By Rita Oceguera, Medill Immigrant Connect
Rocio Oceguera and I enter through the doors, check in and take our seats until we’re called. My mom is visiting the dermatologist in Naperville, a growing city west of Chicago. Although we are only one city away from my hometown Aurora, we are surrounded by mostly white patients.
Growing up in a Latino community, the whiteness is unsettling, making us more conscious of our conversation in Spanish. As we wait, my mom explains the questions she has and what I will be asking the doctor that day.
She is wondering why she has to come again and pay for an appointment when she knows they will prescribe the same medication she’s been using. She’s frustrated and confused, and as her 21-year-old translator that day, I have to make sure I portray her worries and get the answers she needs.
We get up and walk to our assigned room.
The doctor goes through the steps of checking my mom and I translate through the process. While my mom understands some, I do my best to fill in the blanks. Once the routine checkup is over, my mom prompts me to ask questions. I completely detach myself. I am no longer her daughter but become an extension of Rocio Oceguera, her words passing through my ears and releasing through my voice.
I ask the doctor why my mom has to come so often to get the same medication.
She says it’s routine.
My mom isn’t satisfied with that answer. I ask again, rewording the question.
She says since it’s oral medication, they like to make sure the patients are taking it properly.
My mom still isn’t satisfied. She tells me to ask the doctor a few more clarifying questions.
I cringe. I know a confrontation is coming. But I am not speaking as Rita, I am speaking as Rocio Oceguera and I need to say whatever she says, so I ask again.
I see the doctor is frustrated.
I compare the medication to my mother’s diabetic oral medication, asking why this one is different. The doctor rolls her eyes and ignores the question. Brushing me off, she simply says it’s routine.
I remember thinking that I may be an adult now but I’m still seen as a child who doesn’t know what she’s doing. Although I’m angered by her condescending voice, my mom doesn’t seem to notice.
This moment isn’t about me. I have to defend my mom and her need for answers.
After asserting myself, I get the answers my mom needs and we leave.
The experience stays with me.
All my life I’ve translated for my mother. I went to doctors’ appointments since I was little and asked the front desk to find the right office. When the doctors didn’t know Spanish, I’d ask the questions, provide the answers and fill out forms. I probably didn’t know what insurance was when I was 8 years old but I knew how to identify the information on the card and write it on the form. Whatever we didn’t know, we left blank.
My mother emigrated from Mexico City at the age of 19. She came to the U.S. not knowing the language, not having a degree, looking for a better life. Once her children were born, she became dependent on us to guide her through simple tasks she couldn’t complete because of a language barrier.
Ask if they have any more in the back. Ask if they have any additional discounts. Ask if we’re in the right office. Complain about the service. Let them know that we’re not being attended to.
When I was little, I found it annoying. As a shy child, I hated asking questions. I hated confrontations. I hated translating all the time, every day, to myself or other people. I was the child. Aren’t you supposed to take care of me? Ask questions for me?
As a child of an immigrant I was forced to flip the script and become the adult. When I was young, I didn’t understand and didn’t appreciate my privilege of speaking English. In America, it is expected that you know English and if you don’t, you’re deemed helpless. Without a voice, your rights seem lost. Those who can’t communicate can’t defend themselves.
When I was eight, it wasn’t clear how important my role was in translating. Not only was I relaying a message. I was providing comfort to my mother in knowing someone she trusted was there, helping her through each interaction.
I am now 23. Though I no longer live with my parents, I often go home to accompany my mother for another visit to the doctor. Every time I brace myself, not knowing whether a confrontation awaits but knowing that I’ll give my mom the same opportunity to communicate and defend herself as everyone else.