From linguistic shame to pride: the story of a medical interpreter in Salinas, California

20 min readFeb 21, 2024


Natividad Hospital in Salinas, CA, offers interpreting services for its indigenous language speaking patients. The hospital trains local bilingual and trilingual speakers in medical interpretation (Photo: Nina Porzucki)

This is a transcript of a Subtitle podcast episode.

Patrick Cox: Nina Porzucki grew up in southern California. She studied Spanish at high school — figured it’d be a useful language to learn in a part of the US where there are so many Spanish speakers. In her twenties, she moved away from California but she goes back regularly to see family and friends. Over the years she’s become more aware of Mexicans and Central Americans in California who don’t speak Spanish, at least not as their first language, like the people Nina went to see a few years ago at a radio station 50 miles up the coast from LA.

Carlos Jimenez: I was listening to this NPR thing where it’s like, “Sounds of Los Angeles.” And I was like, Hey, we should do a “Sounds of Oxnard.”

Nina Porzucki: This is Carlos Jimenez. He helped launch a brand new community radio station in Oxnard, California, Radio Indigena. All of the DJs are volunteers, and many of them speak indigenous Mexican languages. One DJ, Jesus Noyola, has a show called “El Profe y La Poesia” — The Professor and the Poetry.

Jesus Noyola, a volunteer DJ at Radio Indigena in Oxnard, CA. (Photo: Nina Porzucki)

Carlos Jimenez: Jesus ended up recording the dishwashing machine at his job. He said he ran to his car, got his recorder and turned it on and started recording the sound that I think is the experience of a lot of immigrants, a lot of people who work multiple jobs.

Nina Porzucki: Behind the distracting sounds of the kitchen, he says, is a lot of stress.

Carlos Jimenez: So that’s where Oxnard sounds came from.

Patrick Cox: From Quiet Juice and the Linguistic Society of America, this is Subtitle: Stories about languages and the people who speak them. I’m Patrick Cox. In this episode the story of how these Indigenous Mexican languages — Mixtec, Triqui, Zapotec and others — how these languages have become common in parts of California. And how that has given rise to a small industry of interpreters who help the people who speak these languages live their lives.

Nina Porzucki: I recently visited Natividad Hospital in Salinas, California. Folks from Salinas like to remind you that their Valley is quote, “the salad bowl of the world.” Not that you can forget. Everywhere you look — everywhere — there’s fields growing lettuce, strawberries, broccoli. Fields and fields and fields. Even Natividad, the hospital, is surrounded by fields.

Israel Jesus: We’re going to be going to MIU, the maternal infant unit.

Nina Porzucki: Okay. So are you going to be interpreting?

Israel Jesus: Yeah, probably will me or Sergio.

Triqui interpreter Israel Jesus

Nina Porzucki: Israel Jesus is 20 years old. He’s a medical interpreter at Natividad. His co workers, the other interpreters, they call Israel El Bebé. And despite his very adult crisp blue blazer and his dress shoes — they’re very nice — he does have this kind of baby face: the sweet toothy grin, he has dimples. Fittingly today, El Bebé is interpreting for two new parents and their baby daughter. Israel is trilingual. He speaks English, Spanish, and Triqui. It’s a native Mexican language spoken in parts of the rural mountainous state of Oaxaca. Triqui is a tonal language, a pre-Columbian language that’s about as related to Spanish, as I don’t know, say English is to Mandarin. And it’s one of a number of indigenous Mexican languages that are being spoken here in California.

Sound of Israel interpretating

Nina Porzucki: Israel is soft spoken. He mumbles a bit. It’s a trait I’ve been told that many Triqui people share.

This couple with their newborn baby are Triqui speakers who Israel Jesus interprets for. (Photo: Nina Porzucki)

Nina Porzucki: Several years ago, you’d never have found a Triqui interpreter like Israel, roaming the hospitals corridors. In fact, you would have been lucky to find a certified Spanish language interpreter at Natividad. This was a problem, a problem that became clear to Linda Ford, when she became the CEO of the hospital’s foundation nearly a decade ago.

Linda Ford: I first went into the emergency department and asked one of the doctors is there anything you need here in this emergency department and he was so frustrated and just said Oh my goodness, I can’t talk to my patients, I cannot talk to my patients!

Nina Porzucki: Linda found that it wasn’t just communicating in Spanish that was an issue. Four of the most commonly spoken languages of patients coming to the hospital were native Mexican languages. And within those four native Mexican languages, there were dozens of variants.

Linda Ford: And it was just amazing because I thought, well, I’ll just hire indigenous interpreters. So let me find an agency that can provide interpreters. And I Googled indigenous languages to try to find interpreters and nothing came up on the Google. Maybe there were interpreters in Australia, but nothing else.

Nina Porzucki: What Linda thought would be just a minor problem to fix turned into something much, much bigger. Two of the patients that doctors couldn’t talk to were Israel’s parents. In 2010, long before he was an interpreter, his mom brought his baby sister to the hospital. She was sick with a fever. His mom who only speak Triqui and a little bit of Spanish, went to the emergency room, unable to communicate just how sick her daughter was.

Israel Jesus: They were in the hospital, like around eight hours waiting. And the baby had a fever — really high fever — and at that time, the doctors didn’t know what to do. And then they put a tube in, and a cable in her heart.

Nina Porzucki: The cable crossed her heart, and his little sister died. And all of this occurred while Israel’s mom had little grasp of what was going on.

Israel Jesus: So that’s why I made my decision.

Nina Porzucki: For his sister, he says, That is why he became an interpreter. Of course, it would be years before Linda Ford would meet Israel. And in those initial years when she was trying to figure out, “How do I deal with this problem? How do I bridge the gap between doctors and their patients?” Her search led her to Victor Sosa.

