball (or a curve) with that surprise quiz he gave us last week”.

  • “To Walk”. In baseball, a pitcher needs to defend his team by getting rid of the opposing team’s batters. To end an inning, a pitcher has to get three opponents out. Every batter that faces the pitcher will have to hit the baseball and reach first base before he gets three good throws and misses them all either by swinging the bat without hitting the ball, or by letting a good throw go by him without hitting the baseball. These pitches are called “strikes”. On the other hand, the pitcher has to get the batter to hit the ball to one of his teammates so he can be out before reaching base, or he has to throw three strikes before he throws four bad pitches outside of the strike zone which are called “balls”. When the pitcher throws four bad “balls” before he gets the batter out, the batter can take first base. This is called a “walk”.

Outside baseball, when somebody gets a benefit not by own merits, but by the mistakes of others, it is said that she or he “walked”.

  • “Balk”. In baseball, when a pitcher has an opposing team’s runner on base, he can attempt to sack him by throwing the ball to a teammate who has to touch the runner before he returns to the base. For a throw to a base to be legal, the pitcher has to throw the baseball in a single, continuous movement. He cannot hesitate, because if he does, the runner will be awarded an extra base. This hesitation is called a “balk”.

In everyday life, it is said that a person “balks” when she or he is hesitant to accept an idea or proposal.  “The CEO balked at the idea of merging with the competitor”.

No doubt that there must be several other idiomatic expressions that were taken from America’s national pastime and are used by regular folks to describe an action, an attitude, or a person they encounter in their daily lives, but I hope that this article at least gave you an idea of both, the beautiful game of baseball and what all those metaphors mean, so the next time you are in the booth and you hear one of them, you will know exactly where the expression came from, and what it presently means. I now ask you to please share with the rest of us any other baseball terms that you know and I probably missed.

Ignorance and negligence could kill a legendary interpreter program.

June 14, 2016 § 5 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

Humans are reluctant to think that something that was very good in the past could end up as something very bad. It goes against our idea of making things better, contrary to our concept of progress. Unfortunately, it is too often that a bad situation manifests itself right in front of our eyes. Just think of Venezuela; once the best economy in Latin America with a bright future ahead, and now a sad story of poverty, government corruption, and hunger, where millions of bright good people suffer the consequences of incompetent decisions.

The interpreting world has had its share of cases where a good situation turns bad. Today I will share with you a tragic story that, without prompt and able action, could become the Venezuela of the interpreting world.  First, a word of caution:  The story I am about to share with all of you depicts an intolerable situation in a certain region of the United States, and it directly impacts a relatively small segment of our professional community; Nevertheless, the conditions that gave birth to this tragic scenario could easily happen again anywhere in the world, perhaps in your area, maybe in your professional field. In fact, I am sure that this is happening in other regions of the planet.  It is for these reasons that I invite you to carefully read this story, so you can learn how to recognize the symptoms, and find a way to take action defending your profession before it is too late.

This story has to do with court interpreting in the United States.  Many of you already know that court interpreting is the most common interpreting practice in the United States. It has the most interpreters, and it is the only specialization that has its own legislation at the state and federal levels.

For American standards, compared to other types of interpreting, court interpreting has a “long history” of regulations and professional standards in the United States. It goes back to 1978 when the American federal government passed the Federal Court Interpreters Act which required that Spanish language interpreters passed a certification exam in order to qualify for work in the federal court system. Soon after, several individual states followed the example of the federal government, and developed their own legislation to test and certify Spanish language interpreters who were going to provide professional services in that particular state system.  The first state to set its own system was California in 1979, followed by New York, New Mexico, and New Jersey in the 1980s. These efforts culminated with the creation of the (now defunct) Consortium of States where a majority of the states came together, combined resources, and developed a test that served as the basis to certify those Spanish language interpreters who met the minimum requirements to work as professionals in a given state judicial system. After the creation of the Consortium, individual states developed certification tests in other languages to meet the needs of their specific areas.  New York and California did not participate in the Consortium of States, but New Mexico and New Jersey became the “gold standard” for court interpreter certification at the state-level in the U.S.

