The Revolution Will Not Be In English

Interpreting in Social Justice Spaces

by Sophie Kasakove

Illustration by Caroline Brewer

published January 30, 2015

Roberto Tijerina was eight years old when he was first asked by his aunts and uncles to accompany them to doctors’ visits as their interpreter. The first in his family to be born in the United States and speak both English and Spanish, Tijerina was soon brought to meetings at the bank to help the family pay their bills and to the Department of Human Services to help them negotiate their welfare checks.

     In immigrant communities across America, the responsibility of interpretation frequently falls on whoever’s close by: a bilingual family member, friend, or neighbor. The burden placed on these default interpreters—most often children— is great. Tijerina remembers making difficult decisions as a child about what information to translate and what to withhold, such as whether he should relay a racist comment made by a lawyer about his family or translate a comment by a family member that may have revealed information best kept private.

     As the immigrants’ rights movement has gained traction over the past ten years, organizations and activists across the country have rallied around the project of multilingual justice, seeking to shift the burden of interpretation onto trained interpreters. The interpreters’ responsibilities in mediating between a speaker and an audience—rephrasing a speaker’s words, determining who gets to speak when, and at times, dictating the conversation’s trajectory—requires training and self-awareness.

Rejecting the Deficit Model

A speaker at the Highlander Education and Research Center’s 75th anniversary celebration in 2007 began his speech by declaring: “The Revolution will not be just in English.” His words have reverberated through the organization and across social activist networks. Highlander, a social justice leadership training school and cultural center based in New Market, Tennessee, has been a pioneer in the multilingual justice movement, emphasizing language access within social justice spaces as the crucial first step towards language equality in the US. With the influx of immigrants to the South—an almost 400 percent increase after the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA)—Highlander seeks to provide a space for activism in which Spanish-speakers can have a voice in their communities.

     When Tijerina began working at Highlander in 2005 as the multilingual capacity building program coordinator, the Center had already developed a strong language-access model and multilingual capacity-building program. Rejecting the “deficit” model in which interpreting is seen as a service giving access to those who don’t speak the dominant language, Highlander’s vision instead views interpreting as a way to break down language barriers and create spaces that are equally accessible for everyone. “Interpreting is a tool of power: it can be used to either include people in conversations, processes, and decisions that impact their lives or exclude them from it,” Tijerina told the Independent. “Multilingual justice is about creating the mechanisms through which people who don’t speak the same language can communicate.”

     Language is personal, visceral, and powerful; it is tied to our lands and to our bodies. Every time we open our mouths to speak in our accents and dialects, we identify ourselves and bring all these things with us. When we come together to have the hard conversations, it is important that we are able to express ourselves in the language that most fully conveys the depth and nuance of our hopes and our frustrations. – Highlander Research and Education Center Interpreting for Social Justice Curriculum

     In 2006, Tijerina developed Highlander’s multilingual justice program and principles into a workshop curriculum designed to help people who are already working as interpreters in their communities build their interpreting skillset and better understand the political dynamics and structures embedded in their work. Since then, Tijerina has held over 150 workshops across the country, as well as scores of presentations and mini-workshops at conferences. Tijerina has presented the workshop to participants of varying ages, races, and genders—from farmers in the rural south to LGBT activists in NYC. The long-term goal of the curriculum is to expand multilingual capacity within social justice spaces—to create a norm of language access. Tijerina says that many organizations—even immigrants’ rights organizations—don’t have the infrastructure to bring in all of the people they claim to serve and facilitate dialogue between them. “A lot of organizations understand the principle of language justice and how it relates to democracy and autonomy,” says Tijerina. “But the actual practice lags far behind.” For many organizations, this gap between ideals and practice is a result of financial restrictions: the microphones, receivers, and transmitters necessary to provide simultaneous interpretation cost thousands of dollars. But, as Tijerina says, a budget is a political document: it reflects an organization’s priorities.


At the office of the Olneyville Neighborhood Association (ONA), posters, flyers, and articles hang on the walls in equal proportions of English and Spanish. Enough is enough. Conoce tus derechos. No human being is illegal. NingĂșn ser humano es ilegal. The message is clear: this space is for everyone.

     Beginning informally in the 1990s in the basement of a local church, ONA now makes its home in the 150-year-old Atlantic Mills Building, a crumbling complex of mostly retail and manufacturing offices. ONA tackles issues affecting the communities of immigrants and people of color who inhabit the marginalized neighborhood, from housing and rent prices to police violence and immigration law. A bilingual but predominantly Spanish-speaking organization operating in a majority-Hispanic neighborhood, ONA has rallied around the multilingual justice movement, seeking to bridge the linguistic boundaries in Olneyville and Providence as a whole.

     At ONA, multilingual justice takes many forms. At its organizing meetings, ONA strives to provide interpretation and translation whenever financially and logistically possible. The group holds occasional interpreting workshops based on Tijerina’s workshop to strengthen the interpreting skills of community members. The organization also holds weekly Spanish classes for mostly white and primary English-speaking college students or recent grads trying to get involved in the group’s organizing efforts. Adan Sales, a Guatemalan immigrant who worked as a Spanish teacher at ONA in 2012, says that these classes are crucial for building trust because they break down the linguistic hierarchies and boundaries in the community. After years of interpreting for his friends and coworkers at local restaurants, Sales participated in an interpreting workshop at ONA. Sales says that these workshops are equally important for building community: when people know that there are trained interpreters in the neighborhood, they feel more confident in their daily interactions with their neighbors and coworkers, as well as with the police and elected officials.

