November 20, 2018 § 4 Comments
This is Thanksgiving season in the United States; a time when we celebrate the spirit of solidarity and cooperation between all who lived in our country in the seventeenth century, regardless of their ethnicity, culture, origin, and language. In the past, I have written about the crucial role Squanto played during that first Thanksgiving gathering. Beyond Squanto (also known as Tisquantum), a Patuxent Native-American who learned English, and whose interpreting services were crucial to both: Europeans and Native-Americans, Thanksgiving season reminds us of the importance of collaboration amongst all people, and how this communication is made possible by interpreters; many, individuals who were an essential part of human history.
Language interpreting dates back to Ancient Egypt during the 3rd millennium B.C. The first records of interpreting were in Egyptian low-relief sculptures in a prince’s tomb that referenced to an interpreter supervisor. Interpreters were employed throughout the middle Ages. Monks of many nationalities interpreted in monasteries; preachers of foreign lands interpreted in councils, and some individuals interpreted on business expeditions, military incursions and diplomatic meetings.
During the Age of Discovery, using new and different languages changed the way interpreting was seen. Christopher Columbus in his first voyage noted that his Arabic and Hebrew-speaking interpreters “…were not very helpful in communicating with the Indians…” After this voyage he decided to recruit some Native Americans and teach them Spanish so they could help him as interpreters on his next expedition. Today, on the same spirit of Thanksgiving, let’s remember some men and women who showcased the importance of our profession:
Sacagawea. Born during the late part of the 18th century in what is now Idaho, she was a Shoshone chief’s daughter. A rival tribe abducted her when she was 12 and sold to Toussaint Charbonneau, a French-Canadian fur trader. He married her. Because she was bilingual, during their famous expedition, Lewis and Clark met Sacagawea and her husband at the Hidatsa-Mandan Settlement on November 2, 1804. It was close to the present-day Bismarck in South Dakota. They recognized the importance of having interpreters accompany the expedition. Charbonneau spoke Hidatsa and French while Sacagawea spoke Shoshone and Hidatsa. Her linguistic skills proved very useful because they bought horses from the Shoshone chief who turned out to be Sacagawea’s brother. The couple traveled with the Corps of Discovery from 1805 to 1806. Sacagawea made the distinction of being the only woman in the corps. Her legacy lives on as one of the most important interpreters of all time.
Gaspar Antonio Chi. He was a Yucatan Indian interpreter during the latter part of the 1500s, and he was very influential in the communications held by Spain and the Mayans. Chi understood the Spanish language and was chosen as one of King Charles V of Spain’s interpreters. The king wanted to gather information about the history, geography and culture of the colonies, Chi was of great help to the Mayans. He became famous not only for his linguistic skills but also for personally opining before the king. He would add his own thoughts when responding to the king’s questions.
Gaspar Antonio Chi will be forever remembered as the Mayan people’s principal voice during the Spanish invasion of the peninsula and one of the world’s most famous interpreters. Many of his replies to the questions of King Charles were preserved. They provide important insight to America’s post-colonial era. Chi was a son of a Xiu Mayan noble. His father met a group of Spaniards exploring the Yucatán. Later, Chi was given his Christian name by the Franciscan monks who also taught him Náhuatl, Latin and Spanish. He had a natural skill for languages, playing the organ and singing Spanish cantos.
Estevanico. Born in North Africa at the dawn of the 16th century, the man known as Estevanico was probably the first Muslim to set foot in North America. Growing up in the lush Oum er Rbia region of Morocco, the black Moor was enslaved. By 1527, he was the property of Castilian nobleman Andres Dorantes, and he was given a Christian name, Estevanico, probably to make his enslavement legal according to the laws of Spain’s Queen Isabella.
Dorantes and Estevanico joined an expedition to explore and conquer from the border of New Spain to Florida with conquistador Panfilo de Narváez. Dorantes was a captain on this expedition, which was bound originally for the Pánuco River on the western coast of the Gulf of Mexico but ended up, due to bad conditions and inept piloting, coming to shore near Tampa Bay. A five-month death march through the swamps ensued, plagued with disease and attacks by natives. After the ships offshore lost sight of the land expedition, Narvaez tried to build rafts to float to Mexico. These proved impossible to keep together, and most of the expedition drowned.
