The interpreting profession could be worthless here.

April 8, 2019 § 4 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

All professions must be on their toes to protect their members and guard themselves from outside forces that, from time to time, try to destroy them by lowering their ethical principles and standards, compromising the quality of their professional services, or eroding their public trust. This is one of the main reasons professionals organize in associations like the American Medical Association (AMA); attorney national and state bars like the American Bar Association (ABA); or institutes like the American Institute of Architects (AIA).

Unfortunately, in the United States and other countries, our profession does not have such a body to protect the services we provide and the minimum requirements to practice interpretation. With no compulsory membership of a professional association, and associations that only serve their members’ interests (and sometimes not even that when corporations are welcomed as members) or are of a culture so foreign to the United States it makes them unattractive to the American idiosyncrasy, all we have left are the individual efforts of some of our colleagues, labor unions or guilds where they exist, and some local professional associations willing to protect us all, even those who are not their members.

During the last twelve months we have been attacked at an unprecedented rate: The associations of agencies’ efforts to overturn California’s Supreme Court Dynamex decision that empowers independent contractor interpreters by giving them leverage to negotiate with multinational and unscrupulous agencies that abuse their position of power when hiring individual interpreters;  The Oregon Judicial Department Court Language Access Services (CLAS) change to the Uniform Trial Court Rules (UTCR) stripping court interpreters working in that state of their right to sight translate documents in court; and the California so called “Language Access Plan” (LAP) providing free interpreting services to anyone who requests an interpreter in Civil matters, regardless of their income, and depriving court interpreters in that state from practicing their profession in civil courts.

All nefarious actions setting our profession back many decades, but none as alarming and devastating as an effort by some Texas State legislators to lower the requirements to practice court interpreting in that state to a historical low. Please read this post even if you are a reader from another country, or if you do not interpret in court. It is that important.

Texas never distinguished itself as a state where court interpreting certification was universally appreciated or desired. It was a late-comer to the sphere of states requiring certification to practice as interpreter in the state courts. After much back and forth, the State settled for a licensing system that resembled the state certification program adopted by most states. Despite the unfortunate grandfathering of some subpar “interpreters” who had “practiced” for a long time before licensing became the law of the land, Texas eventually offered the National Center for State Courts (NCSC) exam offered in other states. For reasons difficult to explain and defend, after some debate, it was decided that Texas would have a two-tier licensing system for court interpreters: Those passing an English monolingual written exam with a score of 80 percent, and all three sections of the oral test (sight translation, consecutive, and simultaneous interpreting) with a score of 70 percent on all three sections are granted a “master” license. Candidates who pass the English monolingual written exam with a score of 80 percent, and all three sections of the oral test (sight translation, consecutive, and simultaneous interpreting) with a score of 60 percent on all three sections are granted a “basic” license. These “basic” interpreters can only appear in minor cases decided in courts not of record. (http://ow.ly/OL9Y30olqdH)

These requirements fall short when compared to the federal minimum standards (on a more difficult exam) and to the minimum requirements in most states. The National Proficiency Designations for Court Interpreters of Spoken Languages classifies court interpreters in languages for which a NCSC -sanctioned oral exam is available in four categories. Tier one, the higher category, encompasses those interpreters certified by the Administrative Office of the United States Courts (USAOC) commonly known as “federally certified court interpreters”, and state-certified court interpreters who obtained in one cycle (because some states allow certification in installments!) a minimum score of 80 percent in the simultaneous and consecutive portions of the exam, and a minimum passing score of 75 percent on each of the two sight translations (English into the foreign language, and from the foreign language into English) with a minimum combined score of 80 percent.