     ONA has worked to implement language access not only through its internal organizing but through its negotiations with state and local legislators and law enforcement agencies. In 2011, as the newly sworn in attorney general, Peter Kilmarten signed Rhode Island onto the Secure Communities program, which required local law enforcement to forward fingerprints of all non-citizens to immigration enforcement, who would then investigate them for deportation. In response to the enactment of the program, ONA and other social activist groups held an accountability session with Kilmarten—conducted primarily in Spanish. “The goal in any accountability session is that the community holds the power in the room,” Will Lambek, a board member at ONA, told the Independent. “We want our target to feel that their back is against the wall.” Much of this power dynamic, as both Tijerina and Lambek described it to me, is determined by spatial factors: how the target, participants, and interpreters are positioned in the room. In this session, Kilmarten was seated in the corner of the stage, “tethered” to an interpreter and relying on Lambek to translate the proceedings of the room in real-time. The set-up ensured that Kilmarten would remain seated, that people asking questions stood in the center of the room, and that the dominant language in the space remained Spanish. “That’s how a non-linguistically dominant community can hold power in a space with an elected official,” explains Lambek.

     This is what multilingual justice looks like in an ideal scenario. But language access is rarely so seamless. ONA’s multilingual capacity relies greatly on the willingness of others to cooperate—which they often don’t. Many of the accountability sessions and community forums where ONA does their primary advocacy are held in English, with local officials often refusing to use translation equipment. Non-English speakers are frequently the ones relying on interpreters and using interpretation equipment. These unbalanced environments often discourage non-English speakers from sharing their opinions. Mirjaam Parada, a 58-year-old employee at the Omni Hotel, now active in the Unite Here! Local 217 hotel and food service workers’ union said in a phone interview she was afraid to get involved in the union’s work when she first moved to Providence from Venezuela 16 years ago because she was worried her broken English would prevent people from taking her opinions seriously.

     Both ONA and Unite Here! struggle to implement multilingual activism in their coalition work with predominantly English-speaking organizations in the community. Providence’s population is nearly 40 percent Hispanic, but many social justice organizations have yet to make themselves accessible to Spanish-speakers. ONA is one of the only primarily Spanish-speaking organizations in Rhode Island, along with Fuerza Laboral in Central Falls. “If we want to build our base of power across community we need to make coalition spaces multilingual and have people communicate across linguistic difference,” says Lambek. “To make our work sustainable, we have to increase the social justice interpreting network in the city.”

     Organizers in Providence look to Boston as a model in the multilingual justice movement. The Boston Interpreters Collective was founded by a group of Boston activists after attending one of Tijerina’s workshops in 2008. The group holds monthly interpretation practice session and popular education workshops about multilingual capacity building. With an ever-growing network of over 500 interpreters in the Boston area, anyone planning a social justice-related event or meeting can easily find a trained interpreter using the group’s listserv.

     Providence did have an interpreters’ collective several years ago (the Boston Interpreters Collective was, in fact, based on Providence’s group), but Providence’s small size made it difficult to sustain. There aren’t nearly as many interpreters in Providence as there are in Boston, and there are fewer social justice organizations to work with on language access projects. The Providence interpreters’ listserv has only 32 people, and, according to DARE member Keally Cieslik is a loose group of volunteers who can’t guarantee their time or availability. “The awareness is there among social justice organizations, but we just don’t have the capacity to take that next step to make it a movement,” says Lambek. “We have a long way to go before we could have something like the Boston network.”

Building the movement

The multilingual justice movement requires a shifting of norms—within social justice organizations’ internal operations, in their coalition efforts, and in their engagement with institutions of power. There are many obstacles, but interpreters are hopeful that if more organizations facilitate communication across linguistic differences, this shift becomes possible. “We live in such an English-dominated society, it’s really hard for English-speakers to adjust to things like using interpretation equipment,” says Cieslik. “But if an organization makes a commitment to being a multilingual space, there are all kinds of systems and policies they can put in place. Some are simple, like sending the organization’s emails in all the languages of the community members. We can’t just sit back and wait for that culture shift to happen.”

     Bottom-up efforts are no doubt crucial, but Tijerina has larger visions for the future of the movement. He and other activists have discussed creating an NGO devoted to multilingual justice, or housing the movement within an already-existing organization. There’s also been talk of developing the workshop curriculum into a university program. In whatever form the movement takes, it’s clear to Tijerina and others that this is an issue that demands a centralized, concerted effort among activists. The political will exists among organizers in minority communities across America, it just has to be tapped into. “This work is transformative,” says Tijerina. “I have been in countless multilingual spaces where non-English speaking people will come up to me after saying they didn’t know it could be like this. They’ll tell me how meaningful it was to have someone ask them questions directly rather than address them to an interpreter. They feel like they’ve just been heard, really heard, for the first time in their lives.”

If you’re bilingual and interested in getting involved in interpreting in Providence, email Keally Cieslik at [email protected]

SOPHIE KASAKOVE B’17 has never needed a translator.