© 2024 Kansas City Public Radio
NPR in Kansas City
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

For kids of Latino immigrants in Kansas City, being the family interpreter is an honor and burden

A young Latina woman and a young Latino man appear side by side in an edited photo.
Zach Perez
David Gabaldon (right) and Ashlee Zoe Cruz Ayala (left) both spent years acting as the primary interpreters for family members who struggled to speak English.

Across the U.S., thousands of children and young adults serve as informal interpreters for family members that don’t speak English. Many of them find pride in being of service to their families, but experts worry that this pride may be masking more serious long-term effects.

Unexpected trips out of school, late night wake-up calls and high expectations. That’s what 18-year-old Shawnee Mission North senior Ashlee Zoe Cruz Ayala said was commonplace during the six years she served as her family’s primary interpreter.

“It would just suck at first. I did not like doing it, especially because they would make me talk to adults,” said Cruz Ayala. “I (was) literally 12 years old. I barely knew what they're saying.”

David Gabaldon, now a 24-year-old admissions recruiter at Johnson County Community College, spent four years juggling school, work and interpreting for his grandparents, all while navigating higher education as a first generation college student.

“It was like, ‘Hey David, you're off from school,’ or, ‘You're not working. Can you take your grandfather to his (doctor’s) appointment?’” said Gabaldon.

Gabaldon and Cruz Ayala both served as language brokers, or informal child translators who help their families navigate unknown languages and cultures. Both of their families immigrated from outside of the U.S.

Immigrant families often see the largest use of language brokers in the U.S. More than 50% of children living in immigrant families in the U.S. have at least one parent who struggles to speak English, according to data collected by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 mandates that any institution receiving federal funds must provide access to interpretation services to people with limited English skills.

Four Latina women stand side by side in the parking lot of the Kansas City Kansas Public Schools' administrative building.
Christy Moreno
Revolución Educativa
Christy Moreno (center right) stands with other mothers of Latino students outside the offices for the Kansas City, Kansas Public Schools. The four work together to translate public comments into Spanish during board meetings.

However, when organizations can’t or won’t provide these services due to shortages of qualified interpreters, families are pushed to use their children and young adults who have more exposure to English.

They’re used frequently in the governmental, educational and medical institutions of Kansas and Missouri, according to Christy Moreno, chief community advocacy and impact officer at the education and language access non-profit, Revolución Educativa.

“Typically, because it is actually against policy and legislation to use children as interpreters, (when it happens it) is never recorded,” said Moreno. “But I can just tell you, from the grassroots work that we do inside schools and in the community, that we see it happening every single day.”

'I can't explain everything'

Cruz Ayala has had a lot of experience filling in the gaps of interpretation services in the nine years she’s been in the U.S.

Her family immigrated to Overland Park, Kansas, from La Paz, Honduras, when she was 9 years old. Three years later, she took on the role of the family’s primary interpreter.

Despite being placed in an English learners class and attending a bilingual elementary school in Honduras, Cruz Ayala said she struggled with the language for a long time after arriving in Overland Park.

Compared to family members, however, she was leagues ahead, inspiring her to become their on-demand interpreter.

“I hated it at first,” she admitted. “One time I was literally sleeping and my mom and grandma came in and just gave me a phone. I'm like, ‘I don't know who I'm talking to.’”

Translating government documents, interpreting for doctor's visits, and even calling to let her school know she was home sick were some of the normal duties Cruz Ayala carried out, all with the expectation of near perfect translation.

“My mom would get mad at me. She'd say, ‘¡Tu hablas inglés! ¿Por qué no entiendes?’” she said. “I'd just be like, ‘Mom, I just don't understand, like I don't know how to explain it to you.’”

A Latino family pose together for a photo at a birthday party.
Ashlee Zoe Cruz Ayala
Cruz Ayala poses with her grandparents and younger sister at her 15th birthday party. Her family lived with her grandparents for several years after arriving in the U.S.

Despite the high demands she often faced, Cruz Ayala’s family is supporting her plan to attend college in Arizona after she graduates this spring. Her goal is to pursue a career as a nurse practitioner.

But knowing how much the family has relied on her help has Cruz Ayala worried about passing the responsibility off to her younger sister.

“It's going to be stressful for her because she doesn't like people and she doesn't like talking,” she explained. “(She’s) going to definitely struggle with it. I know she's going to call me.”

'It’s a lot of juggling'

David Gabaldon was older when he took on similar responsibilities, but relates to the stress Cruz Ayala feels.