Estevanico and Dorantes were among 80 men who washed up on Galveston Island off the coast of Texas. When they went to the mainland to look for New Spain, they were captured by Native Americans and held for six years. After escaping soon after the arrival of another shipwrecked Spaniard, the group spent two years on a trek to Mexico. During this trek, the Spaniards noted Estevanico had a knack for communicating with the native population through hand signals and words. He and his companions dressed as natives, and Estevanico carried two sacred gourds and an engraved copper rattle, which gave him legitimacy as a shaman. He also dressed in feathers, bells, and turquoise he had received as gifts for his healing.
When they finally returned to Mexico, Dorantes sold Estevanico to Viceroy Antonio Mendoza, the first Viceroy of New Spain, who dispatched him to help guide another expedition in search of rumored cities of gold to the north. The expedition was led by the friar Fray Marcos, but it was Estevanico that headed it, flanked by two massive Spanish greyhounds and with feathers and bells on his arms and legs. He was disliked by the friars for his license with women and comfortable communication with the locals, and he soon fell victim to overconfidence. Marching ahead of the expedition, he offended a village of Zuni Pueblos, in what is now New Mexico, by carrying items from an enemy tribe and was imprisoned with his entourage while the Zuni elders debated whether to respect him as a wizard or kill him as a spy. Estevanico was killed by the Zuni, and the rest of the expedition slunk back to Mexico. Some, however, believe he faked his death in order to live freely among the natives, and the Zuni spirit Chakwaina, depicted with a black face or mask, is believed to be based on him.
Sarah Winnemucca. Born around 1844 to the Paiute tribe in eastern Nevada, Sarah Winnemuca’s real name was Thoc-me-tony, meaning “Shell-flower.” Her grandfather, Truckee, believed in peaceful coexistence with the whites, while Winnemucca herself had misgivings. But she accompanied her mother and grandfather to California, where she worked for white families and picked up English and Spanish, and an understanding of white culture. She and her sister Elma attended a Roman Catholic school until the parents of other students objected to their presence. They were forced to leave, but Sarah continued to develop her linguistic skills.
In 1866, she went with her brother, Natchez, to Fort McDermit, either at the request of the Paiutes to help stop white raiding, or on the orders of the Army to explain Paiute unrest. Winnemucca would become an intermediary between the military and the Paiutes, convincing her father’s band to settle on a reservation and serving as a liaison during the 1878 Bannock War.
She once said: “Is there not good reason for wishing the Army to have care of the Indians, rather than the Indian Commissioner and his men? The Army has no temptation to make money out of them, and the Indians understand law and discipline as the Army has them; but there is no law with agents. The few good ones cannot do good enough to make it worth while to keep up that system. A good agent is sure to lose his place very soon, there are so many bad ones longing for it.”
After the end of the Bannock War, Winnemucca became enraged by mistreatment of Pauite captives and launched a campaign of lectures in San Francisco, Nevada, and the East Coast, even traveling to Washington, DC, to plead with the government to reform the system of corrupt agents, callous missionaries, and failing policy. Despite meeting with Secretary of the Interior Schurz and President Hayes, the government delivered no assistance, and a movement to discredit her emerged despite support from the military, the Unitarians, and some sympathetic officials. She died in 1891, having spent some of the last years of her life working in a school in Nevada, where she taught Paiute children to respect their native traditions while learning the language and culture of the whites. She left behind a legacy as one of the most significant fighters for Native American rights in the 19th century.
Felipillo. Born on the island of Puna off the coast of the Inca Empire, the young man known as Felipillo was captured by the Spanish and employed as an interpreter for the conquest of Peru. This was unfortunate, as he was not fluent in the Quechua language of the Incas nor in Spanish, though he picked up both languages rather impressively with no formal instruction by listening to people speak.