Candidates certified in at least one state who passed the NCSC exam within 12 months of the certification with a score of at least 70 percent in each of the simultaneous and consecutive interpreting sections of the oral test, and a minimum score of 65 percent on each of the two sight translations (see above) with a minimum combined score of 70 percent are classified as Tier 2 interpreters. This means that an individual can have a “master license” in Texas and be classified as a Tier 2 interpreter nationwide. Individuals getting, in one test cycle, a passing score of 60 percent in each of the simultaneous and consecutive parts of the exam, and a minimum score of 55 percent on each of the two sight translations (see above) with a minimum combined score of 60 percent are classified as Tier 3 interpreters. (https://www.ncsc.org/~/media/Files/PDF/Services%20and%20Experts/Areas%20of%20expertise/Language%20Access/VRI/1%20National%20Interpreter%20Database/National_Proficiency_Designations_for_Court%20Interpreters.ashx)

I know this looks bad, but that is not the problem that motivated me to write this piece. At this moment the Texas State Legislature is in session, and they are considering a bill that will eliminate the two-tiered licensing system and create a single state court interpreter license. Unfortunately, instead of amending the statute to raise the bar, these legislators are trying to lower it. This would open the door to anybody with no training or formal education, no skill or knowledge, to portray themselves as “licensed court interpreters”, destroying the profession in the Lone Star State. This very concerning bill was introduced by State Representative Ron Reynolds of Ft. Bend, Texas and it is being debated in the Texas House at the House Judiciary and Civil Jurisprudence Committee as HB 3627 (https://capitol.texas.gov/tlodocs/86R/billtext/html/HB03627I.htm?fbclid=IwAR0Vqopuc7tzdm9laroZc3_UP-gr0e2ZZeCw47Zx9xH3xRp-jxZrRQK6KNc)

Its companion bill was just introduced in the Texas State Senate on March 21, 2019 by Democratic Senator Borris Miles of Harris and Ft. Bend Counties as SB 2176. It was immediately referred to the State Affairs Committee. The City of Houston is in Harris County, and Ft. Bend is the county next door. (https://legiscan.com/TX/text/SB2176/id/1952181?fbclid=IwAR3OseP5xQbVL_sPx4SpnRHs-uN1f-stA5fGymG5-eyN-IZZ8vEECWtR8nM)

All of us, especially our colleagues in Texas, need to contact these legislators, raise awareness within the legal community and interpreter associations, and educate the general public. You can reach Representative Reynolds at: (281) 208-3574, and (512) 463-0494. Senator Miles at: (512) 463-0113, (713) 665-8322, (281) 261-2360 and (713) 223-0387.

Can you imagine going to a surgeon with a record of losing 4 out of every 10 patients he operates on? Would you go to a lawyer who loses 4 out of every 10 trials? I do not know many people who would pay a dentist who pulls out the wrong tooth forty percent of the time, and I cannot think of anybody who would get on a plane knowing that the pilot knows only 60 percent of what you need to know at a minimum to safely fly to a destination. These may seem like exaggerations, but they are not. This is what the Texas Legislature is considering right now. Their answer to a shortage of professionals is not to promote the profession or legislate to make it more attractive. Their plan is to lower the bar so low anybody who can order a beer south of the border can interpret a death penalty case.

These are very serious consequences, but we should let activists and human rights advocates fight these issues with the State Legislature. We must focus on a different issue derived from the same bill; an issue nobody else will fight to defend: Our profession. We have to stand united against the destruction of our profession by a group of uninformed legislators who obviously lack basic understanding of what interpreters do. We have to fight against this bill or the profession will die in the Lone Star State. Our colleagues will lose a significant market share to those pseudo-interpreters who will flood the market and charge rock bottom fees, because they will look great when compared to the money they now earn flipping hamburgers at the fast food joint around the corner (noting against fast food workers, admired, honest individuals, but they are not interpreters). Our colleagues, those real professionals that call Texas home, will also share on the stigma of living in a state where everybody and their brother can interpret in state court. Their reputation will suffer, not with their trusted clients who appreciate their services, but in the public opinion. There is no justification for this legislation in a state that should be concerned with raising professional standards instead of eliminating them all. Please take action individually, in your professional circle with clients, family, and friends; it does not matter you are a conference interpreter, or that you work in the hospitals, or that you live in Illinois. You can even protect the profession from abroad. Talk to your local interpreter associations; contact NAJIT at the national level, and TAJIT, EPITA, HITA, MITA, AATIA, TAHIT and all other associations in Texas.