Due to its history and traditions, New Mexico became a pioneer and a national leader in all court interpreter matters: A founding state of the Consortium, New Mexico was the first state to allow non-English speakers, who were American citizens, as jurors at the state court level, actively participating in the trial process and jury deliberations with the assistance of a court interpreter. It also developed a very important professional community of Navajo court interpreters, and considered all court interpreting services as one profession, for the first time bringing to the table, at the same time, all spoken foreign language, Native American language, and Sign Language court interpreters.  Other major landmarks in the history of court interpreting in New Mexico include being one of the first states to require continuing education to keep the certification current, having a state supreme court justice as an active advocate of quality standards in court interpreting, and it became the sponsor of the largest annual court interpreter conference for a state of its size.  In other words, New Mexico took some of the biggest names in the interpreting and translation conference world to its state so that the local professionals could benefit of these trainings at a very low cost.  New Mexico was the “gold standard” for other states and the quality of its court interpreters was recognized throughout the country.  It was at this time, when things were going the right way, that two events changed the course of this court interpreter program, and pushed it to the edge of the cliff where it started its current freefall: There was a change of the guard at the helm of the state program, and the federal government exercised its muscle to compel the states to comply with the requirements of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act. Among them: the state’s obligation to give universal access to all services provided with federal funds, including all non-English speakers. All of a sudden, furnishing certified court interpreters in all criminal law cases was not enough anymore. New Mexico needed to offer interpreting services to all non-English speaking individuals who walked into a state government office.

The landscape changed. Due to his age and other personal reasons, the State Supreme Court Justice who had served the interpreting community as an advocate and unconditional ally for so many years, took a back seat and slowed down his pace; the person in charge of the administration of the state court interpreter program left, and even her very capable assistant of many years transferred to another government position. They were replaced by a newcomer with academic credentials but without court interpreting experience, and lacking the knowledge necessary to meet the linguistic and cultural needs of such a complex population and professional interpreter community.

The changes started almost immediately. Some of them were noticeable right away, others did not show their head in plain sight until many months later. The state government officials’ attitude towards the interpreters changed radically.  From the head of the Administrative Office of the New Mexico State Courts, to the language access services statewide manager, to the rookie judge (not a Supreme Court Justice anymore) who now actively participated in all interpreter issues that had to do with an entity created by the state called the New Mexico Language Access Advisory Committee; policy, attitudes, and decisions began to change.  There would be no annual conference anymore; the conditions that interpreters had been working under for many years would be reevaluated to cut as much as possible; the cordial and professional relationship, based on mutual respect, that had existed for decades between the interpreting community and the state would now be replaced by a tough attitude where the difference in size and power would be clearly exercised by the big guy in the contractual relationship, now very willing to show its muscle in the event of a minor dissidence or difference of opinion; and the Civil Rights Act’s Title VI requirements would be portrayed as fulfilled by creating a less expensive sub-par category of paraprofessional quasi-interpreters, instead of fostering and promoting the growth of the interpreter profession, thus meeting the minimum standards of the Civil Rights Act mandate, which of course, would require more funds and a greater effort on the part of the state, including, but not limited to, the Administrative Office of the Courts’ active participation in the preparation of a budget to be presented to the state legislature where fulfilling the true mandate of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act would be a top priority for the judiciary, whose only reason to exist as part of the government, is to guarantee an administration of justice inclusive of all citizens of the state.  Of course, this would demand a different attitude by the state, with a judiciary willing to battle the legislature, and go to the United States Justice Department to denounce the State Legislature whenever it was not addressing the equal access to justice mandate. A very different attitude, especially when compared to… perhaps securing judges and bureaucrats’ salaries and then throwing everybody else under the bus.

I have been told by many interpreters in New Mexico that since the time this change of priorities took place, the state has switched interpreters’ minimum guaranteed periods of work, it has changed its travel policy to pay less to the interpreters, there have been attempts to include as part of the original contract, attachments that fundamentally change essential parts of the interpreters’ contracts after these agreements have been executed already; I have listened to stories of interpreters been disrespected at Language Access Advisory Committee meetings; the story of an interpreter whose certification was revoked for no reason, who later won a legal case to get the certification reinstated, but has been isolated by the state officials who have never let this person work in the court system again.  I have seen the abysmal difference between the quality of a certified court interpreter’s rendition, and the mediocre paraprofessional services provided by the so called “justice system interpreters”, and I have listened to the American Sign Language Interpreters who share the same concerns as their spoken language counterparts regarding the quality of video remote interpreting, and more importantly, the level of interpreting skills of those who may provide the service from out of state, perhaps without a New Mexico or federal court interpreter certification.  It is possible that the State of New Mexico has designed a strategy to justify its actions. Even though what they are doing is legal, and I am in no way suggesting that the state has violated any law; it is still wrong for the profession, wrong for the interpreters, and bad for the non-English speakers who need a professional certified court interpreter to protect their life, freedom, or assets

I know that many of our colleagues in New Mexico are fighting a very important battle to protect the profession and the true professional interpreter; many have retained an attorney to represent them before the everyday more aggressive attitude of the state officials, and many of them are refusing to sign a contract with the state, unless and until, the minimum professional work conditions that they are requesting, and constitute the minimum standards everywhere else in the civilized world, are met by New Mexico. Just like we did last year when we, as a professional community, backed up the efforts by our immigration court interpreter colleagues in the United States until SOSi agreed to better their fees and basic working conditions, let’s all be one once again and support our colleagues in New Mexico.

