SAN DIEGO — Betty Lewis was awakened at 2 a.m. by a call from the Women's Resource Center hot line. A Spanish-speaking woman had apparently just been raped.
Could Lewis make it to the Oceanside Police Department to interpret?
The San Diego State University senior pulled on her jeans and was out the door, leaving her 2-year-old son with an elder brother. Her mission was to offer emotional support in Spanish for the victim and to glean the facts needed by police to find the attacker.
"How would you like to be a rape victim in South America and be taken to a hospital where no one spoke any English or understood the nuances of your culture?" asked Sharon Newcomb, Lewis' volunteer coordinator at the Resource Center. "I imagine you could get by without it, but it would be difficult."
In a San Diego Municipal Court room, interpreter Alee Alger acted as the ears of a defendant in a wife-beating case while fellow court interpreter Mary Lobato spoke for the wife.
Neither husband nor wife spoke enough English to go on the record without an official interpreter. As Lobato interpreted the wife's testimony from Spanish into English, Alger interpreted anything said in English back into Spanish for the husband.
While answering an attorney's questions about her fractured arm, the wife broke into a nervous giggle. She was severely reprimanded by the judge, who interpreted her laughter as disrespect.
The interpreters knew better but said nothing.
"Here, we're nothing more than a voice," said Alger, a past president of the California Court Interpreter's Assn. "We're not here as an advocate for one side or the other."
At Tri-City Medical Center in Oceanside, amid the Sunday afternoon bustle in the emergency room, nurse Donna Chirichetti slipped behind a curtain and into a cubicle. She deftly extracted an intravenous needle from a patient's arm, checking pulse, temperature and temperament.
"Como se siente ahora , senora?" she asked. (How do you feel now, madam?)
The patient, a 58-year-old flower trimmer from Michoacan, Mexico, suffered dizzy spells from an ear infection. She spoke no English and could not read or write Spanish. She had good reason to feel disoriented, embarrassed and scared, but instead she turned imperiously to Chirichetti and waved the nurse from the room while she dressed, confident that the nurse/interpreter was hers to command.
"I'm sorry I can't speak much of anything," the woman confessed in Spanish after a doctor's exam in which Chirichetti interpreted both questions and answers.
"For someone who doesn't know how to say anything, madam, you're certainly doing a good job of it," Chirichetti replied.
Lewis, Alger and Chirichetti are part of a select few in the county who interpret in critical, high-pressure situations for native Spanish speakers who are unable to communicate in English.
The work is exacting, often misunderstood, but increasingly in demand in San Diego, which, because of its nearness to the border, has a growing need for interpreters.
Once Spanish-speakers in San Diego could be at the mercy of someone like a nearby janitor who might be pressed into service to interpret, as best he could. But laws requiring that a defendant receive a detailed explanation of charges, complicated drug cases, and a wave of medical malpractice suits have changed things. In San Diego's hospitals, courtrooms and police stations, non-English speakers have been accorded the same legal rights to health care, due process and police protection as everyone else--and in their own language.
"Way back when the feeling was that if the guy's Latino, who cared what he had to say," said William Brown, chairman of the court interpreters association's San Diego chapter. "But when you get enough cases being thrown out of court (for lack of proper interpreting) and patients dying on you, it begins to make a difference, especially with the increased (political) status Latinos have been acquiring."
Brown became fluent in Spanish while teaching English in Mexico City after marrying a Mexican. He said court interpreting requires more than just bilingual ability. The legal terms alone constitute another language. "It's a little bit like typing or shorthand--a combination of things you know and things you can do," he said.
If a court interpreter has to curse violently at a judge to echo the vernacular of a street gang member, the words and tone must be absolutely verbatim or a case can be thrown out.
Under state and federal laws, an interpreter is provided to anyone in a court case who requests one. Courts now routinely line up Spanish interpreters whenever a Hispanic surname appears on the docket.