You got your degree, became certified … and now?

August 6, 2019 § 3 Comments

Dear colleagues:

Getting a college degree is no minor accomplishment, but in most countries, you need a certification, license, or patent to practice your profession. Interpreting is no different.

Unfortunately, a degree and a certification do not guarantee you anything. We live in a globalized society where only the best will reach success. Interpreters work with languages and human knowledge, both characterized by their constant, eternal change. Modernity brings changes in science and technology, and globalization makes all interpreters your competitors, regardless of their location. Continuing education is as essential to interpreters as the air they breathe.

Continuing education costs money, and interpreters need to spend time studying instead of earning a living. When faced with the need to continue our professional education to survive in a market economy, we have to be very careful as to how we spend that hard-earned money. At this point in their careers, interpreters have spent large amounts in their education: College and certifications were not cheap, and now it is time to decide how we will invest our financial resources, and our time, to further our professional development.

Continuing education is an interpreter’s need, but it is also a business. We will now look into some options out there, describe what we need, and provide a profile of fraudulent and poor-quality programs that exist.

The first question to ask ourselves is: What do we need when we seek continuing education? We need to keep a certification or license current; we need to pass an exam, we need to get certified, or we just need to learn and improve to succeed.

To achieve these goals, we need to seek education in five fields:

1. Interpreting

2. Our specialty area

3. Ethics

4. Technology

5. Business

We also need to stay up to date on current events and accumulate general knowledge.

There are several ways to get the education we need on these areas:

By entering a structured education program in a college or other higher learning institution to get a post-graduate degree; by attending summer courses for those who cannot be full-time students. There are also one- and two-week diploma/certificate programs, weekend workshops and presentations by professional associations, universities and colleges, agencies, the government, and well-known professional interpreters who teach.

There are also international, national, regional, and specialized conferences by professional associations.

Webinars by professional associations, universities, and professional interpreters are another source of education (ATA, IAPTI, eCPD, and others) and individual mentorship or internship programs with experienced interpreters as mentors.

Some colleges, professional associations, and experienced interpreters offer a virtual classroom experience, and this is where we see a higher risk to end up with a poor-quality workshop by an unknown interpreter turned instructors. Although some of these programs may offer continuing education credits, they are of little use in a professional life.

Because of the blog, many friends and colleagues contact me to let me know of workshops, seminars, and courses they regret taking. Most include at least one of these characteristics: The instructor is an unknown interpreter considered a “local hero” where he works and lives. These people have secured a local market as “instructors” because they have been around for a long time, or due to their impeccable social skills that have positioned them within a sphere of influence of judges, court administrators, school principals, and others. The classes are held at a person’s home or office, without a proper learning environment and with very few resources. Sometimes the instructor has her children at the venue, and occasionally, the workshop takes place at the same location where other activities are happening, such as a community theater, religious activities, or sporting events. At these courses enrollment is way less expensive than at legitimate programs.

Often a workshop could cost as little as an admission to the movies. Maybe these so-called “continuing education” programs are offered overseas in a resort, and they are handled as destination events or a family vacation instead of a professional event. I suggest you think long and hard before enrolling on a professional program run by a travel agency, or a workshop advertised in a brochure that describes tours, beach activities, and similar options side by side to a professional schedule. Finally, these workshops are often advertised in tacky signs, unprofessional poster boards, and online adds that are misspelled or improperly written.

Because we are in a very competitive market in a globalized economy that pushes us towards continuing education to survive and then excel, you must take care of your time and finances. Do your homework when going for a Master’s Degree or to attend a workshop to pass a certification test. Always select a program that covers the subjects you want to study, and use common sense when selecting a service provider. Trusted colleges, recognized professional associations, well-known experienced interpreters will offer programs that make sense, are useful, and unfortunately, are expensive. When a class it taught by an unknown, the instructor credentials are questionable, the course takes place in a factory cafeteria or the basement of a church, and the course is cheaper than others, look the other way and avoid the workshop, even if it offers continuing education credits.

Study every day on your own, and try to attend workshops, courses and seminars that will cover the five fields above: interpreting, your specialty area, ethics, technology, and business. Attending reputable professional conferences at least once a year may let you cross off your list two or more of them. Remember, look at the program and mistrust conferences that publish the program at the last minute.