Finally, to our colleagues in New Mexico, I encourage you to talk to the State Bar and make all attorneys in New Mexico aware of the fact that the state is on the brink of destroying that tradition that made New Mexico the “gold standard” of court interpreting at the state-level in the United States.  Submit articles to the New Mexico Bar Bulletin for publication, even this piece. I could almost assure you that many lawyers are not even aware of the abysmal difference between real certified court interpreters and the individuals the state is furnishing for so many of their court appearances.  Make sure that your voice is loud all over the state.  I now invite you all to share your comments about this situation and many other similar scenarios in the United States and many other countries.

When the interpreter needs to see the speaker in person.

April 19, 2016 § 3 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

Earlier this year I interpreted an event on victims’ rights and vulnerable populations, and part of the assignment took place in the town of Truckee, California, right at the state line with Nevada, in the area of Lake Tahoe.  Among many topics, the conference touched upon the temporary restraining order, and no-contact hearings held at the request of alleged victims by both, the California and Nevada state court systems. The presenters who dealt with this issue were an attorney and a social worker. They both discussed the many obstacles faced by the victims of these crimes, who are often re-victimized by the court proceedings, and the added difficulties when the alleged victim does not speak English. They explained that in these cases, they have to resort to a telephonic interpreting service that is far from ideal, as there are many things that cannot be interpreted or conveyed over the phone in domestic violence, or any type of violence hearings.  The social worker commented that the problems are the same when the alleged victims are taken to a medical facility for care or examination.

All of us have read and talked so much about telephonic and video remote interpreting during the last few years, that I did not think that another blog entry on this issue could be of any interest, but the description of the problems faced by these alleged victims, and a recent personal experience with video remote interpreting where the computer showed image, but the telephone lines did not work, and after almost an hour of fruitless efforts by the technicians, we had to do the remote meeting between Texas and Washington, D.C. using regular Skype, with all of its shortfalls and limitations, is what made me realize that there may be certain events that are not big, that may not be high profile, and that may only impact a handful of people, which necessarily require of in-person interpreting.

Those of you who have been following this blog for years know that I am all for technology and video remote interpreting (VRI), as long as it benefits those providing the service, there is not an intermediary taking advantage of the interpreters, and the quality of the event does not suffer.  My opinion about these technologies has not changed, but I have come to the conclusion that a blanket endorsement of VRI interpreting is as bad and damaging as total opposition to it.   After the California event I mentioned above, I contacted the speakers to hear more about the obstacles they have faced when doing telephone interpreting for these court hearings and medical appointments.

They explained that it is very difficult to convey the gravity of a violent act, or the seriousness of an injury, when the alleged victim points to a part of the body, or describes a symptom, and the interpreter is not there to see the action, to witness the physical motions, or to understand the body language and cultural nuances.  In other words, it is very hard to interpret: “your honor, it hurts here” when the interpreter has no idea of where “here” is.  Remote interpreting in these cases could easily result in the denial of a temporary restraining order (TRO) and the alleged victim could remain unprotected by the law, while the alleged perpetrator may become emboldened by the lack of action by the courts. It could also adversely affect the medical care that an alleged victim needs, simply because the interpreter could not see what was going on at the doctor’s office or the emergency room.

To me, it is clear that the nature of the interpreting assignment, and the ultimate goals of the event interpreted: to protect the life and physical integrity of another human being, or to assess a medical condition and provide the appropriate care and treatment, clearly justifies the expense of physically having the interpreter in the same room as the non-English speaker.  There are cases when a telephonic or VRI interpreter is better than nothing. Nobody is saying that these resources have no application in reality.   Of course, emergency rooms in rural areas, and 9-11 emergency operators are better off with the assistance of a telephonic or video remote interpreter, but the cases we are discussing today do not fall under this category. There is no moral excuse, and I would even say that in my opinion legal justification, for not providing in-person interpreting for these hearings or medical appointments.   Of course it will be more expensive than using a telephone line, but the goal justifies it.  This is an area where governments cannot be saving money.  There are no places in the United States that are so inaccessible that an interpreter cannot get there once he or she has been properly scheduled (and remunerated).  In the case I am referring to, the town in question is less than an hour away from Reno, Nevada. I know there are court and healthcare interpreters in Reno who would be willing to travel to these towns to provide their services in person. The only reason they do not go at this time is that nobody wants to pay them what they deserve as professionals. If the fee was appropriate, interpreters would be going to this town from places as far away as Las Vegas or Sacramento. The same can be said about every town in the country.

