Opinion | The Exploitation of Bilingualism In Our Workplaces by Zazueta ’23

Fragmented strips of images reveal sections of Frida Kahlo, a traditional Latin American fabric, and bright colors of texture.

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“You speak Spanish, right?”

My supervisor asked me that immediately into my interview for the pharmacy clerk position I applied for last summer. I enthusiastically and proudly told her I do. She also said something along the lines of “you speak very educated” and I was kind of offended but that is a whole other topic within itself.

Spanish is my first language, but learning pharmaceutical terminology in Spanish was a learning curve. I was the only Spanish speaker at the pharmacy. I had no idea I was going to be translating more than just a few times here and there. After four months, I burned out and left—I was being paid to work in customer service but doing double the work when I took care of only Spanish-speaking patients.

Growing up, I was under the impression that bilingual people had career advantages. However, I am now under the impression that native Spanish speakers are being taken advantage of.

I spoke with four Latina professionals who have worked in Southern California in mostly non-profit professions*. I wanted to know if–at the professional level–a person can be paid more for knowing Spanish. The short answer is no but, it is more nuanced than that. It is tricky navigating compensation for Spanish speaking because for most professionals the translating and communication is day to day and not easily measurable. Nonetheless, Latinx bilingual professionals are frequently using Spanish in the workplace without receiving additional pay for utilizing that skill.

 

Evelyn; Veterinary Receptionist

Evelyn is a veterinary receptionist in San Bernardino, where 85% of her clients are Spanish speakers. “In my résumé, I put I was bilingual. That was the first thing they asked me about because a majority of their clients are Spanish speakers.” She says, “Within my work field, Spanish speakers are highly demanded, but they don’t want to give that pay [for that skill].” Fortunately, she is not the only Spanish speaker at her work, two of the veterinary technicians are bilingual, too. However, she is the first face clients see. Evelyn goes out of the way to transcribe instructions and explains how to fill out forms to the Spanish-speaking customers. “I feel the need to help them.”

Anais; Tenant Coordinator

Anais plainly told me she was being underpaid when working as a tenant coordinator for East Los Angeles Community Corporation (ELAC). She found herself translating documents and their program curriculum for tenants, which wasn’t accounted for in her salary–“It was the most underpaid job I’ve ever had for how much work I was doing.” She also worked at the Cesar Chavez Foundation, where she was translating Spanish and English frequently because of the outreach work in Latinx communities, but every one of her colleagues was doing the same. However, Anias described that translating was not originally in her job description. Neither of the non-profit organizations she had worked for took into account the additional time and effort it took Anias to transcribe so that she could be doing meaningful work in the community.

Eloisa; Intervention Counselor

Eloisa is another former employee of the Cesar Chavez Foundation where she was one of the two people in the marketing and fundraising department. She describes working with several bilingual colleagues, but no one was appointed to a translator position. Eloisa translated across all departments, despite that task not being in her job description, and said she was making less money than everyone else in her office.

Outside of non-profit work, Eloisa still finds herself translating and transcribing for her current position at an animal rescue organization that partners with a county shelter, though it is not in her job description. She says, “I translate for the shelter. The shelter is getting a translator for free. I don’t get anything from them. That has pretty much been the MO for every job I’ve ever worked.”

During Eloisa’s employment at Amazon, she worked night shifts alongside Latinas who were Spanish-speaking only. Their orientation safety trainings were only provided in English and because the material was not made accessible to non-English speakers, Eloisa witnessed two people get hurt later as a result. “No one was thinking about them,” she says.

Eloisa explains that stepping in to translate, though it may not be seen in her compensation, is expected from bilingual and first-generation people. “We see them as our family that we have to help them. You accept it because you don’t want them to suffer.”

Priscila; Marriage and Family Therapist

Priscila has had nine years of experience as a licensed marriage and family therapist. In the past, she has done school-based counseling and non-profit work, but today she is a supervisor for intern and clinical programs. Of the interns she supervises, around four of them are Spanish speakers. “Bilingual therapists are coveted. Many people want bilingual therapists.” In her profession, bilingual therapists can get an extra stipend if they pass two levels of exams. Level-1 is listening comprehension and level-2 is reading and writing.

Now being in a supervisory role, she is adamant about sticking to her role’s responsibilities and is not in a position to be translating for psychiatrists and such tasks.

 

Native Spanish speakers in the workforce are expected to help translate where they can, and often isn’t explicitly in their job description. It’s exploitive to put native Spanish speakers in positions that ask them to speak Spanish but pay them the same as their non-bilingual counterparts. From my own experience as a Latina and of the Latina women I spoke to, it seems to us that employers perceive that speaking Spanish comes easily to us. Those who have higher education in Spanish possibly have better leverage in being compensated, but why are the people who have spoken Spanish and English all their life not qualified for a higher wage if Spanish speaking is expected from them?

Please feel free to share any similar experiences or stories you would like to share with me! Email me at ayled_zazueta@redlands.edu.

 

*Last names were omitted from the sources who were interviewed for this article to protect their careers and prevent any subsequent consequences for whistleblowing.

 

About the Author | Ayled is a third-year Johnston student from northern California, studying Journalism and Cultures. Her niche is in human interest stories, she writes for the Redlands Bulldog and works in Human Resources. Her Myers-Briggs personality is ENFJ.
By Ayled Zazueta '23
Ayled Zazueta '23 Student