Often a local conference may offer what you need. Sometimes you need not travel long distances to get your continuing education. I now ask you for your comments and experiences with good and not-so-good continuing education programs.

Interpreters’ association favors some of its members with 2 questionable actions.

July 11, 2019 § 13 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

If you are a regular reader of this blog you know my position regarding California’s AB5 bill that will benefit independent contractor interpreters who are currently prey to abusive practices by many agencies that treat them like employees but provide no labor benefits in that state. If enacted into law, this legislation will protect those who cannot move or seek other sources of work due to personal circumstances such as a sick child, and elderly parent, or unaffordable individual health insurance coverage. (For more information, please see my post of June 12).

I have no problem with those colleagues who, acting as small business owners, not professional interpreters, seek to influence the legislature and kill the bill. They have a legitimate right to do so, just like I exercise my right to support the bill and advocate for its passing.

The situation turns problematic when an association the size of the National Association of Judicial Interpreters and Translators (NAJIT) apparently injects itself into a controversy that affects many of its members on both sides of the bill, and throws its support behind one sector of its membership: the agency owners.

It concerns me that a national association decided to participate on a state-level issue in a way that goes beyond its mission to advance the quality of the services provided by its membership, and the professionalization of interpreting, and decides to adopt a position fueled by the commercial interests of some of its small agency members, and those who have listened to the one-sided arguments by these businesspeople, and erroneously think the legislation would harm them. A professional association should concern itself with continuing education, position papers, and support of its membership’s efforts to become a recognized profession, not a commercial entity or a merchant guild. It should not support the other side either.

Independent contractor interpreters have the support of the California Labor Unions and Guild; Agency owners are represented by the Association of Language Companies (ALC), an entity conceived to advance their business interests, not the professional status of individual interpreters or translators. On this issue, agency owners who are NAJIT members should turn to those who share their interests in ALC.

Professional associations should refrain from taking positions and acting on behalf of a membership segment at the expense of another. From the beginning of this controversy, at the time of the Dynamex decision, the American Translators Association (ATA) took itself out of this issue by announcing they would not take sides. That was the right decision, they did not put some members over the rest.

The second thing that troubles me is the way NAJIT got involved in this issue. The membership was not informed of any discussion about this support; as far as I know there was never a Board meeting to deal with this issue. No decision was ever made, and the Board was not consulted. For all these reasons, it is very disconcerting, and extremely troublesome to see NAJIT’s Chair actively participating on these actions through social media, by letting others use the name of NAJIT in a way the public could think the association and its Board were behind these efforts, and (according to social media) by actively attending the legislature’s session, not as a private member, but representing NAJIT (there are social media posts showing her approval of these actions). In fact, to foster trust on the leadership, I believe Board members should remain neutral even as individual members of the association for as long as they are part of the Board. I have no way to know if any other members of the Board participated in such an unfortunate incident, because there is no evidence they did, but if this were the case, they would have acted ultra vires as well, and without discussing these actions as a Board.

Fortunately, the California Senate’s Labor, Public Employment and Retirement Committee passed the bill on Wednesday, and it now moves to the Appropriations Committee before it can reach the Senate floor. Assemblywoman Lorena González (D-San Diego), author of the bill, added business to business services to the list of exempted occupations. This can be used to escape the law by some of those who claim the legislation will put them out of business.

It is my sincere hope that NAJIT and its Board, thinking of its membership as a whole, publicly take a position of neutrality and clarify they will not support some of its members over others.

Be vocal! Professional Associations: Stand up against injustice.

June 25, 2019 § 4 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

It has been almost a month since we first learned that our colleague Shin Hye-Yong, who interpreted for the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) Supreme Leader Kim Jung Un at the Hanoi summit with United States President Donald Trump was apparently detained at a political prison camp charged with undermining the Leader’s authority. This has been called “a critical interpreting mistake” by some in North Korea.

