Immigrant parents lean on children to translate
By SHERRI WILLIAMS
The Columbus Dispatch
COLUMBUS (AP): In the Dominican Republic, the Hernández children had chores like any other kids.
But here in the United States, they help their parents pay bills, write checks and run their cleaning business.
Rubi, 17, Rocio, 15, and Samuel Jr., 14, are fluent in English, while their parents understand but struggle with the language.
The teenagers translate for their parents at school, in stores, at utility offices, on the phone at home and even while watching television.
``When I translate, I feel proud of myself and thankful for my parents bringing me here,'' said Rubi, a senior at Central Crossing High School.
Samuel and Martha Hernández are proud that their children have learned enough English in the five years they have been here. But both are frustrated that they still need help.
``I feel uncomfortable because I don't know the language,'' said Mr. Hernández, 45, who owns Dominican Cleaners in the city's west side.
``It's a reversal of roles,'' said the Rev. Guadalupe Villalpando-Stewart, the west Ohio director of Hispanic/Latino Ministries for the United Methodist Church. ``It's a little bit difficult because the dynamic changes of who is in authority.''
Columbus' immigrants represent 130 countries and speak 105 languages, said Napoleon Bell, deputy director of the city's Community Relations Commission.
Nine percent of the city's residents are foreign-born, and 12 percent speak a language other than English at home, according to U.S. Census data.
Many immigrants are not used to asking their children for help, Villalpando-Stewart said.
``In the (Latin) culture, where the men have the authority, it's
hard for them to depend on a little girl,'' said Villalpando-Stewart, whose church offers English classes.
Children who help open a bank account or translate during a hospital visit can see their status in the family change, said Mussa Farah, president of Horn of Africa, a nonprofit that helps African immigrants.
``They will give him recognition and a little bit of responsibility,'' he said.
At the same time, parents' inability to speak English can hurt their children's academic progress, said Sahid Ali, who works with Somali families as a parent community diversity liaison with the Columbus Public Schools.
``It's hard to communicate with the child and the school,'' he said. ``And you can't help your child with homework or anything that has to do with school.''
Parents who struggle with English also are reluctant to become involved in their children's schools, said Amina Mohammed, also a parent community diversity liaison.
Liaisons such as Ali and Mohammed help parents better understand the school system, their children's progress and language services the district offers, Mohammed said.
About 130 parents are enrolled in English classes in the district, said Mary Zamarripa, elementary co-coordinator for English as a Second Language program in the Columbus schools.
Agencies and businesses without translation services must adapt to foreign-language speakers by having more bilingual staff and materials translated in other languages, said Abdirizak Y. Farah, coordinator at the Community Relations Commission.
``Having children who speak English does not end the need for a translator or interpretation services,'' he said.
None of the Hernández children spoke English when they arrived in the U.S.
``They validate us bringing them here,'' said Mrs. Hernández, 40, a lawyer in her native Dominican Republic.
Mr. Hernández was the president of a taxi-cab company. Both say their language difficulties keep them from getting jobs like they used to have, but Mrs. Hernández is taking an English class at Columbus State Community College.
The new role of translator is difficult for some children, Villalpando-Stewart said.
Esther Cabrera, 11, said she feels anxious sometimes when she conveys messages to her mother, Carmen.
``Sometimes people say a word I don't know and I will try to think of what the word is,'' the sixth-grader said.
Cabrera, 37, a packager at a warehouse, is from the Dominican Republic. She enrolled in an English class three weeks ago at the Ohio Hispanic Coalition. She said she doesn't want to make her daughter get in the middle of adult conversations.
Now she practices English with Esther.
``I'm so excited and I want to have a conversation,'' the older Cabrera said.
Information from: The Columbus Dispatch, http://www.dispatch.com