VRI and telephone interpreting should never be used in situations where the physical element is crucial for a proper rendition, even when the money savings make it so attractive that those responsible for the event look the other way in order to save money.  I have heard from several colleagues that in the state-level court system of one of the states, video and telephonic interpreting is currently used even when there is not appropriate equipment. Allegedly, even hand-held cellular phones have been used to interpret hearings.  Interpreters also complain that in the same state, complex hearings such as change of plea hearings, those court proceedings where an individual admits guilt in a criminal case that can potentially carry many years in prison, have been held telephonically; and apparently, said state does not have a policy or protocol to educate judges and other court officers as to what hearings should be off limits for telephone or VRI interpreting.  Obviously, a first appearance before court, or a status hearing where no testimony will be heard, and no change of plea will be allowed, are fine for telephonic and VRI interpreting services when the equipment is appropriate and the staff has been properly trained.

Interpreters do exist for many reasons, and sometimes, those reasons are so important that the only acceptable interpreting service is that rendered in person.  We need to make sure that it is now that correct policy is adopted and safeguards are in place. This is the right time as we are still at the beginning of this technological wave that will eventually influence everything we do as professional interpreters. If we do not act at this time, it will be more difficult in the future once systems are in place and money has been spent to do something that should have never been considered as feasible. I ask you to please share your thoughts and comments about this very important topic.

End of the year message to all: Some justice to the profession.

December 29, 2015 § 5 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

This is my last post of the year and for that reason I considered several topics to discuss on this entry. I thought of writing a review of the year from the perspective of our profession, I pondered the idea of sharing with you the professional conferences I will attend in 2016, I weighed the usefulness of presenting an ethical issue for discussion, and I was having a very difficult time deciding what to write about.  Fortunately for me, it all changed when a couple of days ago I learned that one of the translation/interpretation agencies that treats our colleagues, and for that matter our profession, like garbage was slammed by the United States Federal Government for violating the labor laws of the U.S.

Once I read the news, I knew I had to write about this topic that brewed throughout the year and finally started to show concrete results during the last quarter of 2015: How multinational agencies are destroying the profession by bastardizing it as an “industry”, selling a mediocre service to both, the careless and the good-faith naïve clients, and how they denigrate interpreters and translators by offering miserable fees and unconscionable working conditions.  Now we know that they also disrespect the rule of law.

A Wage and Hour Division investigation found that Monterey, California-based Language Line, LLC failed to calculate properly overtime payments due to employees working beyond forty hours a week, a violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act, so the Division ordered this agency to pay more than $500,000.00 U.S. Dollars in back wages and damages to 635 victims. On a separate investigation, the Division looked into the company to determine whether Language Line, LLC paid its translators and interpreters required prevailing wages and benefits when working as professional service providers on federal contracts covered by the McNamara-O’Hara Service Contract Act. When the division determined that Language Line did not comply with the law, the U.S. Government directed the language services agency to review its United States Government federal contracts to see if they were in compliance with the prevailing wage and fringe benefits law applicable to these contracts. The review showed that Language Line LLC had violated the law, and as a result, 2,428 interpreters and translators throughout the United States will receive nearly $970,000.00 United States Dollars in back wages and benefits. The law requires that businesses pay at the minimum these wages and benefits, it also prohibits employers, like Language Line, LLC, from retaliating against interpreters and translators for exercising their rights, and it requires that all businesses maintain accurate records of wages, hours, and working conditions.  The total amount that Language Line, LLC underpaid its interpreters throughout the United States was $1.47 million U.S. Dollars according to the United States Department of Labor.  There was a little justice in this case. [http://globalnation.inquirer.net/134051/translation-firm-must-pay-1-47m-to-2400-underpaid-workers]

On December 17 we all learned that the California Department of Insurance arrested nine people involved in a complex scheme allegedly targeting more than 230 workers’ compensation insurers and self-insured employers. Among these selected group or people, we found siblings Francisco Javier Gómez Jr., and Angela Rehmann, owners of G&G Interpreting Services, an agency that allegedly fraudulently billed more than $24.6 million United States Dollars for interpreting services for injured workers with Hispanic surnames.  G&G Interpreting Services reportedly had a substantial operation providing Spanish language interpreting services across the Los Angeles California basin and southern California for injured workers receiving healthcare services through the workers’ compensation system. California Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones said in a statement about this agency’s alleged crimes: “…When those providing services to injured workers line their pockets by ripping-off workers’ compensation insurers through fraudulent overbilling practices, and charging for services that never occurred, we all end up paying…” [http://www.insurancejournal.com/news/west/2015/12/17/392443.htm]