It has been widely reported by reputable press publications in Asia, Europe, and the United States, that the interpreter was blamed for president Trump’s walking away from the negotiating table when apparently the North Korean leader was “ready to continue the negotiations” and uttered in Korean: “Wait! Wait!” Or something similar that his interpreter did not convey in English before the American delegation exited the room. According to the media, Kim Jung Un ordered her detained and sent to a labor camp where she is currently undergoing reeducation and reflecting on her loyalty to the supreme leader of North Korea. Of course, we all know that in the civilized world, an error, if one really was really committed, has consequences that can go from a reprimand to a demotion, or firing, but never to hard labor or incarceration.

It was also reported by South Korean newspaper Chosun IIbo and others that Kim Hyon Chol, North Korea’s special envoy to the United States for nuclear negotiations was executed immediately after the summit. Although this turned out to be false, and Kim Hyon Chol is alive, he has been demoted from his pre-summit position, apparently he spends several hours a day writing essays and reflecting on his loyalty to the supreme leader. Nothing has been reported or leaked about the situation of our colleague Shin Hye-yong or their family.

It is not clear if Kim Jung Un really said these words, and if he did, it was loud enough for the interpreter to hear them, or he spoke under his breath. It is also possible that the interpreter rendered the words in English so low that Trump did not hear them, that she interpreted after the Americans had left the room, or that Trump heard her and ignored her.

I learned of this atrocity against a fellow-interpreter, and against our profession really, while at a conference attended by many colleagues, some of them diplomatic interpreters who have worked with heads of state from many countries. I immediately thought our governments would speak up against these horrible allegations but I also understood governments need to act calmly and wait until there is more information, even when dealing with a black hole of information like North Korea. I also expected our professional associations, those who represent thousands of interpreters and translators throughout the world to raise their voice in support for Shin Hye-yong and in protest for what was done to her and to the profession at large.

I expected those who represent us to react immediately, condemning the allegations and declaring them, if true, unacceptable. The International Association of Professional Translators and Interpreters (IAPTI) proving once again it truly stands shoulder to shoulder with all interpreters and translators, issued a letter condemning the allegations right away. The International Association of Conference Interpreters (AIIC) mentioned the incident on social media, and several colleagues, individually, have shared their total rejection to what happened in North Korea. Most associations, including the bigger, wealthier organizations with the most members have timidly remained silent. Some of them have reacted like news agencies and have called to corroboration before issuing any statement, even when practically all major publications in the world already talked about this. Others, have argued it is better to remain quiet for now out of fear that a communication condemning these actions against Shin Hye-yong could make her situation worse.

I guess these groups think a protest from a translators and interpreters association will motivate a ruthless dictator to punish an individual more harshly than everything already published by the likes of The Guardian, New York Times, Washington Post, Asahi Shinbun, Chicago Tribune, etc.; like Kim Jung Un keeps an eye on our opinions.

These professional associations completely missed the point: a letter from a professional association will not sway a dictator more than public opinion or world-reputable newspapers; the letters are for us. The purpose of issuing a formal protest by any of them is to show their members, and the profession at large, that in times of crisis, darkness, fear and despair, they are with us, they feel our pain, they have our back. It is for us, thousands of interpreters and translators to feel the associations are protecting the profession, to the point of not accepting anything that hurts what we do, even if they are just allegations. Kim Jung Un will never read these letters nor learn of their contents, but Shin Hye-yong, and her family, might. Perhaps she will hear about the letter from IAPTI in that horrible place where she is being held. Knowing her fellow interpreters throughout the world are aware of what happened to her, they are saddened and they are showing their disapproval will make her feel less alone, hopeless, and isolated where she is.

This was a hot topic for discussion and rage among all of us at the conference; opinions against the North Korean regime’s decision to incarcerate the interpreter, and concern for the recent and constant attacks on the diplomatic interpreting profession were voiced everywhere. There was a comment that stayed with me. I asked a top-level interpreter who works with presidents and other world leaders if she thought interpreter and translator professional associations should speak up and condemn the actions of the North Korean government against the interpreter, even if they had not been confirmed. Her answer was: “What would you want your peers to do if you were in her shoes?” I answered without hesitation: “I would want my colleagues and my professional associations to raise their voice in support of the profession and to defend me”. She told me she would want the same if this happened to her. Next, I asked the same question to as many colleagues as I could, and all of them told me the same. Nobody told me they wanted for the interpreting world to wait for a corroborating source. There was not a single interpreter who bought the argument that speaking up would make things worse for her.