He made frequent mistakes, including botching a description of the Holy Trinity by translating “God is three in one” as “God said ‘three and one is four,’” which is true but rather less profound. What’s worse, the only way he knew how to express the concept was by reference to quipu, Inca knot record-keeping, as there were no Quechua words for Christian concepts like trinity, faith, or holy spirit, or if there were, Felipillo wasn’t likely to pick them up from listening to traders haggling in port markets. He was said to be such a bad interpreter that the Inca Atahualpa was said to have needed to speak slowly and in short sentences to be understood, using the Chinchasuyu dialect, rather than the Cuzco dialect, which Felipillo was less familiar with.
Felipillo is said to have arranged the death of Atahualpa, after falling in love with one woman from his harem, Cuxirimay, whose name meant “very fair skinned and beautiful.” When Atahualpa complained of not being set free by the Spanish even after paying a ransom, and that he should at least be able to eat and drink with his subjects, Felipillo told the Spanish that Atahualpa was planning to escape and join forces with his last remaining general, Ruminavi, at Quito to lead a new campaign against the foreign occupiers. Pizarro, fearful of rebellion, had Atahualpa baptized, garroted, and burned at the stake. Whether Felipillo made off with the fair Cuxirimay is unknown.
Malintzin. La Malinche (meaning the captain’s woman), known also as Malinalli, Malintzin or Doña Marina, is an important figure in the history of Mexico, and she played a pivotal role in the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire. According to Bernal Díaz del Castillo, a conquistador who participated in Hernán Cortés’ conquest of Mexico, Malinche was of noble birth. Malinche is best-known, however, for her role as Cortés’ interpreter. Prior to encountering Malinche, the chief interpreter for the Spanish was a Franciscan friar named Gerónimo de Aguilar, who learnt Mayan whilst he was held captive by the locals. De Aguilar spoke Mayan and Spanish. Malinche spoke Mayan and Náhuatl. The two worked together to translate for Cortés, until Malinche picked up Spanish.
It was Malinche’s abilities as a linguist that allowed the meetings and negotiations to be arranged between Cortés and the Aztec ruler, Moctezuma. Additionally, Malinche communicated with the tribes whose territories they had to march through saving the conquistadors from hostile attacks. Alliances with indigenous tribes hostile to the Aztecs were made, thanks to Malinche. She significantly contributed to the successful Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire. Some say that due to Malinche’s presence as an interpreter at the negotiating table between the Aztecs and the Spanish, more bloodshed was avoided.
On this Thanksgiving Day, I invite you to learn more about these interpreters essential to the encounter of Europe and the Americas, not just for the Thanksgiving episode with Squanto, but for many other interactions throughout the so-called “new world”. I wish you all a Happy Thanksgiving, and I invite you to share the story of any other interpreters you may want to add to the list above.
September 17, 2018 § 2 Comments
Imagine having to support a family when you are unemployed, poor, desperate, living in a country torn by war, ruled by a despot. Then one day, somebody tells you that, because you speak a foreign language, you can become an interpreter for a foreign army. You are told that you will be paid for that service, and after the war, this foreign government will take you and your family to their country where you will be safe from retaliation, and will live a better life. Those of us living in a western nation cannot even imagine that situation, much less the ray of hope it means to many humans who live in that reality. This is the story, and the dilemma, of a conflict-zone interpreter.
You just noticed that today’s post is about interpreters in conflict zones. Please do not go away! I know most of you access this blog to read and debate topics related to conference, court, healthcare or community interpreting. Today please read this post from beginning to end, show your determination to defend the profession, and do something that will make you feel good as a human.
Throughout history, explorers, conquerors, traders, religious missionaries, and all others who found themselves in a foreign land where they did not understand the local language have used interpreters to accomplish their mission. Often, these interpreters have been local individuals who spoke both, the foreign and domestic languages, and with no formal training, but armed with their natural skills, and some powerful motivation, provided their able services even when it meant risking their lives and the lives of their loved ones. From Malintzin to Squanto, Boubou Penda to Luis de Torres, these interpreters, our colleagues, have contributed to the history of civilization providing a bridge that made communication possible when peoples did not speak the same language.
