Blog Post #2: Puentes in the Time of COVID
By: Krizia R. Lopez, Founder, Puentes Community Translators and IIE Centennial Fellow
Composing this piece was much more difficult than I thought it would be. With the enormous impact the pandemic has had on every aspect of our society, I wanted to take the time to truly reflect on and capture the experience of working on Puentes Community Translators and being in New York as COVID-19 bore down on the world.
2020 has been an extraordinary and tragic year for the whole world as the coronavirus pandemic swept around the globe. No area was quite as hard hit as New York City, which suffered a severe outbreak in the spring that led to some of the highest raw number of COVID-19 infections in the world. And within New York City, the worst COVID outbreaks, most overcrowded hospitals, and economic damage occurred in Elmhurst, Queens, and the surrounding neighborhoods --- the areas where I live and where my project, Puentes Community Translators, operates.
Before the Storm
I started Puentes Community Translators with the mission of breaking the cycle of language and resource barriers for immigrants. By introducing local bilingual young adults in professional translation trade skills, we increase the supply of community-rooted translators and help them open a potential new career utilizing language skills they already possess. The initial plan to operationalize this was to build a training program to be held in person and in partnership with local institutions starting in April.
From January through March, I made great progress building partnerships and establishing resources for our program. Some of the milestones included gaining classroom space at Newtown High School, initiating partnerships with other local schools like Voyager High School and Pan American High School, and gathering our first wave of student applicants. I garnered support from the local congressional office and district committees, including a special meeting with the Office of Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. This led to me delivering a presentation about Puentes Community Translators at the March District 4 Community Board Meeting, attended by local representatives like NY Council Member Francisco Moya. As I continued to establish more awareness in the community, I signed on volunteers to help develop resources, reach out to local businesses in the area, and work with our trainees. I networked heavily with local businesses and community organizations in Queens and connected with in-the-field experts like Meridian Linguistics LTD, an international translation company. Yet as much as I had worked on establishing Puentes through this grassroots community work, nothing could have prepared us for what was in store for March.
As news of the initial COVID-19 outbreak in Wuhan spread, so did the disease itself. Within a few weeks, New York City was engulfed in a massive spike of COVID cases, growing ever steadily and quickly spiraling out of control with nearly 800 deaths per day at the peak. My area --- the neighborhoods of Woodside, Elmhurst, Jackson Heights, and Corona --- was the epicenter of the outbreak, suffering more than 7000 cases in the first weeks and up to 13 deaths a day, by far the highest proportion of cases in NYC. I recommend reading this New York Times Article, “A Tragedy is Unfolding: Inside New York’s Virus Epicenter” for more context on why our immigrant-dense, low-income population was hit the hardest.
Suddenly, life in New York was completely upended as the city shut down and went into quarantine. Schools and businesses were forced to close. The streets were completely deserted and eerily quiet except for the constant wails of ambulance sirens, each minute a sharp reminder of the tragedy unfolding among us. Taxis were parked in driveways and along every street and the subway ran empty. In Elmhurst, food banks and community support groups went into overdrive as tens of thousands of day-laborers and domestic workers, which comprise a large part of residents in the area, became suddenly unemployed or worse --- became ill with the coronavirus. The Elmhurst Hospital had lines for COVID-19 testing stretching beyond sight as people waited days to get tested while the facilities overflowed with the highest density of COVID-19 patients in the world.
Due to the massive emergency response needed in Elmhurst, the entire community and all its resources are focused on helping to control the pandemic and alleviate the economic impact of the mandatory shutdowns on people’s ability to survive. The closing of all education programs in NYC, shutdown orders on most businesses, mandatory stay-at-home quarantine, and the lack of widespread online accessibility of our community have upended every aspect of life and disproportionately impacted those with lower resources. My project as originally designed (with its heavy in-person component) will need to change significantly or be postponed until the fall when restrictions are reduced, and the risks posed by COVID-19 may be less.
For now, I’ve shifted Puentes’ focus. Instead of a training program, we will for now serve as a connector for volunteers with language skills who want to help with the emergency response. Right now, there is a huge need for translators as ESL students and families struggle to navigate through life in NYC without access to in-person services with interpreters. As organizations struggle to move rapidly and adapt to the shutdowns by bringing everything online, there is a lot more text being produced at high volumes without the step of getting it translated. An example is the Queens Community House’s announcements page, which shares vital program updates but does not offer it in Spanish or Chinese, the two most commonly spoken languages in Queens.
On the Puentes website, I’ve posted our volunteer signup form, which I will assemble into a database of volunteer translators. We will focus on translating written documents -- specifically, I’m envisioning things such as day-to-day instructions from schools or teachers, infographics, announcements released by nonprofits, etc. that are essential for the local community (most of which don’t speak English as a first language). People are eager to help from their homes/computers, and this is one way Puentes can still make an impact for the local community while staying aligned with our overall mission: language access for all.
Hello world! I am so excited to start a new year, a new decade, with an incredible opportunity like the IIE Centennial Fellowship. I created my project, Puentes Community Translators to train bilingual young adults from immigrant-dense neighborhoods in Queens, NYC to become professional translators for their communities. So why is this project so meaningful and significant to me? What are our starting goals for the year?