Dear colleagues, our profession, especially diplomatic interpreting, is under attack in many places, from the United States Congress politically motivated posturing demanding interpreter’s notes and threatening a subpoena, to the president of Mexico using his secretary of foreign affairs as interpreter instead of a professional, to the disaster in North Korea.

This is not the first incident involving a North Korean interpreters: It is not clear why Kim Jung Un replaced the experienced interpreter who accompanied him to the first Trump meeting in Singapore with our now ill-fated colleague Sin Hye-yong; we saw the fear in an interpreter’s eyes when in front of the TV cameras Kim Jung Un dropped something and the interpreter took a professional athlete’s dive to catch it before it hit the ground; and we all saw the embarrassing incident with the Vietnamese interpreter who dashed from the helicopter down the red carpet to get to the dictator before he uttered a word to the Vietnamese officials welcoming him to Hanoi.

Professional associations do not need to wait for corroborating sources to protest such serious allegations. They can protest the allegation and condemn it if “it turns out to be true”. Professional associations need to speak up; it is not their job to keep dictators happy, their job is to protect their members and the profession. Last century, world leaders sat on their hands as Hitler invaded Poland, they did not want to upset him, and we all know what happened. Professional Associations are always bragging about “everything they offer” to their members. It is time they offer them solidarity and support. I now invite you to share your opinion on this extremely important issue.

We must protect the interpreter, not the middleman.

June 12, 2019 § 11 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

Think of a colleague, anywhere in the United States, who is battling a devastating illness and cannot get the treatment she needs because she has no health insurance, and medical expenses are so high she cannot cover them. I am sure you know an interpreter who has tried to get a job because he is worried about retirement years from now, but cannot get one because nobody is hiring. Language service providers want independent contractors because they have no legal obligation to provide employment benefits: health insurance, retirement plan, paid holidays and vacation, maternity leave, worker’s compensation insurance. If you prefer, look very carefully at your interpreter colleagues who have a sick parent, a disabled child, or another powerful reason to stay where they now live, and for that reason, they have to interpret for the agencies in town (local and multinational) and they do it in silence because they are afraid of losing these assignments, even when they are poorly paid, and they have to endure terrible, and sometimes humiliating working conditions.

Of course, you can always look at your own practice; I invite you to do so and honestly answer these questions: Do you enjoy having to check in and out with the agency every time you do an assignment? do you feel comfortable asking the person you just interpreted for to write down the hours you interpreted and to sign the form so you get paid by the agency? Do you find amusing having to spend hours on the phone and writing emails so you can get paid for a last-minute canceled assignment the agency does not want to pay? Maybe some of you like staying at the venue after interpreting is over because the agency makes you stay for the full time they retained you, even though all your work is done. Perhaps your definition of professional services includes cleaning up files or making photocopies until your time is up. Do you like it when the agency prints you business cards under their name and forces you to give them to the client? Do you like dodging all clients’ interpreting services questions by referring them to the agency every time? How about micromanaging your time on the assignment?

I doubt you enjoy any of these things, but even if you do, please understand that these intermediaries are taking advantage of you. They are forcing you to perform as an employee without paying you any benefits. Agencies distract you by telling you what a wonderful lifestyle you have, how flexible your schedule is, and everything thanks to them, your benefactors who find you work while you do not even lift a finger.

This is what the California State Legislature is trying to stop by forcing those employers who treat their “independent contractors” as employees to provide all benefits and protections people who do what these interpreters do for the agencies are legally entitled to. Think like an interpreter, stand up for your colleagues and the profession. Do not buy the arguments agencies are propagating. They do not see this legislation from the interpreters’ perspective. They see it from their business perspective.

For a long time, agencies have enjoyed this cozy business model that lets them charge their client for your service, pay you a part of it, and get you to do anything they want without incurring in any human resource expenses. It is a win-win situation for them. It is an abusive scheme for the interpreter.

Big multinational agencies are campaigning hard to defeat these legal protections not because they will “destroy the industry” as they put it, but because they will lose their golden egg goose. There will be no more freebies. They come at you with their lobbyists and make you believe they are on your side, they portray themselves as your savior and use scare tactics to make you think there will be no work for you if they are forced to lower their profits by living up to their legal and moral obligations to the interpreters.