These interpreters have been essential in all armed conflicts: invasions, liberations, occupations, and peace negotiations. Many in recent history, like the Navajo Code-Talkers who serve the United States armed forces during World War II. Others, anonymously participating in conflict zones like Vietnam, Operation Desert Storm, and the Bosnian War.
Western nations have benefited, and still do, of the services of interpreters in conflict zones who assist military forces and civilian contractors in places like Africa and the Middle East.
From the start of the war in Afghanistan, and the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, western nations participating in those conflicts scouted those two countries looking for local women and men who spoke the local language and that of the western country. The United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, Spain, France, and others, recruited bilingual individuals, often with a professional education background (doctors, teachers, engineers) who had no employment due to the armed conflict or because of their political opinions, ethnic group, or religious beliefs. Some had openly opposed the local regimes and were personae non gratae in the eyes of the despot in charge of government, others quietly disagreed with the way their countries were governed, afraid to say anything the authorities could perceive as treacherous. Others’ sole motivation was to feed their families.
All these courageous humans knew what they were risking by helping the West. Besides the tremendous danger of being in a theater of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan where they could be killed during a fire exchange, and ambush, or by an improvised explosive device (IED), they knew the consequences if caught. Their execution, and that of their immediate family members was a reality they faced every day the worked with the foreign armed forces and independent defense contractors in their countries. These were (and are) brave and courageous individuals. They also knew that all armed conflicts have a beginning and an end. They recognized the dangers they would face after the foreign troops left their countries. They knew their families, even if not involved in the armed conflict, would face the same consequences. To stay behind after the Western armed forces left would be a death sentence.
The United States and all of its allies were aware of this reality. They knew the only way to recruit much needed interpreters and translators was promising they would not be left behind. These conflict zone interpreters got assurances from the western governments they served that when the time to withdraw their troops came, they, and their immediate families would be taken to their countries to start a new life free from death threats and other retaliatory actions. In other words: conflict zone interpreters agreed to provide their services and the western nations promised they would take them to the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, Spain, France, and all other countries to use interpreting services for military and civilian personnel. As we know, the troops withdrew from these countries, but many interpreters continue to wait for an entry visa to the country that promised to take them. Interpreters have been admitted to these western countries, but it has been a fraction. Many of those who have moved to their new countries endured a lengthy and cumbersome process. During this time, as expected, many conflict zones interpreters, and their family members, have been executed as traitors back home while waiting for a visa.
These interpreters, our colleagues, did their part, they rendered the service facing tremendous risk and unimaginable working conditions. They were essential to accomplish a mission; through their work they saved many western and local lives. The West has not honored its word.
This is not a political post, and I am not arguing for or against the admission of refugees in any country. I understand there are very solid arguments for and against admitting refugees. I am not endorsing or condemning the armed conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq either. Solely this post invites you all, interpreters and translators worldwide, regardless of your political persuasion, religious beliefs, or immigration stands, to join to protect the profession by supporting our conflict zone colleagues, just like attorneys help each other, as Marines leave no one behind. We need to raise our voice and tell the governments of those western nations who made a promise to these interpreters when they needed them, to walk the walk and deliver. We need them to know that we know, and we need to push for an expedient visa issuance system for these colleagues. Countries who break promises look bad and lose credibility. Interpreters who believed their promise continue to die while government authorities drag their feet motivated by politics instead of integrity.
Through my work as a civilian interpreter with the armed forces and defense contractors, and as an interpreter trainer, I have met several military and conflict zone interpreters who have served in different places. I have heard from them some horror stories of killings, kidnappings, rapes, and beatings. I have gotten to know many as friends and colleagues. I have met their families. I have also heard the tales of those less-fortunate still risking their lives while they wait for an answer from the West.
