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Kids translate when parents speak only Spanish, a vital service during pandemic

The struggles of life prevent many adults from learning English. “Little by little, time is passing and all of a sudden, you’re already here 10, 15, 20 years.”
Lianet Ramirez, in Happy shirt, serves as translator for her Spanish-speaking Brandon family, immigrants from Cuba. Lianet, 12, learned English in about a year and a half. From left are her mother and father, Janet Ramirez and Rene Ramirez Jr.; sister Eliani Ramirez; and grandmother and grandfather, Anicia Hernandez and Rene Ramirez Sr.
Lianet Ramirez, in Happy shirt, serves as translator for her Spanish-speaking Brandon family, immigrants from Cuba. Lianet, 12, learned English in about a year and a half. From left are her mother and father, Janet Ramirez and Rene Ramirez Jr.; sister Eliani Ramirez; and grandmother and grandfather, Anicia Hernandez and Rene Ramirez Sr. [ JOHN PENDYGRAFT | Times ]
Published Jul. 27, 2020|Updated Jul. 31, 2020

Lea aquí en Español

BRANDON — Twelve-year-old Lianet Ramírez remembers the first weeks of March when news reports about COVID-19 started coming quickly and often. The recommendations for stopping the spread of the disease were mostly in English.

Not knowing what “novel coronavirus” meant, Lianet used data and flyers she found on the internet to explain to her parents what she had read about the pandemic. Often, Lianet said, she had to describe words such as “ventilator” using examples everyone in her home could understand.

“Sometimes, I feel like a teacher, but I like it,” Lianet said. Her passion for reading and her communication skills make her think she might be a good school teacher. “It is something I want to do when I become an adult.”

Lianet didn’t know English when she arrived from Cuba with her parents, René Ramirez Jr., 44, and Janet Ramírez, 34, in the summer of 2018. But at Rodgers Middle School in Riverview, she learned fast, determined to study and make new friends.

Another motivation was the need to help her family. She translated instructions to obtain a driver’s license for her dad, looked for health insurance for her grandparents, René, 70, and Anicia, 69; and helped her mother coordinate medical appointments over the phone for her sister, Eliani, 7.

Lianet also has translated information about Hillsborough County’s free coronavirus tests.

“We are very proud of the help that Lianet gives us. She is a good daughter and a very responsible girl for her age,“ Janet said in Spanish. “She is very patient and knows that it is difficult for us and her grandparents to learn English at this stage of our lives.”

Serving as the “official” translator and interpreter at home is a common role for children in immigrant families. Parents and grandparents may struggle to learn a second language, often busy with work or lacking access to language education. Translating from English to Spanish isn’t easy for children, because of dialects, traditions and cultural differences. Their contributions are vital, though, alleviating the pressure on those trying to overcome language barriers.

Olga López, 36, is a single mother from Mexico. She came to the United States in the winter of 2003 with her son, José, now a 16-year-old eighth-grader, to pick fruit and vegetables in the fields of Wimauma.

Five years ago, López started a family business from the kitchen of her modest apartment in Tampa. She starts her days at 5:30 a.m. and can work until 8 p.m. López prepares lunches and dinners for neighbors and customers in the area.

Work leaves her little time and energy to learn English, López said.

“When you come to this country, you start working and working,” Lopez said. “As a mother, what worries you the most is that your children have something to eat and a place to sleep. Learning English is important, but each case is different. And mine is.”

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José Lopez said he is happy to serve as a translator for his family. He learned English at his school, the Bible-based Tampa Bay Academy on North Nebraska Avenue. He likes to read and watches only English-language programs. When his mother needs to make a call in English, José is usually on the other line, translating each word and explaining things to her.

Olga López said her 16-year-old son José, center, is her link to the English-speaking world. His brother, Óscar, 5, at right, speaks only Spanish.
Olga López said her 16-year-old son José, center, is her link to the English-speaking world. His brother, Óscar, 5, at right, speaks only Spanish. [ JUAN CARLOS CHAVEZ | Times ]

He was on a call in November when they had to speak with a pediatrician about his brother Óscar, 5, who had a cold. And he helped by phone again in March when the coronavirus outbreak forced businesses to close and created a shortage of basic products in supermarkets.

José said his mother at first thought the coronavirus was a bad joke. They had never heard of a disease with a name many Mexicans associate with a brand of beer.

The Lopezes live near an area where Olga can shop and take orders from her customers in Spanish. But once she has to do paperwork or make calls where Spanish isn’t available, José steps in.

Community organizations have been offering help to immigrants for years so they could learn English. But constraints on resources and the coronavirus outbreak have stalled these initiatives.

One language program was run by the nonprofit Casa Venezuela and its director, Norma Camero. It began in November 2018 with the help of Our America Foundation and the Puerto Rico-based University Ana G. Mendez, which made volunteer teachers available.

The English program included sessions on history, civics and politics, emphasizing student participation. Class was held 7 to 9 p.m. Friday nights. This year, it should have started in March.

“The program had very good results, but obviously, we have not been able to continue,” Camero said. “And I say this with great sadness, because we had an excellent group of students and people who were interested in taking our English classes because the need is quite great in Hillsborough County.“

In Hillsborough, 240,000 people age 5 and older speak Spanish at home, according to a 2013 Census report. About 94,000 of them said they speak English less than “very well.” In Pinellas, the numbers were 53,000 and 22,000, and for the Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater metropolitan area, 340,000 and 132,000.

Children who translate for parents gain greater cognitive, social and emotional skills, according to experts. In many cases, taking on these responsibilities at a young age makes them feel proud and useful. But translating and interpreting for adults is a complex process and make children feel pressured.

Odette Figueruelo, an expert in languages and education at Hillsborough Community College, said each individual is different but it’s important to make an effort to avoid depending on children, Figueruelo said, because they can feel burdened in serious situations — when they’re required to translate documents, for example.

“As a mother, I think that children do not bring themselves into the world to do things for us,” she said.

María Gabriela Montes de Oca, 47, came from México 16 years ago with her daughter, Brenda, who was then 5. For years, Montes de Oca was a cook, cleaned houses and offices, and worked in the fields of Wimauma. Her obligations, she said, left her with little time or resources to learn English.

Montes de Oca, who lives in Gibsonton, is now unemployed. She lost her job as a housecleaner because of the coronavirus.

“You come with high expectations, but the reality is different,” she said in Spanish. “Little by little, time is passing and all of a sudden, you’re already here 10, 15, 20 years.”

Brenda does the translating and communicates by computer with her younger brother’s teachers. Gabriel, 12, keeps his mother informed about the latest coronavirus news, including the debate over opening schools.

“A lot of times, I answer for my mother before she says anything,” said Brenda, 21, a waitress.

Brenda still recalls with a big smile when she accompanied her mother to a government office and the doctor and served for the first time as her interpreter. She was 9.

“One assumes this task like any other obligation that a child has,” she said. “My brother’s responsibility is to study; mine is to work and help my mom.”

María Gabriela Montes de Oca, center, came to the United States from México 16 years ago and still relies on her daughter Brenda, left, to translate for her. Brenda, 21, also helps brother Gabriel, right, communicate with teachers.
María Gabriela Montes de Oca, center, came to the United States from México 16 years ago and still relies on her daughter Brenda, left, to translate for her. Brenda, 21, also helps brother Gabriel, right, communicate with teachers. [ JUAN CARLOS CHAVEZ | Times ]

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