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Young and talking money, for the family

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TESS VIGELAND: Some kids learn about money because they have to. In many immigrant families, kids are the only ones with a strong enough grasp of English to interact with the teller at the bank. They act as translators and as family budgeters.

Youth Radio’s Mayra Jimenez is one of those kids, and she recalls her first lessons in money management.

Mayra Jimenez: I was 13 when I spoke to a bank teller for the first time. That was five years ago. My parents were having money problems. Back then they didn’t speak a lot of English, so I had to translate their questions.

Here’s my father, Jose Trinidad:

Jose Trinidad, through a translator: It was very difficult. You weren’t mature enough. You were too small to understand the things we wanted to ask about the house and the bank.

Scholars call this “language brokering.” That’s when children of immigrants translate for their parents. A Pew survey found that only a small minority of Latino immigrants say they speak English well. But almost 90 percent of their U.S.-born adult children are fluent.

Ana Castillo remembers translating for her mom. But she admits being kind of embarrassed about it.

Ana Castillo: I really couldn’t imagine other children having to do what I was doing, and I feel like it’s something that I never talked about when I was growing up. Like, “Hey I went to the bank yesterday with my mom! What did you do after school?” It’s not a conversation to have at the playground.

Now, Ana can smile about it. She’s 26 and works full-time as a community organizer in South L.A. But translating caused a lot of stress

Castillo: If I made a mistake, my mom would be upset about it afterward. And just getting picked for that, that was really hard, because I always tried helping my mom out, and then to have done the opposite — that just kinda sucks. But I think in the long run it still helps. I think it helped me as an adult, because I’m still in that world and still negotiating with people.

It helped me too. Now I understand the basics of banking. I know how to watch an account, and I’m careful about avoiding overdraft fees. But it was hard figuring out complicated transactions for my parents.

UCLA Professor Marjorie Faulstich Orellana studies the role of young language brokers like me.

Marjorie Faulstich Orellana: It can be really hard for kids, and perhaps even traumatizing, when they see their families being treated unfairly by institutions of the larger society. But they can also feel incredibly powerful, valued, important, doing things that other kids can’t do, making a difference.

About a year-and-a-half ago, my parents wanted to buy a house in Texas. I had to translate all the fine print for them. When the house was in escrow, my mom stopped working because of an injury. We lost the house. And, in Ana’s case, things got bad when her mom’s house foreclosed. At the time, Ana wasn’t around to help.

Castillo: In some ways, I try not to feel responsible for what happened to that house, because that’s when I was in college. So I was 300 miles away from home, so I couldn’t help her through that. And so I wonder, had I been in Los Angeles, would it have been different? Would I have helped her to make a better decision along the way?

Having to translate for our families puts young people like Ana and me in a tough spot. But for the health of our families’ finances, we need to give our parents a voice.

Vigeland: Youth Radio’s Mayra Jimenez.

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