I also recognize the amazing, tireless, work of Red T, its compassionate and courageous CEO Maya Hess who I have the privilege to know personally, and the professional associations that support its efforts and share its values: The International Association of Conference Interpreters (AIIC) The International Federation of Translators (FIT) and many of its member organizations; The International Association of Professional Translators and Interpreters (IAPTI); Critical Link International, The International Council for the Development of Community Interpreting (CLI); and the World Association for Sign Language Interpreters (WASLI). Some time ago during the IAPTI Congress in Bordeaux France, I had the opportunity to hear Maya’s passionate description of their efforts to raise awareness and to get a United Nations declaration of legal and physical protection for translators and interpreters in conflict zones. On that occasion, she was joined by another fighter for protecting these colleagues: Linda Fitchett, Chair, Conflict Zone Group, AIIC. Just this Spring I had the opportunity to hear Maya once again, this time in Zaragoza Spain during ASETRAD Congress where she spoke before a big crowd of interpreters and translators, and was joined by some conflict zone interpreters for a round table discussion. On that occasion, ASETRAD conferred honorary membership to Red T. To learn more about Red T and to support their campaigns, please visit: www.red-t.org
My motivation to write this post at this time has to do with the Congressional elections in the United States this November. On November 6, Americans will vote to elect one third of the members of the U.S. Senate (according to the U.S. Constitution, the Senate renews its membership one-third at a time every two years) and for all the members of the House of Representatives. Political campaigns just started last week and all candidates will visit your hometown, attend townhall meetings, debate their opponents, pay attention to your phone calls, and read your mail.
This is the time to tell your senators and representatives running for office that as a professional interpreter or translator, and as an American who values your country’s word and promises, that you want them to pass an increase on Special Immigrant Visa numbers (SIV) for conflict zone interpreters and their families, and to expedite the visa processing times, at least to comply with the nine-month limit in the books which has not been observed. During the last 2 years the number of SIV approvals has declined and the process has seen considerable delays. The official argument is the security background checks. It is understandable and desirable that the government carefully review case by case, but it is also necessary that authorities consider previous background checks and past performance. Remember, these interpreters already worked with members of the U.S. Armed Forces and risked their lives to do their job. Please call the candidates’ campaign headquarters, your Senate and Congressional Offices back home and in Washington, D.C., and support our colleagues. I guarantee you will feel better afterwards.
Regardless of where you live, contact your U.S. Representative. Remember: They are all up for reelection. Please contact your Senate candidates if you live in these States:
To contact the U.S. House of Representatives, go to https://www.house.gov/representatives
To contact the U.S. Senate, visit: https://www.senate.gov/reference/
If you do not leave in the United States, please contact the office of your President, Prime Minister, or Head of Government. You can also visit Red T to sign the petitions.
Remembering that no political debate will be allowed, I now invite you to share with you your experiences as a conflict zone interpreter, or your ideas on how to press Congress and foreign governments to live up to their promise to our colleagues: the conflict zone interpreters.
May 21, 2018 § 16 Comments
With all the noise and frustration surrounding the oral federal court interpreter examination fiasco, we have overlooked a group of colleagues left out in the cold with no updates and plenty of confusion: The candidates studying to take the written federal court interpreter certification exam scheduled for the summer or 2018. The Administrative Office of the United States Courts (AO) has been silent for many months and interpreters are concerned, puzzled, and they do not know what to do.
The AO’s official website redirects you to Paradigm’s webpage which shows this message: “Written examination registration dates will be announced in the spring of 2018, test locations will be announced at that time.”
This message has remained intact for months; no updates, no explanations, no changes.
In the weeks since my last widely read post on the oral exam, and despite all the comments by those who took the test in 2017, many federally certified court interpreters, and colleagues in general, raising serious concerns everywhere in social media about the judgment of those AO officials who hired Paradigm, and the lack of transparency and accountability after the administration of the test, the authorities who oversee the administration of the exam have done nothing to keep those who plan to take the written test during the summer of 2018 informed.
Apparently, silence continues to be the only policy coming from the federal judiciary. Our colleagues who plan to take the written exam do not know what to do. They do not even know if they should stop studying. Because from the lack of information they cannot even tell if there will be a written exam this year.
We do not even know for sure if the AO has severed its ties with Paradigm. There has been no official notice, and their own website continues to redirect all users who want information on the written exam to Paradigm’s website which shows outdated information where it claims that registration dates “…will be announced in the spring of 2018…” If this information is valid as of today, they better hurry up and publish the information before spring is no more.
