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(This blog is from the Summer of 2016.)
I learned about the power of three different forms of communication in my encounters this past week at CCLS: intellectual communication, verbal communication, and emotional communication. In all three encounters, the client spoke Spanish and the lawyer spoke English so an interpreter was needed. While the trouble in one case did arise from language barrier, the trouble in the other two arose from mental and emotional barriers to communication.

In my encounter with the client, Rafael, this week, I observed the difficulty in conveying complex ideas – in other words, intellectual communication. Rafael wants to become a citizen in the United States, which is usually a difficult task for most Cubans due to strained country relations. However, 30 years ago, Rafael went fishing with his friend in Cuba and a package of marijuana suddenly appeared in the ocean – or so he claimed – and shortly after they placed the package on board, they were caught by the coast guards. The attorney, Jeffery, informs Rafael that he will be interrogated on this conviction in Cuba and no matter how believable he thinks it is, and that this telling of the story will not convince the judge. However, I could tell that Rafael could not grasp why the details were important. He kept saying, “You have to understand, it was 30 years ago, I don’t remember.” However, based on Jeffery’s questions and situational role-play, I knew that Jeffery was trying to open Rafael’s mind to the possibility of his friend setting him up, which would allow him to look innocent. It was interesting because like me, I noticed that the translator knew Rafael did not understand what Jeffery was trying to do. Rafael was on the defensive. He did not listen to understand; he listened to reply. He could not see the bigger picture and could not comprehend that if he painted the picture this way, he would help his case. So, in Jeffery’s concluding statements, the translator decidedly omitted the point that suggested Rafael was a “helper” to his friend’s conniving plan. Although, at first, I thought that this was a dangerous move, in hindsight, that may have been the best decision for that moment due to the intellectual barrier present.

Two days later, Jeffery asked me to do an even more difficult translation. I walked into a room with two women sitting beside their Cuban grandfather, Papi. Jeffery initially said that one of the granddaughters could speak Spanish, but she corrected him. With her weeks-old child in her arms, she said, “I can’t speak Spanish. It’s just the way I speak English that he sometimes understands me.”

She then proceeded to speak in a choppy, sharp manner with a “mucho” and “mas” thrown in and every sentence ended with “comprendes?” Jeffery then said their grandfather was not going to be able to get a green card due to his criminal record. Papi started speaking in a way that was very difficult for me to understand. He did not pronounce his words clearly and mumbled. He was also very worked up. I started translating what I heard but I knew I did not catch everything. It hurt when he looked at his granddaughters and shook his head. He understood me, but I knew I was not doing a good job of communicating all that he wanted to say. I was relieved when Santos, the bilingual attorney, walked in and asked Jeffery if he still needed help. Although Jeffery said no, I eagerly said yes – we need help. Later, when we were moving into the next room, I said to Papi, “Lo siento que no tengo el vocabulario…” and he replied energetically with, “Yo tampoco!” About 15 seconds later, he turned to me and said, “Ninguna es perfecto”. I smiled and said it was true. I could not imagine being unable to verbally communicate with the ones who were closest to me. These two granddaughters wanted to help their grandfather, but the language barrier was inhibiting.

My third encounter took me by surprise. The lawyer, Sarah, asked Ellie and I to translate the declaration of a case, but gave us zero context. After walking in the room, we all positioned ourselves. Sarah was sitting behind her computer and Ellie was to her left. On the other side of the desk, I sat next to Marta, the client. Sarah started with, “Now, I’m going to need you to tell me about the incident with Leonardo.”

After reading a ton of gang-related cases in the CCLS client spreadsheet and having such few context clues about who Leonardo was, I thought Leonardo was a threatening gang member in her home country. No one prepared me for the disturbing story that would unravel before me – the molestation of a boy named Leonardo. When answering questions in the beginning, Marta, Leonardo’s mother, was very brief, but as the details of the incident came to light, she became much more elaborate. When she spoke, she gave direct eye contact and I knew she just wanted us to understand. In moments of silence, Marta and I watched Sarah’s face and Ellie’s face scrunch as they looked at the computer screen and the loud typing on the keyboard. I looked down and noticed that her legs were shaking and from the corner of my eye, I could see that she was sucking in her lips to hold back the tears. Marta later broke into tears when answering a particular question, muttering the words through her gasps. I felt helpless. I wanted so badly to provide her with some comfort. I could not hear her words because I was trapped in her emotion. I did not have the focus to translate every detail of the story so I was thankful when Sarah did not have trouble understanding the Spanish. I wondered how Marta felt in that moment, sharing her story with three other people who were so distant and could not truly relate – three people on the outside looking in, analyzing, and documenting. I remember her saying, “I don’t know if any of you are mothers, but I feel responsible, like I didn’t take care of him”. We assured her that she was a good mother and that her family didn’t deserve any of this… I still don’t know the exact details of Leonardo’s story, but I understand the pain.

* Clients’ names have been changed.