Dear friends and colleagues, we can see these two examples just from this month, as an unequivocal sign that we have to be extremely careful as to who we work with, and concretely, whose contracts we are going to be associated with. Remember, your signature could appear on a dotted line next to the crook’s signature.  Of course I am not saying that all interpreting and translating agencies are bad or practice criminal activities against their clients or professional service providers; as you know, for legal reasons I even need to remind you that the G&G Interpreting Services case has not been decided in court yet, but what I can tell you is that once again we can confirm that timeless saying: “If it quacks like a duck… it probably is (a duck)”.  We close the year on this high note for the profession from our point of view, but with a terrible message to the general public that does not know the difference between a fraudulent interpreting agency, a bottom-feeder low paying agency, and a good professional interpreter like you.

We need to be careful and very selective on what we sign. We must be courageous and firm when setting our professional fees and working conditions, especially when dealing with those multinational conglomerates who despise our profession to the point of calling it an “industry” instead of a profession. We need to know that as long as we abide by the legal system, the law is on our side, not theirs. I truly invite you to share this entry, the original articles on these two horrendous examples of everything that is ugly in our professional environment, or both, with your clients as an excellent means and opportunity to educate them on the benefits (professional, ethical, quality of service and even financial) of hiring you instead of a bad interpreting and translation services agency.  This is public record and we can use this information, we can call these perpetrator and alleged perpetrators respectively by their names, and we should. Do not lie or embellish the facts, they are very powerful as they really happened. The end-client needs to know the truth and we should seize this opportunity.

This is a wake-up call to many interpreters and translators, and a validation to what many of us have been saying for years.  It is time to shun the conferences where they invite these individuals to be presenters, panelists, and even keynote speakers, it is time to reconsider our membership in professional associations that allow these type of entities to be members even though they are not interpreters, translators, or even human beings. It is time to reward conferences and professional associations that do not allow them into the conference hall or into the ranks of the organization.

Finally, I did not want to end 2015 without tipping my hat to the many colleagues who fought so hard to better the profession throughout the year and save it from the claws of those who want to shed the professional part of our work and turn it into an “industry”.  Thank you to those who stood up against SOSi and especially to those who are still holding back and not giving up o giving in. Thank you to those colleagues who are fighting for fair professional conditions at the immigration hearings in the United Kingdom. Thank you to our colleagues who are still fighting against the abuses within the Workers’ Compensation system in California. Thank you to those who stood firm when apparently disrespected by a judge who was appointed Chair of the Language Access Advisory Committee in New Mexico. A special thanks to our always-remembered colleagues in the United Kingdom who continue to fight against Capita: You are an inspiration to all of us. Thank you to each and every one of you who turn down assignments every day because of the insulting low fees, outrageous working conditions, or lack of professionalism of the agencies. It is because of you that we are still fighting against the commoditization of the profession, against the exploitation by those who offer VRI services and want to pay peanuts, against incompetent bureaucrats in government offices worldwide, and against the 20-year old ignorant who works for the agency for a fast-food type of wage and calls you to tell you how to do your professional work as an interpreter or translator. To all of you, the good, professional interpreters and translators: have a very happy new year!

Where do Thanksgiving traditions come from?

November 25, 2015 § 4 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

Thanksgiving is the biggest holiday in the United States, it is universally celebrated by all cultures and ethnic groups, and yet, when I travel outside of the United States I see that this very American holiday remains a mystery to many.  In the past, I have dedicated this annual entry to the history and meaning of Thanksgiving; today, I will talk about the traditions that bind all Americans on this last Thursday of November.

Why do millions of Americans throughout the continent eat turkey on this day? Why do they gather around the television set to watch a football game even if their team is not even playing? For what reason did pumpkin pie become the preferred dessert over the all-American apple pie? Do all Americans really go shopping on the day after Thanksgiving? I believe that the answers to these questions will make it easier to understand the big deal that Thanksgiving is for all Americans.

More Americans celebrate Thanksgiving than any other date on the Holiday Season.  This may seem difficult to understand in those countries where Christmas is the number one holiday celebration, but when you think about the people of the United States and its diversity, you soon realize that Thanksgiving perfectly matches the American cultural landscape.  Without getting into the controversy of the first Thanksgiving, and regardless of the version Americans decided to believe, the fact is that the original Thanksgiving involved very different people, from cultures and backgrounds as foreign to the others as you can possibly imagine; yet, they got together for a shared celebration and feasting. In all cultures eating together is a sign of unity. Christmas on the other hand is a religious celebration for part of the population who has certain beliefs that are not universal in American society.  The truth is that, although Thanksgiving is not a religious holiday, it can be treated as a religious celebration by all who opt to do so, regardless of their religion, because Thanksgiving is about certain principles treasured by all faiths: gratitude, peace, sharing, giving thanks.