I cannot help it but feel sorry for those whose lives have been on hold for several weeks while they wait to find out the exam dates and locations in order to make personal and professional arrangements to travel to the test sites.
If the exam has been postponed until further notice, please tell the interpreting community; if Paradigm is no longer the contractor for the written exam, please tell the interpreter community; if no details can be shared at this time because of pending litigation, please tell the interpreter community; If the negligent administration of the oral exam in 2017, and the decision to retest so many people will push the written exam into 2019, and if this will disrupt the regular 2-year cycles of both oral and written exams, please tell the interpreter community.
This will make you look better and it will be a way to begin the road to recover credibility and trust. Remember, it is about transparency and accountability. Those at the AO must never forget they are the government. Those with the misfortune to take the oral test last year, and the ones suffering the uncertainty of the written test right now are the taxpayers.
We cannot lose sight of this unquestionable reality; dear friends and colleagues, we are protecting the profession, but we are also exercising our rights. To the handful of colleagues who feel intimidated by those who argue that the certification is not an entitlement and try to mask ineptitude and negligence when hiring Paradigm as a “technical difficulty”: Perhaps when you work within the government system for a long time you think that the federal government is some kind of a magnanimous god who favors court interpreters, also U.S. citizens, by granting them a certification. Do not be distracted by comments like the ones above. The real issue is transparency and accountability. The AO should come clean and explain why they hired Paradigm, admit fault, apologize, and communicate the way they plan to remedy this chaos, not only by telling those who took the exam they will now have a chance to retest. They must talk to those who want to take the written exam, and to the professional community.
Threats about pulling the exam are awful, distasteful, and baseless. The government cannot force the professional community into silence by threatening cancellation of the Spanish federal court interpreter certification program. They have not, and will not. These comments never came from an official source and should confuse no one. Navajo and Haitian-Creole certification programs were scratched because of docket and financial reasons. Spanish is used in all U.S. courts more than all other foreign languages combined. There is no rational justification to do something like that, so please ignore these rumors.
It is also important to remember that almost nobody who takes the federal court interpreter exam wants a guarantee to work in court. Sometimes staff court interpreters must be reminded that a federal certification is a means to prove skill and knowledge to many clients. The majority of the high-income earner interpreters I know make the bulk of their fees outside of court and work with a district court, making far less money, when they have no other assignment, or for personal reasons. A candidate who pays a fee to take a test has a right to demand performance in exchange for the fee. It is a service based on contractual obligations.
It is also of concern that people who are involved with voicing NAJIT’s policy or opinions have stated that this association with many members who took the oral test, who are waiting to take the written test, and who are voicing their anger with the way the AO has performed during this crisis, can claim that the Association has “no dog in that fight”. To be fair, this unfortunate comment came not from NAJIT’s Board and it has not been endorsed by the Association either.
Dear friends and colleagues, those of us who did not take the exam because we are already certified, or because our working languages do not include Spanish, or even those who practice our profession in other fields with nothing to do with the court system have a duty to defend and protect the profession, and a right to support our colleagues who were, and continue to be, affected by this negligent and careless actions. Resorting to smoke and mirrors like injecting Seltzer v. Foley is just a diversion tactic that will not work. That case questioned the rating criteria of the written exam; here the question is the ineptitude and negligence of those who hired Paradigm as the contractor in charge of administering the test, and the actions taken after the fact. Nobody has questioned the validity of the exam, nor the integrity of the raters. I have even said that I do not believe there was bad faith or the deliberate intent to cause harm by AO officials. All we are arguing is apparent negligence and ineptitude, and for that we are demanding transparency and accountability.
Implying that I have questioned the validity of the exam or the integrity of the raters only shows those who claim such things, and argue that people are angry because they did not pass the exam (even though no test results were out when these claims circulated in social media) have spread rumors without reading my posts.
Just like in other cases before: accreditation vs. certification of healthcare interpreters, exploitation of immigration court interpreters by a new language contractor, the court interpreter fiasco in the United Kingdom, the contractual and managing problems of the court interpreter program in New Mexico, abandoning the interpreters in conflict zones by Western Nations, the exploitation of telephonic interpreters by unscrupulous VRI service providers, and many others, I have no vested personal interest in these cases; it is nothing personal against government officials, language services agency owners, or professional associations; I just stand up, and will continue to stand up for the profession. I now ask you to share your comments on the written federal court interpreter exam of 2018. Please remember, personal attacks, disqualifications, foul language and surrogate defense of Paradigm, NAJIT, or the AO will not be posted.
