When a 10-Year-Old Translated for Her Parents on Live Radio, Thousands Recognized Themselves

For many kids, acting as your family's translator is a shared experience. (Anna Vignet/KQED)

Back on July 14, I turned on my radio to hear KQED Forum explore the disproportionate effect of COVID-19 upon the Latino community.

By the end of the show, one of the main reasons for that impact was evident: a lack of accessible information for Spanish speakers in the United States. But that message unexpectedly arrived in a sweet, brave voice of a 10-year-old girl.

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Towards the end of the show, host Mina Kim introduced us to young caller Maggie — who was contacting Forum on behalf of her parents. At first, Maggie stayed quiet.

Kim prompted her: “What’s on your mind, Maggie?” Listeners then heard Maggie relaying Kim's question to her mom: “me están preguntando qué está en mi cabeza.” The mom responded in Spanish.

“I’m worried that my mom and my dad will get the coronavirus again," Maggie finally told Kim.

The moment I heard Maggie’s voice, I stopped working on my computer, and turned to look at the radio (Yes, I have a physical radio in my room). As I heard Maggie asking her question about whether her parents could get COVID-19 more than once, and telling Kim she was just 10-years-old, I unconsciously placed my hands on my chest and started to tear up.

That moment moved me. And I later found out that it moved many other people as well.

One Family's Story

Maggie, like many other immigrant children in the United States, had assumed the role of translator for her family at such a young age. But she took it a step further, and decided to go on live radio to make sure she got the answer to her question.

Maggie Carrillo Vázquez, who called KQED Forum to ask a question of behalf of her parents (Courtesy Rosibel Vazquez Alvarado)

After the show, I reached out to Maggie’s mom Rosibel Vazquez Alvarado to learn more about their story. I found out that a neighbor had told them about Forum — and that Maggie took the lead to be the one to ask the question herself, in English. (Hear the moment she made the call here, starting at 36:00.)

Alvarado and her family moved to to the Bay Area from Guatemala around two years ago. She works at McDonald's, where she believes she caught her case of COVID-19. All of Alvarado's family then got sick too, from her husband to her four children, including Maggie herself.

After resting at home in quarantine, Alvarado took another test and found out that she still had the coronavirus. She had to remain at home for another full quarantine cycle in order to recover.

While she now feels better, and has tested negative twice, Alvarado has still not gone back to work.  She says her employers at McDonald's are refusing to compensate her for the second quarantine period she was unable to work, and that she's working with her workers' union and their lawyers to challenge the decision before she returns to work. “I want them to pay me because I am almost certain I got infected there,” Alvarado says.

This is the source of Maggie’s fear that her parents would get infected again: the need for them to return to work.

Tell us: Have you ever stepped in to translate for your parents or elders as they navigate life in the U.S.?

A spokesperson for McDonald's in Northern California told KQED that the company was "confident the vast majority of employees are covered with sick pay if they are impacted by COVID-19, and McDonald’s strongly supports provisions in the Families First Coronavirus Response Act and CARES Act that require sick leave for those impacted by COVID-19." On July 20,  Black Lives Matter and union protesters protested at a McDonald's in Oakland, joining a nationwide demonstration for economic justice and citing specific issues with McDonald's staff's safety during the pandemic.

After the show ended, Forum producer Blanca Torres and Dr. Kirsten Bibbins Domingo, the expert who'd appeared on air, reached out personally to Maggie and her mom to reassure them them that the probability they'd get COVID-19 again was low.

An Experience Recognized By Many

Once Forum ended I took a deep breath, and logged into Twitter to see how people were reacting to this conversation. I didn’t find anything, so I decided to tweet myself.

I usually overthink my tweets — but this time I just made sure I didn’t have any spelling errors. I only had one thing on my mind: how this moment was a perfect example of how immigrant children all over the United States have to step up for their parents and help them navigate the system. And now, with the COVID-19 pandemic, I could not imagine having that responsibility in your hands.

I wanted my tweet to be heard — but I wasn’t expecting the reaction it got. People felt seen, and heard. It brought them memories of their younger selves, when they continuously had to be the "Maggie" to their own families.

And while Maggie was translating Spanish, immigrants from any other non-English speaking country could identify with this special moment in radio.

The retweets started to pile up, but I couldn't stop reading people’s comments on their experiences. My tweet currently has over 29,000 likes.

However, it wasn't what I wrote that specifically resonated with people. I was merely a megaphone: it was the moment itself that was significant. That moment, happening over and over again — translating in stores, to teachers, to people in the bank. Translating over the phone, interpreting letters and formal documents. The stories are too similar to not see a pattern.

A Crucial Need for Knowledge

Immigrant children are so often given the responsibility of being their family’s translator — with the burden this represents. But their parents cannot be blamed for this. After all, they are just trying to do their best to adapt to a new country to which they migrated, to have a better life.

It is in the hands of the government — and the news media — to adapt to their audience: to read their own data and see who needs the information, and how that information will get to them most effectively. And this is even more crucial during a health crisis.

Minority populations are often affected the most in adverse national circumstances, and this pandemic has been no exception. The Latino population in this country has been disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 crisis, both economically and in the coronavirus case numbers — so the need for information and resources in Spanish is needed more now than ever.

From the moment I moved to this country I knew I wanted to write about the Latino community in the United States. Growing up in a border city like Tijuana, I grew up with a very unique dynamic of two countries merging together — but this is not the case for every city.

I feel like I grew up getting the best of both cultures. But I also was affected by the worst of those countries. Most importantly, I remember how the news media portrayed the city that I grew up in: how the news did not reflect the people, but instead reflected a loud minority who leaned towards violence.

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It was because of how wrongly my hometown was portrayed that I decided, early on, that I wanted to be someone that directed the narrative towards how a community really is. When I permanently moved to the United States I decided that while I probably wasn’t going to write about my city, I was going to join many others to highlight and uplift the stories of the Latino community — and produce information that could improve people's lives. That's also the reason I joined the KQED en Español team.

Leer KQED en Español

This project was formed at KQED soon after the pandemic started, with the intention of providing timely information in Spanish to the Latino community in the Bay Area during the COVID-19 pandemic. In our weekly coronavirus newsletter, we answer questions submitted by the public about the coronavirus, as well as showcasing key news and resources.

The newsletter has been fully bilingual since early July. We have also translated KQED content, created original stories, collaborated with Univision and El Tecolote and responded questions directly to the public via email.

But the work is not done, as we say: de aquí pal real. There is much more work to be done, and much ground to cover in order to give the Latino communities in the country what they need.

And while I understand that the road to giving equal access to information to the Latino community in Spanish can be bumpy, stories like 10-year-old Maggie Carrillo show us that bilingual journalism is needed — and it should be here to stay.

In other words, offering information in other languages should not be an elective. It should be a major.

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