The universal appeal of Thanksgiving has to do with other very important elements of this celebration: family and lack of expectations. Because of its secular nature and the universally embraced values Thanksgiving is based on, it is the family oriented event of the year.  Americans travel on this weekend more than at any other time during the year, and they do not travel to go to college or to close a business deal. They travel to be with their loved ones. This is the day when a mobile society like ours comes together around the family table and share stories and laughter with their relatives.  Americans gather on Thanksgiving to be together, there are no other expectations. Unlike Christmas, there is no added pressure to spend beyond your means as there are no presents. People gift their company to each other. That is all.  The American culture is very informal and Thanksgiving is an informal event. People eat, come and go as they please, some watch football on TV, others catch up on their personal lives, and they all eat as much as they want. No apologies, no dinner schedule; just grab a plate and eat as much and as many times as you want, and when you eat, you are uniting with the rest of your fellow countrymen and women, because on this day, an American society that cherishes individuality and praises self-identity, a country where children do not wear school uniforms because it cuts on their individual identities, all Americans eat the same meal. This is how special Thanksgiving is for our country.  These are the reasons why tradition is paramount on this day of celebration.

Why do millions of Americans throughout the continent eat turkey on this day?

The side dishes vary from house to house depending on the family’s cultural heritage, the region of the country where they live, and their own family traditions. Some will have mashed potatoes, others will eat sweet potatoes, and in some parts of the country people will eat rice, pasta, beans, seafood, poi, dinner rolls or tortillas. This is the part of the meal where Americans assert their individuality and cultural identity, this is perhaps, the part of the meal that makes it possible for the American people to give up a little individuality, and for one day every year eat the same: turkey.

The history of the Thanksgiving turkey is shrouded in mystery. Letters from the early settlers, known as pilgrims, indicate that the first Thanksgiving menu that they shared with the Wampanoag people included lobster, oysters, beef and fowl. The only mention of a turkey comes from a writing by Edward Winslow who mentions a wild turkey hunting trip before the meal.  There is also a legend which states that England’s Queen Elizabeth I received this news during dinner, and she was so happy that she ordered another goose to be served. When the pilgrims heard of the Queen’s reaction, it inspired them to roast a turkey instead of a goose and that became the traditional meal. You see, wild turkeys are native to the United States so they were plenty available, In fact, this bird became such an important part of colonial identity, that after the birth of the United States, Benjamin Franklin argued that the turkey would be a more suitable national bird instead of the bald eagle.  Although Franklin did not succeed, every year since 1947 all U.S. presidents, from Truman to Obama, have issue a presidential pardon to a turkey who then retires to live the rest of its natural life in a farm.

Why do Americans gather around the television set to watch a football game on Thanksgiving?

This is another tradition that makes Thanksgiving the most American of all holidays. President Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863, and the Thanksgiving football tradition started only a few years later when Yale and Princeton first played on Thanksgiving in 1876. Soon after, the holiday became the traditional date for the Intercollegiate Football Association championship game. The Universities of Chicago and Michigan also developed a holiday rivalry, and by the late 1890s thousands of football games were taking place on Thanksgiving. Some of the original matchups still continue to this day. When professional football began in the twentieth century, it was just natural that a game be played on Thanksgiving, and in the 1920s there were many games on Turkey Day.  Today, the National Football League (NFL) holds two games on Thanksgiving: An early one that always features the Detroit Lions, played since 1934 when the Lions lost that first encounter to the Chicago Bears. Since 1966 there is another game later on the day that always includes the Dallas Cowboys. Football is a sport played in very few countries around the world (most countries refer to it as “American Football”) but it is the most popular sport in America, so it was a perfect fit to the Thanksgiving celebration. Nowadays people congregate around the home’s TV set to watch the games even if they do not root for any of the teams playing in Detroit or in Dallas. On this holiday, football is also used as a time reference: many Americans will announce their estimated time of arrival to a Thanksgiving dinner by saying that they “will get there by the first game’s halftime”. Many households keep the TV set on, showing the game, even if nobody is watching. Football “noise” is part of the traditional sounds of Thanksgiving.

How did pumpkin pie become the preferred Thanksgiving dessert over the all-American apple pie?