November 21, 2017 § 3 Comments
On Thursday the people of the United States will celebrate Thanksgiving: the most American of all holidays. Christmas is also a very big day in America, but unlike Christmas only observed by Christians, Thanksgiving is a holiday for all Americans regardless of religion, ethnicity, or ideology. There are no presents, and every year during this fourth Thursday in November, people travel extensively to be with their loved ones and eat the same meal: a turkey dinner.
Distinguish between the religious act of thanking God for the good fortune and the American holiday called Thanksgiving Day. The former was held by many Europeans all over the new world as they gave thanks for setting foot again on dry land. Explorers and conquistadors observed these religious ceremonies in places like Virginia, Florida, Texas, and New Mexico. Documented ceremonies were held on (at the time) Spanish territory as early as the 16th. Century by Vázquez de Coronado, and we have records of the festivities in Jamestown, Virginia during 1610.
The first Thanksgiving holiday can be traced to a celebration that took place at the Plymouth Plantation in Massachusetts. The settlers had a bad winter followed by a successful harvest in 1621. During that crude winter survival was possible thanks to the help of the local residents: The Wampanoag tribe. Massasoit, who was the tribe leader, donated food to the English when the food they brought from England proved insufficient. Cooperation between Native-Americans and Europeans included agriculture, hunting, and fishing lessons. The settlers were taught how to catch eel and grow corn, and were briefed on the geography and weather conditions of the region. This partnership took place because of the good disposition of all those who participated; however, trust had to be established and communication had to be developed. The Europeans and Native-Americans spoke different languages and had little in common. The English settlers were very fortunate as they had among them a Patuxent Native-American who had lived in Europe, first in England and Spain as a slave, and later in England as a free man. During his years in Europe, this man learned English and could communicate in both languages: English and the one spoken by the Wampanoag tribe. His name was Squanto (also known as Tisquantum), and he played an essential role in this unprecedented cooperation between both cultures. He was very important during the adaptation and learning process. His services were valuable to settle disputes and misunderstandings between natives and settlers. There are accounts of Squanto’s ability and skill. He was embraced by the settlers until his dead. His work as an interpreter and cultural broker made it possible for two very different peoples to sit down and share a meal and a celebration when on that first Thanksgiving, the settlers held a harvest feast that lasted three days. Ninety Native-Americans, including King Massasoit attended the event. They ate fish, fowl, and corn that the English settlers furnished for the celebration, and they had five deer that the Wampanoag took to the feast. Although it is not documented, maybe they also had wild turkeys as they existed in the region. Undoubtedly Squanto must have worked hard during those three days facilitating the communication between hosts and guests.
We now celebrate this all-American holiday every year. It has been observed since President Abraham Lincoln declared it a national holiday; and it has been observed on the fourth Thursday of November since President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared that it should be observed on that Thursday instead of the last one of the month as sometimes November has five Thursdays. Thanksgiving is also the most American of all holidays because we celebrate family, football and the start of the best retail season of the year: Christmas. We now have Black Friday and Cyber-Monday. We travel by plane, car, and train to go home for this turkey dinner, and we all gather around the TV set to watch football and parades. This Thanksgiving as you are carving the turkey, pause for a moment and remember the interpreter who helped make this all possible: Squanto the Patuxent Native-American. Happy turkey day!
February 22, 2017 § 1 Comment
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.
February 15, 2017 § 2 Comments
As it happens with other American holidays, many colleagues who live abroad, and others who live in the United States but grew up somewhere else, have asked me the meaning of the holiday we celebrate in the United States on the third Monday in February. We have had forty five presidents in our country, and people often ask if we honor them all on this day. The answer is no. Let me explain.