No Hablo Ingles!
When my husband Ben was a public-school math teacher, he often had to make calls home. One of the first calls he made was to Juan’s parents. Juan had been missing a few homework assignments here and there. Ms. Ramirez picked up the phone “Aló”? …. “Yes this is Mr. Stone calling about missing homework” .... “Ah sorry. No hablo ingles…. Juan, ayudame a traducir por favor” She handed over the phone to Juan, her son, who was also the unofficial Ramirez household translator.
Juan is one of hundreds of thousands of bilingual immigrant kids raised in the US who find themselves in the role of translators for their families – at school, at the doctor, with the police. Oftentimes, these first-generation kids growing up in the U.S. are the only fluent English speakers accessible to their immigrant family for day-to-day situations that require translation. Professional translation agencies are cost-prohibitive and inaccessible to most families, small businesses, and community organizations in the area, who instead rely on volunteers or friends to translate. This leaves many residents struggling with the language barrier, reducing equitable access to social support, government services, daily tasks, and business opportunities. Immigrants need access to culturally sensitive partners whom they trust, and trust is often insular to fellow community members.
Simultaneously, as first-generation bilingual speakers become young adults and enter the workforce, they continue to be over-represented in the lowest employment and education brackets according to U.S. census data. Translator jobs are projected to grow 18% over the next decade, among the fastest growing industries in the US. Hourly, translation workers earn an average of $24/hour or $50,000 per year – double what they might make in common job options like construction, food services, or retail.
There is a huge opportunity to help immigrant communities gain both economic capital and tremendous social value from that bilingual skill set many young adults already possess. Why not create a career out of something most already do every day with their families?
My own experience as an immigrant has given me a unique insight into the experience of living and functioning within different cultures. My family and I are all originally from Peru, but -- after a few years in Chile and South Africa -- we came to the United States when I was around 9 years old, following the promise of a safer, better, brighter future. I always had a knack for languages so learning English was a breeze (now I speak fluent English, Spanish, German, and Chinese), but we still spoke Spanish at home. Though my own family didn’t struggle with language barriers thanks to my parents’ solid English skills, we knew several others who did. Finding a community of fellow immigrants was a lifeline for many of these families.
Many years later, when I moved to NYC to attend Columbia University, I was blown away by the incredible richness and diversity of the city. NYC is home to over 800 languages, and 49.1% of households speak a language other than English at home. We are also home to the statistically most diverse neighborhood in the world: Queens, NY. Where else can you walk one block and get a sampling of 15 different world cuisines (and on the cheap, too!)?
I’ve become intimately familiar with Queens as I canvassed the streets, churches, laundromats, nonprofits, etc. daily for my work with Valence College Prep school last year. As I walked the streets connecting with the community, I met hundreds of recently arrived immigrant families fleeing instability in Venezuela, Somalia, Myanmar, and the Middle East among others. Talking with them, it struck me how often language barriers came up -- they mentioned not being able to stay in the loop with their kids’ educations or how they only went to very specific businesses/services in the area where the employees spoke Spanish (the majority of the population in the particular parts of Queens I work in is Spanish-speaking). While visiting the local high schools, I also realized that the job/internship advisory offices often posted opportunities in the community seeking bilingual students to help with general translating, phone help, communications, etc.
This was all incredibly similar to the stories I had recorded in 2013-2014 on my Fulbright in Nicaragua, as I conducted my research on the impact of Nicaraguan Sign Language on recent changes in socioeconomic access and human rights for Nicaraguan deaf people. The more time I spent there, the more I realized that everything a deaf Nicaraguan needed to do as an adult -- finding work, going to the hospital, filling out government forms -- required an NSL/Spanish interpreter. Yet, my research found that there were only 20-30 NSL interpreters in the entire country available for hire. The deaf Nicaraguans that got by the best relied heavily on the support of family members who had become informal translators -- and those that did not have anyone were out of luck.
I couldn’t help but notice the parallels between the marginalization of deaf Nicaraguans and non-English speaking U.S. immigrants. There is, in a sense, a market gap of translation service providers that are accessible to everyone and integrated into the community, so that people who are shut out by language barriers do not have to rely solely on the availability of their family members.
My vision is for Puentes Community Translators to close that gap. Everyone should have equal access to translation, and young adults with bilingual skills deserve the chance to build better paying careers that also benefit their community with that skill.
Setting Our Sights
I can’t wait to see my vision come to life this year. Puentes will start operating in Queens with two cohorts of approximately 10-15 people each over the course of six months (3 months per cohort). Our goals right now are to find a good training space we can use, to connect with a large network of local organizations who can help promote our project, to complete our curriculum, and to start finding our students for that special first cohort! Our logo, website, and marketing materials are all set to go -- visit our website for more information or follow us on Facebook. I am incredibly grateful to IIE for giving me the opportunity to work on this project full time. I sincerely believe that communities hold the key to their own development: leveraging a community’s existing strengths to addresses their needs is the key to creating authentic, integrated solutions that really do work to unlock better outcomes in today’s increasingly globalized world.