Valley Community Interpreters
Answering Unmet Language Needs with Untapped Language Assets in New Mexico
Well into a career in nonprofit management, Cecilia Portal went to a conference on court and medical interpretation in 2008 on a whim. She ended up with a new calling. A bilingual Cuban refugee with experience in Nursing who had lived among and served many different communities in the United States and Mexico, her unique background and life journey had prepared her to recognize both the unmet language needs and the untapped language assets in her community.
New Mexico is home to a constellation of different language groups. Residents speak English, Spanish, Navajo, and Arabic; they speak Pueblo and Vietnamese; they speak Mandarin. Non-English speakers without access to language services experience a tremendous social and bureaucratic “isolation.” How do you register the birth of a child? How do you consent to medical decisions? How do you open a bank account?
If the need was high in New Mexico, so too was the capacity. Many New Mexico residents were, like Portal, fluent in more than one language. Yet, no one was training interpreters. New Mexico was a state with high need for language services and a large group of language-equipped individuals capable of meeting that need. Moreover, it was a state that suffered from high unemployment rates and language services was a growth industry. Why wasn’t New Mexico a leader in this field?
With this vision, Portal launched Valley Community Interpreters and With this vision, Portal launched Valley Community Interpreters and began teaching courses in community interpretation. VCI has since trained more than 250 individuals, mostly women of color. Portal is proud that VCI is really a “pipeline” to the profession: their graduates are working at area hospitals, at the university; they are contracted with city government; they are performing telephonic services across the country.
Recently, VCI’s work has evolved with the launch of professional development training to help their graduates prepare for work beyond the institute. While there are some full-time permanent positions available in the field, much work in language services remains contract-based. The new curriculum helps students understand the terms of contract employment and its vulnerabilities, offers classes on financial literacy, and provides assistance from a consultant with expertise in small business development. After success with a pilot program, they are excited to begin offering this intensive training to their current students and graduates.
The creation of a language service agency, staffed largely by VCI institute graduates, has been another stage in the organization’s journey. The language service contracts with local service providers and government agencies, providing a source of work for graduates run locally, fairly, and transparently. As an integral part of the VCI nonprofit, Portal hopes that the agency will help make VCI’s broader work and their institute sustainable and self-sufficient by providing a reliable financial stream to fund their work and offer scholarships to the institute.
VCI has also become a vocal public advocate for language services. Many service providers, like hospitals, city governments, and even the state itself, continue to completely neglect the language needs of residents and clients.This is both inefficient and functionally illegal. Language access is guaranteed under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act’s protection from discrimination based on national origin. Language services in medical circumstances are further protected under the ACA. Access to language services is the law. VCI is working to remind these agencies of the language rights of residents and show them how language services can make them more effective and efficient.
At the same time, they have made community education on this issue a priority, recently launching a language access rights initiative to educate residents on language rights and empower them to demand needed services. Their programming identifies all of the local agencies that are governed under Title VI and distributes ‘I speak’ cards that note the holders’ need for an interpreter – and their right to one.
Portal believes that their three-prong approach – training translators, community education, and government advocacy and accountability – is essential. Why have laws ensuring access to language services if people are unable to invoke them? How do you demand state agencies spend on legally-required language services if there are no translators who can perform those services? Why train language professionals if the major employers won’t hire them? By striking at all three at once, VCI hopes to begin a revolution in New Mexico’s language culture.