The experience of 6 weeks in Oaxaca was incomparable. Having the opportunity to learn from psychologists, college professors, student organizers, teachers, union organizers, artisans, domestic workers, engineers, sociologists, community volunteers, historians, archeologists, community elders, youth and curanderas during one summer of study is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. The amount of information that was imparted daily was at times staggering as well as spiritually invigorating. Being in the presence of so many dedicated professionals who spoke in the language that I usually work in, was validating. In the 16 years of work experience I have had, it was rare to have the opportunity to train with spanish speaking professionals, aside from learning from the community members themselves- its uncommon to have guidance on the macro level in spanish. This was a much needed professional development opportunity. As anyone working with the spanish speaking community can attest, opportunities like this are few and far between.
In reflecting on this summer with Sin Fronteras, I’ve found myself questioning the lack of training social workers have been given to develop the skills to effectively provide services to spanish speaking immigrants. Forty percent of people in California speak languages other than English at home. Spanish is the second most common language used (by 26 percent of the population), followed distantly by Chinese; spoken by 2 percent (CA Census 2000). There are approximately 11 million undocumented individuals who reside in the U.S., but also on an estimated 5.5 million children, of which approximately 4.5 million are United States Citizens, that live in “mixed-status families” where at least one or more family members is undocumented (Satinsky, Hu, Heller & Farhang, 2013). Growing up in a mixed-status Salvadorean household in Los Angeles, Spanish was the first language I learned. As a kid, you could hear spanish spoken on the street and printed on signs in the grocery stores, as well as on TV and in advertising. I remember the feeling of constant uncertainty that family felt in trying to find work and live without documents in the US. The fear of deportation, exploitation and discrimination is a daily stressor. As an immigrant, not being able to speak the language of many in power meant relying on others while you learned to speak it yourself. I remember helping to translate between two languages during parent teacher conferences, doctors appointments, with lawyers and for community members in public places.
One of the main reasons I chose to pursue social work as a profession was because I saw the lack of spanish language support available in mental health services. As a community health educator, whenever I had the opportunity to watch another facilitator teach a new subject I would be making mental notes on whether or not the approach could work within my presentations to spanish speaking members of my community. I would approach the facilitator after a training to ask if they would be willing to share any materials in spanish. Often the answer was “no we don’t have spanish language translation but if you want to translate it please make sure that you send us a copy”. Immigrants are at a risk for working in hazardous jobs, for being exploited as cheap labor, and for having a limited understanding of their own human rights due to the lack of language support available. After making a referral during my presentations to local agencies for participants to seek continued support I would hear back from them that they had reached out but were denied services due to the lack of spanish language interpretation.
Aside from language barriers having an understanding of international institutions and community response is helpful in creating an approach to more effective social work interventions. Models for social work interventions in Mexico had comparable problems to those in the US. Due to the institutional and historic discrimination that marginalized communities have suffered, their voices are lacking at higher levels of government. Those that benefit from these structured injustices are likely to hold positions of power at the government level and are less inclined to approve policy that can benefit low SES communities. For many immigrants a mistrust of institutions led to them seeking asylum and work within the US. Spanish speaking community members need advocates at all levels to improve their access to services.
Sin Fronteras provides a macro level analysis of international social work models and its influence to migration trends. It also provides an amazing opportunity to have conversations about institutional power, race, colonialism, effective and ineffective interventions in spanish.
Karen Mariel Navarro