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Sunday, February 16, 2014


Back in December (2013) a 34-year-old South African was in the spotlight for allegedly faking sign language during the memorial for leader, Nelson Mandela. Many members of the deaf community said the gibberish from the man, did not resemble sign language in any way. It was later determined that he may have a mental illness and hopefully he has been given care. He said he heard voices and saw angels. You know a few comedians had their way with this. I remember seeing an amusing skit about it on Saturday Night Live.
But I could relate, in some ways, to the story- to his "faking" that is. It took me back to the summer of 1997. I'd relocated to another city and needed a job. There was an opening for an Income Maintenance Caseworker with the Department of Health and Human Services. Sounds big right? Well, it was a job as a caseworker for the county- food stamps.
There were many people interviewing for the job. I really needed it and wanted it and I knew I needed to stand out from the other candidates.

So it came to me... sort of like the voices the fake interpreter in South Africa experienced.

"I see that you studied in Spain not too long ago," the interviewer smiled.

"Yes! and it was a great experience," I added.

"So you speak Spanish fluently?"

I started thinking about my level of Spanish. I did take two years in junior high and my two years of high school Spanish were great! I impressed one of my Spanish teachers. And I did take the plunge and went to Spain after just one year of Spanish in college. But did that make me fluent?

"We really need someone bilingual here. We don't have anyone in the building who speaks Spanish," she said.

I could sense how much I was needed. This is what will make me stand out!
"Si! I am fluent!" I answered.

Was it really important to tell her that my high school teacher was impressed because I was one of the few who actually did my homework and didn't talk AS much as the others? That I went to Spain to get the credit so I could skip Spanish II and be done with my required two years of a foreign language? And that was just a year prior to applying for the job.

I tried to assure myself that it would be okay. I knew basic conversational Spanglish. She did say no one else in the building spoke Spanish, so, unlike the guy in South Africa, I would not have to worry about a community of bilingual co-workers knowing I was NOT fluent. It would be a piece of pastel!

I knew greetings, salutations, colors, numbers, simple phrases, body parts, days of the week and months. So it would be like the families talking to a kindergartner pre-k level student. But I did learn a few words I knew would be vital: food stamps and pay stubs. I also kept a Spanish/English dictionary on my desk beside my cross.

Initially, things looked like it would be okay. Then, one day my supervisor called me in to interpret for him. So just like the South African interpreter I found myself a few feet beside the boss. My writing and description of the scene in his office doesn't give any justice to the look on the couple's faces during the horrid interpretation that day.

"Can you ask them when they moved to this county?" my boss stated.
"Cuando you get aqui?" I asked them, pointing down.
They looked at their watches and gave me the time they arrived to the building. Uh oh.
I tried again. "No. Que dia you come here." Still pointing down. They were confused so I helped them out.
"They said, they moved here a month ago."
It got really loco and I was sweating so badly. A few times the couple asked questions but after the first two or three words I didn't even try to get it. I would start using the few Spanish phrases I knew- no matter what they asked.
"Que es esto?" (what is that?) Their faces and responses were priceless.
My boss continued to ask me to ask them questions or give them information. Sometimes he would direct the questions to them louder and he started using gestures.
"Have you received food stamps in any other county before?"
I only knew present tense verbs and again, the basic stuff, so I asked them,
"Que es esto?" (what is that?)
And they would look around to see what I was referring to. While they talked (too fast) I kept thinking of other phrases I knew even if it was not appropriate.
"Do you have proof of bills you pay and your earnings?" my boss asked. I shortened it.
"Cuantos anos tienes?" I asked. (How old are you?) and told my boss,
"They said they left it at home but can bring it in a few days."
By the time we finished I'd asked them their ages, favorite color, the month they were born and, "What is that?" several times. I don't know who they thought was crazier- me or my boss for talking so loud. Once during the conversation, I did tell them he was crazy and old. I knew those words and I knew they would believe me based on his behavior.

Believe it or not I did not get fired. My Spanish got better, especially after meeting more families and talking incorrectly on the phone. There were quite a few times I had to hang up. I begged families to speak muy despacio (very slow) so I could catch a few words. I had to take control on occasion when I received calls.
"¿Cuál es tu nombre?" (What is your name)
Once I got the name I would say, "No mas or esperar!" (No more or wait!) This gave me enough time to look them up. Then I would just tell them either that they had food stamps or they didn't.
"Sí, de alimentos!" or "No! de alimentos!" And a polite, "Gracias!" while simultaneously hanging up.
Sure there was a chance that was not why they were calling but I did what I had que hacer.


Anonymous said...

Only my cousin! U have made my nite; its12:17am by the way. Now I got to get up off the floor. This is too funny. I liked to keep up with ur blog. B-) said...

My husband and I had to cheer at the fact that you got away with it!

T Mills said...

Que pasa y loco lol

Jern said...

No way!! I love it!

C Stewart said...

Too funny! Remember I was calling you to interpret for me! What were you saying about those yellow pages? Lol

Barbara said...

This sounds like something off the I Love Lucy Show!!! This is FUNNY!!!!

Melissa Jackson said...

Barbara it is so funny. I was cracking up as I wrote about it. Crying so hard that I could barely see the keys. Every time I picture it I laugh. I can still hear my supervisor speaking louder to them.

Melissa Jackson said...

Crystal...I was probably speaking Spanglish. It depends when. Lol