I now invite you to share with the rest of us any other ideas you may have to fight against this travesty in Texas.

This road to hell is paved with good intentions.

March 7, 2019 § 1 Comment

Dear Colleagues:

Those who want to help us sometimes hurt us the most.  Court interpreters in Oregon face a situation faced by many colleagues elsewhere in the United States and abroad.

Often, while interpreting in a trial or evidentiary hearing, Oregon court interpreters are asked to sight translate lengthy documents they never saw before, or even worse, they are expected to transcribe and translate audio or video recordings during court breaks. Because the judiciary only covers the cost of interpreting services in courthouses and detention centers, as in many other jurisdictions, attorneys trying to save money use the services of interpreters paid by the court to translate and transcribe evidence otherwise having to be translated before trial by interpreters and translators paid by attorneys and their clients.

A well-intentioned effort to correct this practice, led by the Oregon Judicial Department Court Language Access Services (CLAS) filed a proposed charge to the Uniform Trial Court Rules (UTCR) on November 7, 2017.  Motivated by the desire to protect court interpreters, the quality of a rendition, and no doubt its own budget, CLAS proposed a change to UTCR Rule 2.010(9)(e)

Unfortunately, the proposed change was drafted with budgetary considerations as a priority, and without real knowledge of the role of the interpreter in court. The result, if it goes into effect as written on August 1, will hurt court interpreters in Oregon, the profession, and equal access to justice in that state.

Reading the explanation of the proposed amendment correctly states the abusive, incorrect use of court-sponsored interpreter services by attorneys as described above; it also recognizes the complexity of transcription and translation, and how difficult it is to hear and understand poor quality recordings:

“…• Transcription often requires additional resources that are not available during a court proceeding due to lack of time, the prevalence of slang and abbreviations in offered documents, and the inability of the interpreter to ask for clarification from the maker of the document;

The explanation also addresses potential ethical issues:

“…When an interpreter is asked to provide a transcription for one party, the interpreter loses the appearance of neutrality, which conflicts with the interpreter’s ethical obligations and makes them a potential witness…”

Unfortunately, and most likely unwillingly, the explanation begins with a very dangerous statement: “…Interpreters are trained to interpret spoken word, not written word…”  By saying that, and inserting it as the main argument to amend the Rule, CLAS is not only contradicting the Oregon Code of Professional Responsibility for Interpreters in the Courts, it is making an incorrect statement that erases one-third of the court interpreter practice, and negates our profession.

The Code of Professional Responsibility for Interpreters in the Oregon Courts reads:

“1. Accuracy and Completeness. The interpreter shall render a complete and accurate interpretation, or sight translation, without altering, omitting anything from, or adding anything to what is stated or written, and without explanation…”  (https://www.courts.oregon.gov/programs/interpreters/i-am/Documents/codeofprofresponsibility.pdf)

The State of Oregon correctly recognizes that court interpreting includes not just simultaneous and consecutive interpretation, but sight translation. Stating that “…Interpreters are trained to interpret spoken word, not written word…” contradicts the Code and diminishes the profession. This is a serious matter because in a world where people are just beginning to recognize, understand, and appreciate our profession, we cannot sit on our hands while a State Agency redefines what interpreters are and do. Even when well-intentioned, these comments motivated by ignorance must be challenged and discredit. The last thing we need as a profession is a “savior” to protect us from sight interpreting. Interpreters, not translators, are the only professionals equipped to sight translate a document and render it as if it was written in the target language. We must educate our clients, and government officials, to distinguish from a document that can be sight translated in a court hearing from a lengthy document that must be translated by a translator, or a video or audio recording that needs to be transcribed and translated by an interpreter who specializes in transcriptions.