When he was in high school his sister left for college, leaving him as one of the primary interpreters for his grandparents. He felt unequipped for the role because he'd grown up in a house where both his parents and older sister were bilingual.

Gabaldon’s mother was brought to the U.S. as a baby from Camargo, Mexico, in the mid-'70s. Her family settled in Kansas City’s historic Westside before moving to Roeland Park, Kansas, 15 years later.

When it was his turn to prepare for college, his grandfather developed cancer, making his role as interpreter much more demanding.

“Junior year, senior year of high school, and then the first couple years of college. That was the biggest gap where I was translating,” he explained. “(I was) having to go to doctor appointments a couple times a week.”

An old Latino man stands next to his 20 year old grandson in a living room covered in Christmas decorations.
David Gabaldon
David Gabaldon served as one of the main interpreters when his grandfather battled with cancer. He said the experience brought the two of them closer together. He hopes to visit Mexico with his grandfather in the coming year.

Gabaldon became the primary interpreter for his grandfather because his schedule was more flexible than others in the family. He said managing that schedule as a first generation college student, and concern for his grandfather's health, created a lot of stress for him at the time.

“It was a lot of juggling,” he said. “Going to school full-time, working and having to go to appointments. It’s not only time consuming, but it could be a little emotional as well. It’s your grandfather, and he has cancer. You don't want to mess up or say anything that's wrong.”

'Who's a better person than me?'

Despite all of these challenges, both Cruz Ayala and Gabaldon say they’ve benefited from their interpreting responsibilities.

Cruz Ayala credits the work with helping develop her professional communication skills and choosing to pursue a career as a nurse practitioner. She hopes to continue to help others receive access to interpretation services in the future.

“I am so grateful that I got to do it," said Cruz Ayala. “Who's a better person to be helping out my family than me, in those hard situations, with those language barriers. That’s why I like to do it even though it’s a pretty big thing.”

Gabaldon said, as a first generation college student, he believes that his struggles balancing school and interpreting for his grandfather helped him decide to take his current job at JCCC.

“Just trying to juggle everything, like not having somebody before me to guide me. Maybe that’s why I’m a recruiter,” said Gabaldon. “To help students in that similar situation.”

Both Cruz Ayala and Gabaldon said they feel a sense of pride in the work they’ve done for their families.

A young Latina woman sits outside a coffee shop and types on a laptop in the late afternoon.
Zach Perez
Ashlee Zoe Cruz Ayala plans to attend Grand Canyon University in Phoenix, Arizona, after graduating high school in May of 2024. However, she worries about leaving her family to care for her aging grandmother, who she lived with for many years, after the recent death of her grandfather.

But Christy Moreno worries this pride may mask hidden stressors that some young people still carry.

A study published in the Springer Journal of Youth and Adolescence, which examined language brokering practices among Latino immigrant families, supports the idea that the practice can be a double edged sword.

“There’s a lot of research that reinforces pride, development of empathy and connection to society,” explained Moreno. “However, there are a lot of negative side effects too that all involve mental health and intra-family dynamics.”

According to the study, when performed in low stakes environments such as helping family members order food at a restaurant, language brokering can lead to increased academic achievement and improved social skills in children and young adults.

However, in high stakes situations such as during doctors appointments, it becomes associated with decreased academic achievement, increased anxiety and strained familial relationships.

“If the child is not interpreting or translating appropriately because they are not prepared, trained or qualified, there are often repercussions inside the home,” said Moreno.

Neither Gabaldon or Cruz Ayala said they feel any of these negative effects.

But, as interpreters continue to be a rare resource in multiple industries, families must balance their need for the language skills their children have with the risk of creating challenges later on.

“They are put in the middle of a very difficult situation, a very difficult conversation,” said Moreno. “They have to act as an adult when they're not. So there is an impact that’s depression related, anxiety related, but nobody really talks about that.”

As KCUR’s Community Engagement Producer, I help welcome our audiences into the newsroom, and bring our journalism out into the communities we serve. Many people feel overlooked or misperceived by the media, and KCUR needs to do everything we can to cover and empower the diverse communities that make up the Kansas City metro — especially the ones who don’t know us in the first place. My work takes the form of reporting stories, holding community events, and bringing what I’ve learned back to Up To Date and the rest of KCUR.

What should KCUR be talking about? Who should we be talking to? Let me know. You can email me at zjperez@kcur.org or message me on Twitter at @zach_pepez.

KCUR serves the Kansas City region with breaking news and award-winning podcasts.
Your donation helps keep nonprofit journalism free and available for everyone.