Pumpkin pie was not part of the menu at the first Thanksgiving dinner. The pilgrims most likely lacked the butter and flour needed to make the pie crust. We do not even know if they had an oven at their settlement. This however, does not mean that pumpkins were not present on that occasion. They probably ate baked and stewed pumpkin as it was a common part of their diet. With pumpkin as part of the Thanksgiving meal from the beginning, it was natural that the baked and stewed pumpkins gave their place at the table to the pumpkin pie when it first became popular later in the 17th century. Since it substituted the already established pumpkins as part of the traditional meal, instead of entering the menu as an addition, it never competed against the apple pie for a spot on the menu, and it became the delicious, tasty dessert we now eat, accompanied of some whipped cream, as part of the holiday tradition,

Do all Americans go shopping on the day after Thanksgiving?     

Since the beginning of the 21st century, the Friday after Thanksgiving has been regarded as the beginning of the Christmas shopping season in the U.S. and for that reason, most retailers open their doors very early, even during overnight hours to lure shoppers to come and take advantage of special sales. This day is now known as Black Friday, a name it first got in Philadelphia, and it is not an official national holiday in the United States, but some states like California and New Mexico among others observe the “Day after Thanksgiving” as a state-government holiday. Many schools do not open on Black Friday either.  For years, this was systematically the busiest shopping day of the year, but that has changed recently.  Now many more people do their shopping online and this has created what Ellen Davis coined as “Cyber Monday”. Since 2005 the Monday after Thanksgiving is when most people in America do their Christmas shopping online to allow for plenty of time for the presents to arrive to their recipients’ destination.  The truth is that not all Americans go shopping on Black Friday. Many Americans do not even observe Christmas, so giving presents is not even on their radar screen. It is a fact that many people will do their holiday shopping after Thanksgiving; a lot of them will visit the shopping malls on Black Friday, many will place their orders online on Cyber Monday, and many others will continue to shop right until Christmas. The important thing to keep in mind is that for many Americans, of many cultures and religions, Thanksgiving marks the beginning of a holiday season when they will share their fortunes and happiness with family, friends, coworkers, neighbors and the needy, and that is after all the true meaning and the best tradition of Thanksgiving.

I now invite you to share with the rest of us some of your Thanksgiving traditions, and if you are outside the United States, please tell us your opinion about this very American holiday and share some of your family or country holiday traditions. I now want to thank all of you, my friends and colleagues, for following the blog. Happy Thanksgiving to all!

Is Cinco de Mayo an American holiday?

May 5, 2015 § 5 Comments

Dear colleagues:

Cinco de Mayo (May 5th.) is perhaps the biggest mystery of the American holiday calendar.  It is an enigma for almost everyone in the United States: Native citizens with no Mexican background wonder why, as a nation, we celebrate another country’s holiday; Hispanic-Americans are puzzled by the significance of the date; Mexicans living in the United States can hardly believe that American society commemorates a date of their national calendar that is practically non-existent in Mexico; and the rest of the world, people who live outside the United States and non-Mexican Hispanics who live in the United States, find the festivities on this date quite strange.

Historically, on May 5, 1862 the Mexican army faced the French Imperial army of Napoleon III.  The French had disembarked in Veracruz harbor along with the British and Spanish almost a year earlier. Their purpose was to collect heavy debts owed by the Mexican government to these three nations after Mexican President Benito Juarez declared a moratorium in which all foreign debt payments would be suspended for two years.  Mexico had incurred in those debts during a Civil War motivated in part by the expropriation of all church assets ordered by Juarez.  Eventually Mexico negotiated with France and Spain and they withdrew, but Napoleon III decided to take advantage of the American Civil War and take this opportunity to establish an empire that would look after the interests of France.  The French move was seen favorably by the Confederate army as Napoleon III supported the existence of a slave state.

On May 5 the French army approached the city of Puebla which was defended by the Mexican armed forces under the command of General Ignacio Zaragoza.  The Mexicans resisted the attack from the forts of Loreto and Guadalupe. After a bloody battle against the better-trained French soldiers, the Mexican army, aided by the machete-armed northern Puebla Zacapoaxtla Indians, prevailed. The Mexican victory was shorted-lived as the French army regrouped and returned a year later when they took over Puebla and eventually Mexico City, establishing the Mexican Empire under Emperor Maximilian I from the Austrian House of Habsburg-Lorraine.