Because of this false assumption that interpreters cannot sight translate, and undoubtably motivated by the Judiciary’s desire to save interpreter fee money by banning the use of interpreters on the Court’s dime for sight translating lengthy documents that should go to a translator, or recordings that must go to a transcriber (services that must be paid by attorneys and litigants, not the Court), those proposing the amendment to the rule drafted a disastrous text:

“…{(e) A court interpreter shall not translate or interpret an exhibit during the course of a proceeding. An interpreter may interpret oral testimony regarding the content of an exhibit. A person submitting an exhibit, including a non-documentary exhibit or electronic recording, that is in a language other than English must submit at the same time an English translation and a declaration under penalty of perjury from the translator: (i) certifying that the translation is accurate and true; and (ii) describing the translator’s qualifications.}”  (https://www.courts.oregon.gov/programs/utcr/Documents/18eBCM029jm_Notice-Seeking-Public-Comment-2019-Proposed-UTCR-Changes.pdf)

By saying: “A court interpreter shall not translate or interpret an exhibit during the course of a proceeding” the rules are restricting the scope of an interpreter’s practice. It is making sight translation illegal in Oregon. But the proposed Rule is so poorly written, that it bans sight translation in hearings, but opens the door to more difficult and prone to error interpretations of “oral testimony regarding the content of an exhibit”. Instead of handing a lengthy document to the interpreter for a sight translation, under the proposed rule, an attorney can ask the interpreter to interpret the contents of a lengthy exhibit while the witness is reading it in the source language at the speed of light; without the benefit of first examining the document, if briefly, interpreters have during sight translation.

The proposed Rule will deny equal access to justice to those litigants who appear pro-se because they cannot afford the services of an attorney. Poor people benefit of court-sponsored interpreter services every day. These interpreters sight translate birth certificates in family court, bills of sale in small claims court, medical reports in worker’s compensation court, restraining orders in domestic relations court. These litigants do not have the means to pay for translation or transcription services of these documents; they will not comply with the rule because they will not even know or understand that they now need a certified written translation. Unless the Rule is modified before its adoption, in the words of my Oregon Court Interpreter friend and colleague Adrian Arias, many pro-se litigants in Oregon will face the following message: “As to sight translating your exhibit during the proceeding, due to an access to justice issue, you cannot have access to justice.”

The Rule must be amended to accurately reflect what is really needed for protecting the interpreter, accuracy of the rendition, curtailing abusive attorney practices, and equal access to justice. It should clearly state that lengthy complex documents must be translated and certified by a professional translator before a hearing; that all transcription and translation of recorded evidence shall be done by professional interpreters specializing in transcriptions prior to all hearings; and court interpreters will provide sight translation of documents in a hearing when, in the opinion of the interpreter in the hearing the length of the document is appropriate for a sight translation, and its complexity is so it can be sight translated with no more in depth research process needed for written translations. It should be the interpreter who examines and assesses the document to be sight translated. The Code of Professional Responsibility for Interpreters in the Oregon Courts imposes a duty to assess at all times (their) ability to deliver interpretation services, indicating that when the interpreter has any reservation about his or her ability to satisfy an assignment competently, this should be immediately conveyed to the court. (See Rule 9. https://www.courts.oregon.gov/programs/interpreters/i-am/Documents/codeofprofresponsibility.pdf)

Dear friends and colleagues, we must remain vigilant, and see the final Rule due for recommendation by the Committee on March 8. This is a reminder we need to continue to defend our profession, because even when people propose changes meaning no harm, ignorance of the profession can create terrible consequences. I now invite you to comment on this issue in Oregon, or any other place where you live or practice.

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.

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.

Is Cinco de Mayo an American holiday?

May 5, 2014 § 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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