Freelancing is not going to end after the bill becomes the law of the land in California or anywhere else. I am a freelance interpreter and I am not afraid. I do not work with these agencies, big or small, who now claim they are on a quest to save us all. New legislation or status quo will not impact my practice, and it will not impact that of most colleagues I work on a daily basis; however, leaving things as they are, giving back these agencies a position of power over the interpreters who work for them, will keep our less fortunate colleagues in the same deplorable conditions they have been working for all these years. This is a decisive moment. Multinational agencies and their lobby know it. They will fight the State of California with everything they have because they know the Golden State is a place where they can be unmasked and lose their privileges. Interpreters have organized labor backing their efforts because there are unions and guilds in California. Other States do not have them. The middleman knows that California is a decisive battlefield and they are spending money and sending their PR people to “convince” interpreters that defeating this legislation is best.

They argue they will not be able to hire interpreters because it would be too expensive. That many agencies will not survive and interpreters will lose a source of work. That is the point. The bill will only be successful when this serf-owner business model is erased. Will interpreters be more expensive because of the labor benefits? Yes. Interpreters deserve these protections. Agencies will either close or adjust their business models to comply with the legislation. Will agencies hire less interpreters? Of course, but the need for interpreters will not go away. There will be many more interpreters hired directly by clients. Is this going to hurt small agencies? It should. Small agencies should not exist in this business model because the essential condition for their survival is the denial of workers’ rights under the law.

Complaints that the legislation has exempted other professions like physicians and attorneys, but not interpreters are nonsense. Doctors and lawyers are well-established professions. Nobody would ever think of calling a “medical agency” and ask for a brain surgeon for tomorrow at 8:00am. If we want to be treated like these professions, we need to look like them. First step: get rid of the middleman. I know, some will say: “but…hairdressers are excluded and they are not a profession like doctors and lawyers” That is true and it is wrong. They should be covered by the legislation. The difference is: They got a better lobbyist and got their sorry exception in detriment of the people providing beauty services.

What about the argument that smaller agencies will not be able to stay in business because they will not afford it? In my opinion, these so-called agencies are not really agencies; most of them are a solo operation where somebody with connections acts as a referral service. I find this dangerous because these “agencies” just want a warm body with the right language combination for the assignment. I do not get the impression that messages on social media that read: “need French interpreter tomorrow at 2 pm” project exemplary quality control. Moreover, these people are not an agency, they should think and act like professionals and do what I do, and many of my colleagues do (all doctors and layers do the same thing): When your client asks for interpreters in a language combination different from mine, I just suggest a list of trusted experienced professional friends I am willing to vouch for, and let my client decide who he will retain and for what fee. I do not get involved, I do not get referral fees.

Finally, to the argument the ABC test is impossible to overcome: This is false. It can easily be overcome by a real independent contractor relationship. That is the point. If any agency could disguise a de-facto employee as an independent contractor the law would be pointless.

I understand what multinational agencies, their lobbyists, small agencies, and those solo practitioners who call themselves an agency without actually being one are doing. They are defending their very lucrative status quo. They have a right to fight for it and save their “industry”. As always, my concern are the interpreters and the profession, and from this perspective, I see the new California legislation as a step forward to our professionalization because, on top of protecting our colleagues in need, it will weaken the agency model, a necessary condition to become a true profession worthy of a place in the pantheon of professions. This is the time to listen to our colleagues and defend our profession, not the middleman interests.

The U.S. Armed Forces and Memorial Day.

May 28, 2018 § 4 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

On the last Monday of May we observe Memorial Day all over the United States. Many friends and colleagues have asked me who do we honor and why. Others confuse Memorial Day with Veterans Day. Memorial Day is a federal holiday for remembering the people who died while serving in the country’s armed forces.  It also marks the start of the unofficial summer vacation season throughout the nation. Memorial Day is a day of remembering the men and women who died while serving, while Veterans Day celebrates the service of all U.S. military veterans.