The United States is a federation of fifty states and each state has its own legislation and decision-making process. As a result of this system Americans have two types of holidays: Those that are observed in all fifty states called federal holidays, and those that are only observed in a specific state. The latter ones are referred to as state holidays. By comparison with other countries the United States has very few holidays. The one observed in February is the third one on the calendar and it is just one of two holidays that commemorate the birth of a person (the other one is in January to honor the birth of Martin Luther King, Jr.)
All government offices close on federal holidays but the rest of the American people go to work on many of them. The February holiday is one of those that the majority of the citizens of the United States will commemorate by going to work.
The U.S. has many founding fathers, all heroes and authors of the great country that we Americans enjoy today, but there is only one “father of the country.” There is only one George Washington. Because George Washington was born in the American state of Virginia on February 22, and he is the father of the country, in 1879 The United States Congress determined that all government offices in Washington, D.C. should remain closed to observe his birthday. In 1885 this was expanded to all federal government offices all over the United States. On January 1, 1971 Congress passed the “Uniform Monday Holiday Act” and among other federal holidays, it shifted this one from Washington’s actual birthday to the third Monday in February. As an interesting footnote I should mention that this piece of legislation moved the holiday to a day between February 15 and 21, so the observance never coincides with Washington’s real birthday on the 22nd. For many years the holiday was known as “Washington’s Birthday.”
Abraham Lincoln, another beloved American hero, and our 16th. President, was born on February 12. It was impossible to have two separate holidays to honor these two great men during the same calendar month, so for a long time Lincoln’s birthday was ignored. A draft of the “Uniform Monday Holiday Act” would have renamed “Washington’s Birthday” as “Presidents’ Day” to honor the birth of both beloved presidents. This is the reason why the observed holiday falls between both birthdays but it never falls on either. The proposed name change failed in Congress and the holiday continued as “Washington’s Birthday.” Lincoln’s birthday did not become a federal holiday, but several states, among them Connecticut, Missouri, and Illinois adopted it as a state holiday and they observe it on February 12, his actual birthday.
By the mid-1980s retailers and advertisement agencies started to refer to the holiday sales during this time-period as “Presidents’ Day” and the American people would soon follow suit. Officially the holiday has never been named “Presidents’ Day.” In fact, some state legislatures have chosen to honor Washington, Lincoln, and other heroes differently during the month of February. For example, the state of Massachusetts celebrates a state holiday called “Washington’s Birthday” on the same day that the federal government observes the federal “Washington’s Birthday,” and in May it celebrates a state holiday named “Presidents Day” honoring the presidents of the United States who came from Massachusetts: John Adams, John Quincy Adams, Calvin Coolidge, and John F. Kennedy. In fact, the holiday falls on Kennedy’s birthday: May 29. In Virginia where George Washington was born, the federal holiday is legally referred to as “George Washington’s Day.” In Alabama the federal holiday commemorates Washington and Thomas Jefferson despite the fact that the latter president was born in April, and in New Mexico state government is open on the official federal “Presidents’ Day” because they observe it as a state-paid holiday on the Friday after Thanksgiving also known as “Black Friday.”
Now that we know that the third Monday in February is known as “Presidents’ Day” and it also serves the unofficial role of honoring Abraham Lincoln, and now that we understand that although a federal holiday, almost nobody but government employees have the day off on “Washington’s Birthday”, we need to talk about the correct spelling of this official federal holiday known to all Americans by its unofficial name: “Presidents’ Day.”
Today people refer to the holiday as “Presidents’ Day” and “Presidents Day.” Both versions are considered correct by American dictionaries such as “Webster’s Third International Dictionary” and “The Chicago Manual of Style.” As the use of attributive nouns has become common in the United States, “Presidents Day” has become the most popular term. Of course, the spelling “President’s Day” is only acceptable when specifically referring to the birthday of Washington, and Washington alone. So now you know what to do the next time they ask you to explain what Americans celebrate on the third Monday in February, whether or not you are willing to work on “Presidents Day,” and how to spell the name of this exceptionally unique holiday. Please feel free to share your comments about the holiday or the way it should be spelled.
June 14, 2016 § 5 Comments
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.
November 25, 2015 § 4 Comments
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!