Although President Benito Juarez encouraged the observance of the May 5th. battle as a national holiday, the event is not part of the official holiday calendar. Only the State of Puebla (and parts of the neighboring State of Veracruz) observes this date as a local official holiday.  On May 5, the rest of the Mexican society goes about their daily lives as on any other day.  It is understandable that Mexico does not celebrate this date as a big holiday; it is not their independence day (Mexico’s Independence Day is September 16), the stories that spread right after the May 5th. battle describing how a handful of Mexican soldiers and Zacapoaxtla Indians had defeated a much larger well-equipped French army were quickly discredited by the truth of what happened: in reality the French had an army that was six-thousand strong, while the Mexicans had a four-thousand men army; hardly a handful battling an imperial army; but more importantly: The Mexicans won the battle but lost the war.  Moreover, it was not until April 2, 1867 that Mexico recovered the city of Puebla in a decisive battle that eventually defeated Maximilian’s empire.  This was the real victorious battle of Puebla; unfortunately for Mexican history, on April 2 the victorious army that beat the French was led by General Porfirio Díaz who later became a hated political figure because of his hold on the Mexican presidency for 32 years (inexplicably, or perhaps due to a manipulated “official history,” to this day Mexicans still consider him as the great dictator despite the fact that he was followed by a dictatorship that was twice as long: The 70 years of the PRI government)

Now, let’s get back to the United States in 1862, specifically California where there was a large first and second generation Mexican population. Keep in mind that until 1848 when California and other western territories became part of the United States by the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, officially entitled “Treaty of Peace, Friendship, Limits and Settlement between the United States of America and the Mexican Republic”, they were part of Mexico; their citizens had fought against Spain during the Mexican War of Independence only three decades before, and many of them became victims of discrimination, embezzlement, and forced labor by their fellow Anglo-American citizens.  Most of these individuals did not speak English, were Catholic, and almost all of them were against slavery. In other words, it was in their best interest to see the Confederate army defeated in the American Civil War. Therefore, as Hayes-Bautista, a UCLA professor of medicine describes during an interview about his book: “El Cinco de Mayo: An American Tradition” that when he was researching for his book, he reviewed the Spanish language newspapers of California and Oregon from the 1880s, he noticed that the American Civil War and Cinco de Mayo Battle were intertwined: “…I’m seeing now in the minds of the Spanish-reading public in California that they were basically looking at one war with two fronts, one against the Confederacy in the east, and the other against the French in the south… In Mexico today, Cinco de Mayo means that the Mexican army defeated the French army,” he continued. “…In California and Oregon, the news was interpreted as finally that the army of freedom and democracy won a big one against the army of slavery and elitism; and the fact that those two armies had to meet in Mexico was immaterial because they were fighting for the same issues…” (Hayes-Bautista interview with CNN)  In early spring 1862 the Union army was unable to move against the Confederates, so this victory in Puebla was a welcomed sign by these Hispanics. Another significant aspect of the Cinco de Mayo battle is that the commander of the Mexican armed forces in Puebla, General Ignacio Zaragoza, was born on March 24, 1829 in a town by the name of Bahía del Espíritu Santo. The town’s name was later changed to Goliad, and it is located in Texas. That is right: The hero of the Cinco de Mayo battle was a Texan! At the time of his birth the town was in Mexico where it was part of the State of Coahuila y las Tejas, but by the time of the battle, its name was Goliad, a name given by the Texans as an anagram of the hero of the Mexican Independence: Hidalgo, omitting the silent “H”

The Mexican population in the United States identified with Zaragoza, he was one of them who had to leave Mexico and come to Texas if he wanted to visit his hometown. The Cinco de Mayo victory was then memorialized by a network of Hispanic groups in California, Oregon, Nevada, and Arizona called “juntas patrióticas mejicanas.”  (Mexican Patriotic Assemblies). While they celebrated the Cinco de Mayo victory every year with parades and other festivities, Mexico continued to be at war with France for another five years.  Eventually, the meaning of the holiday changed over time becoming the mythical story of David versus Goliath, and later embodying the U.S.-Mexico unity during World War II and the Chicano Power movement of the 1960s.

On recent times this date has been adopted by business people all over the United States and many parts of the world and transformed into a festival, the second largest in the United States just behind St. Patrick’s Day, where people eat Mexican-American food and drink Mexican beer and tequila.  Although most Mexicans and Mexican-Americans do not know the history of Cinco de Mayo, despite the fact that many of them do not even know why they get together, have parades and listen to Mexican music on that day, they all seem to share the feeling that this is a uniquely American celebration that has extended to all Hispanics in the United States, Mexican or not, natives and foreigners, and even non-Hispanics; because every year for one day, all Americans celebrate Hispanic food, culture and traditions with pride. It has even reached the White House where President George W. Bush, a former border-state governor with Mexican-American family members, who also speaks Spanish, started a tradition of inviting Hispanics to the White House for this celebration. Because of the increasing importance and participation of Hispanics in America’s mainstream, President Barack Obama has continued the celebration, and it looks like it is here to stay, because after all, Cinco de Mayo is not a Mexican holiday, it is an American celebration.  I invite you to please share your thoughts about this unique celebration and its significance in the history and culture of the United States.

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