On Memorial Day, the flag is raised briskly to the top of the staff and then solemnly lowered to the half-staff position, where it remains only until noon.  It is then raised to full-staff for the remainder of the day. The half-staff position remembers the more than one million men and women who gave their lives in service of their country. At noon, their memory is raised by the living, who resolve not to let their sacrifice be in vain, but to rise up in their stead and continue the fight for liberty and justice for all.

Now that we clarified what Memorial Day is, let’s talk about the armed forces of the United States. There are five branches of American armed forces: the Army, Marine Corps, Navy, Air Force, and Coast Guard. The President of the United States is the Commander in Chief.

The United States Army is the largest branch of the armed forces and performs land-based military operations. With the other four branches of the armed forces, plus the Public Health Service Commissioned Corps, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Commissioned Officer Corps, is one of the seven uniformed services of the United States.

The United States Marine Corps is a branch of the armed forces responsible for providing power projection using the mobility of the Navy, to deliver rapidly, combined-arms task forces on land, at sea, and in the air.

The United States Navy is the naval warfare service branch of the American armed forces. It is the largest Navy in the world, with the world’s largest aircraft carrier fleet.

The United States Air Force is the aerial warfare service branch of the armed forces, and it is the largest and most technologically-advanced air force in the world.

The United States Coast Guard is a maritime, military, multi-mission service unique among the U.S. military branches for having a maritime law enforcement mission (with jurisdiction in both domestic and international waters) and a federal regulatory agency mission as part of its mission set. It operates under the U.S. Department of Homeland Security during peacetime, and can be transferred to the U.S. Department of the Navy by the president of the United States at any time, or by the U.S. Congress during times of war.

To complete this brief description of the United States armed forces, I would like to explain the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The Joint Chiefs of Staff is a body of senior uniformed leaders in the United States Department of Defense who advise the president, the secretary of Defense, the Homeland Security Council, and the National Security Council on military matters. The composition of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is defined by statute and comprises the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Vice Chairman, the Military Service Chiefs from the Army, Marine Corps, Navy, and Air Force; and the Chief of the National Guard Bureau, all appointed by the President following Senate confirmation. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is, by U.S. law, the highest-ranking and senior-most military officer in the United States armed forces and is the principal military advisor to the president, National Security Council, Homeland Security Council, and secretary of Defense.  Even though the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff outranks all other commissioned officers, he is prohibited by law from having operational command authority over the armed forces; however, the Chairman assists the President and the Secretary of Defense in exercising their command functions.

I hope you find this information useful and I hope that it may come in handy when interpreting national defense or military issues involving the United States. I now invite you to add any additional information you may consider useful and relevant to our practice as professional interpreters.

The Christmas traditions we observe in the United States.

December 24, 2017 § 2 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

The end of the calendar year marks a time when most cultures in the world slow down their work routines, gather with friends and relatives, and reflect on what was accomplished during the year while setting goals to achieve what was not.  Some give the season a religious connotation, others choose not to do so. Regardless of the personal meaning and importance that each one of us give to this time of the year, there is a common denominator, certain actions, traditions, and celebrations observed and held dear by many. They vary from country to country, and are part of the national pride and identity of a nation.

The United States is a unique case because of the convergence of cultures and populations from around the world who have brought with them their language, beliefs and traditions.  With globalization many other regions in the world now live the same situation where not everybody celebrates everything, not everybody celebrates the same, and even the ones who celebrate a particular festivity or observe certain event will do it differently depending on their cultural background. I also want to point out that, due to the immense commercial and cultural influence of the United States just about everywhere in the world, some traditions below will be recognized as something that you do in your country.

Although Christmas is not the only festivity where we see this American reality, I decided to share with you our national traditions on this day because it is widely observed and understood throughout the world, and because it is a nice thing to share with all of you when many of us are slowing down and waiting for the new year.  Finally, before I share these American traditions with you, I want to clarify that although this entry deals with Christmas traditions, it does it from a cultural perspective with no religious intent to endorse or offend anyone. I know that many of my dearest friends and colleagues come from different religions, cultural backgrounds, and geographic areas; and the farthest thing from my mind is to make you feel left out, ignored or offended. This post is written with the sole intention to share cultural traditions, and invite an exchange of information about other customs observed at the end of the year by other groups and countries.  Thank you for your understanding, and please enjoy:

In the United States the Christmas season, now called the holiday season to make it more inclusive, starts on the day after Thanksgiving known as “Black Friday”. Many schools and businesses close between Christmas (December 25) and New Year’s Day (January 1). Most Americans take this time out from their professional and academic schedules to spend time with their friends and families. Because of the high mobility we experience in the United States, it is very common that families live far from each other, often in different states; so that children go home to the parents’ is more significant as it may be the only time they see each other face to face during the year.

Many Americans decorate the exterior of their homes with holiday motifs such as snowmen, Santa Claus, and even reindeer figures.  As a tradition derived from holding Christmas in winter in the northern hemisphere when daylight is scarce, Americans install temporary multi-colored lights framing their house or business.  Because of its beauty and uniqueness, this tradition has spread to southern parts of the United States where winters are mild and daylight lasts longer. The American southwest distinguishes itself from the rest of the country because of the lights they use to decorate their buildings: the luminarias, a tradition (from the Spanish days of the region) of filling brown paper bags with sand and placing a candle inside.

The interior of the house is decorated during the weeks leading to Christmas and on Christmas Eve. Christmas tree farms in Canada and the United States provide enough trees for people’s homes, although many prefer an artificial tree.  These trees are placed at a special place in the house and are decorated with lights and ornaments, and at the very top an angel or star is placed on Christmas Eve.  Unlike many other countries, in particular those where most people are Roman Catholic, Americans hold no big celebration on Christmas Eve, known as “the night before Christmas”, the time when Santa Claus visits their homes while children are sleeping and leaves presents for the kids to open on Christmas morning.  As a sign of appreciation, or perhaps as a last act of lobbying, children leave out by the tree a glass of milk and cookies for Santa to snack during his visit.

Special Christmas stockings are hung on the fireplace mantelpiece for Santa to fill with gifts called “stocking stuffers” that will be found by the kids on Christmas Day while the yule log will provide heat and holiday smells. Even those homes that have replaced the traditional fireplace with an electric one have kept the yule log tradition; and when everything else fails, cable TV and satellite TV companies offer a TV channel that broadcasts only a yule log all day.

Adults exchange presents previously wrapped in festive seasonal wrapping paper, and even the pets get Christmas presents every year.  With the presents exchanged,  people move on to their Christmas dinner that will usually feature ham, roast beef, and even turkey with stuffing, although many families skip the bird because they just had it for Thanksgiving dinner a few weeks before.  Potatoes, squash, roasted vegetables, cranberries and salads are part of the traditional meal, but in some regions of the United States, demographic cultural fusion has added other dishes to the traditional family dinner: It is common to find tamales in a Hispanic Christmas dinner, poi and pork in Hawaii, BBQ turkey or chicken in the south, and sushi and rice in an Asian household. Unlike Thanksgiving when pumpkin pie is the universal choice, many desserts are part of the meal: pies, cakes, fruit, and the famous fruitcake.  They are all washed down with the traditional and very sweet eggnog or its “adult” version with some rum, whisky, or other spirits.

The Los Angeles Lakers and the Chicago Bulls have made it a tradition to have home NBA basketball games on Christmas Day that are broadcasted on national TV.  Other traditions include Christmas carols, window shopping the season-decorated department stores, special functions such as the Radio City Music Hall Christmas show and the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree in New York City, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir in Salt Lake City, the National Christmas tree in Washington, D.C., the Very-Merry Christmas Parade held simultaneously at Disney World in Orlando and Disneyland in Anaheim, the Nutcracker ballet in theaters and school auditoriums all over the United States, and endless Christmas movies and TV shows, including the original “A Charlie Brown Christmas” and Dr. Seuss’ “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” with Boris Karloff as the voice of the Grinch.

I hope this walk through American Christmas traditions was fun, helped some of you to understand a little better the culture of the United States, and maybe part of what you just read will be handy in the booth one day. Whether you live in the U.S. or somewhere else, I now ask you to please share some of your country or family’s Christmas or other holiday-related traditions with the rest of us.  I sincerely hope you continue to honor us by visiting this blog every week in 2018. Thank you for your continuous preference, and happy holidays to all!

The interpreter who played a crucial role at the first Thanksgiving.

November 21, 2017 § 3 Comments

Dear colleagues:

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!

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