Victor Sosa: I remember the first month I was here I did 300 interpretations, just myself. And that was it. I was the whole department.

Nina Porzucki: Victor is a certified Spanish language, medical and court interpreter. And when he came to Natividad six years ago, he began developing a program to train Spanish-speaking staff members around the hospital to aid in interpretation. And in setting up the Spanish interpreting program, he discovered something incredible. There were already indigenous language interpreters at the hospital. Just no one saw them that way.

Victor Sosa: And then Angelica came along. She had been here for years working in the fields, and she had helped a lot of individuals. She was very strong woman.

Nina Porzucki: Strong is an understatement for Angelica Isidro. For 20 years Angelica, who speaks Spanish and another Mexican language called Mixtec, she’s been making the rounds in the hospital and the courts and the jails — all over Salinas Valley — informally interpreting for anyone in her community that needed help.

Victor Sosa: She would provide interpretation on the spot, come in from the fields, sometimes out in the fields and take some calls.

Angelica Isidro speaking Spanish

Nina Porzucki: “I’d interpret where I worked in the fields,” she tells me. “I put the telephone beneath the bandana and I was covering my face. And I keep working like it was nothing. I’d never sit: walking, interpreting while I was doing everything like washing the lettuce, cutting lettuce or the broccoli or whatever it was.” All the while, interpreting and working in the field.

Angelica Isidro, the first interpreter hired by Indigenous Interpreters Plus. (Photo: Nina Porzucki)

Nina Porzucki: Victor and Linda realized they had this great untapped resource right there in the hospital. All of these bilingual and trilingual folks like Angelica already informally interpreting for their relatives and their friends. What if they could hire and train them? But they needed the money to do that. And the obvious place to go was to the fields.

John D’Arrigo: You go to any restaurant in Toronto, and you ask them who’s supplying your broccoli rabe?

Nina Porzucki: If you hate broccoli, you have John D’Arrigo’s family to blame.

John D’Arrigo: I was up there on tour and I just you know — they know who I was. They go, “Are you kidding? There’s only broccoli rabe. That’s Andy Boy.”

Nina Porzucki: John’s father is Andy Boy. And his grandfather, an Italian immigrant, is often credited with introducing broccoli to the United States in the 1920s. He missed those little green trees from back home. And he asked his relatives back in southern Italy to send him some seeds. And so they did. And now John runs the family farm.

John D’Arrigo, CEO of D’Arrigo California (Photo: Nina Porzucki)

John D’Arrigo: It’s a giant refrigerator. We try to keep this route 33 degrees. And then we keep track of everything, all by computers. See that little barcode over there?

Nina Porzucki: It is a multi-million dollar business with 1000s of acres across the Salinas Valley.

John D’Arrigo: We do head lettuce, cauliflower, all the broccoli, all the other stuff. Just romaine hearts, we’ll cut a million heads a day, every day, every single day, a million heads. My days of growing up in the fields, speaking strictly Spanish — that’s all there was that I knew about anyway, today. Incredible difference in different types of people coming across — these indigenous Indian tribes from deep in Mexico, South America. I don’t believe those existed back decades ago. It was just your regular Mexican agriculture Brasero worker. And now you have the Oaxacans and all these indigenous tribes, these languages that nobody knows how to speak because you’ve heard, they’re pre-Columbian 3-4000 years old, there’s no Latin root. They’re working in the strawberry industry a lot. You know, they tend to be shorter of stature, so that would make it easier to harvest crop that grows lower to the ground.

Nina Porzucki: Not only has it gotten more difficult to communicate with farmworkers, according to D’Arrigo. Since 9/11, tougher immigration policy has caused a slowdown of migrant labor coming from south of the border. And his workforce, he says, has been shrinking over the last decade.

John D’Arrigo: This is every company all over the United States. You got to Georgia, the Vidalia onions, up in the Apple country up in Washington — everybody’s leaving perfectly good produce either in the trees or on the ground. And it’s going to waste because we can’t harvest it. We do not have the labor. And so I’m short 30 to 40% every day, I’m short hundreds of people every single day, I have machines, half of them are empty. I can’t get the workers.

Nina Porzucki: These two pressures, the increased shortage of farm labor and the increasing inability to communicate with the farm workers prompted D’Arrigo to do something about it, and to reach out to the big farm families in the valley to address these problems. Together, they formed the Agriculture Leadership Council, a mouthful.

John D’Arrigo: All these other companies are finally realizing that a huge portion of my workforce does speak these languages and I better figure out how to communicate with them. They’ve all bought in to taking care of the workers they do have because we’re not getting any more. So how can I endear my workers to me? I don’t want them to go work for that guy over there and my competitor over there, because now we’re in a bidding war on wages, working conditions benefits, because we’re all fighting for the same worker.

Nina Porzucki: Okay, so let’s not beat about the bush. These farm workers are not rolling in dough over that fight that D’Arrigo was talking about to keep them. Wages are modest at best. But farmers from around the valley gave Linda and the Natividad Foundation the seed money to start an indigenous interpreting program at the hospital.

John D’Arrigo: These folks, they want the same health care I want for my family. Let’s help them. Let’s take care of our workers and their families so they want to stay here work for us and know that we care about.

Nina Porzucki: But how did these groups have native Mexicans many from deep in the south of Mexico — many of whom don’t even speak Spanish — how did they come to be working in the fields in California and be the patients seeking care at places like Natividad Hospital?

Bill Clinton: …issue turned out to be a defining moment for our nation.

Nina Porzucki: This familiar voice is President Clinton at the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1993.

Bill Clinton: In a few moments I will sign the North American Free Trade Act into law. NAFTA will tear down trade barriers between our three nations, it will create the world’s largest trade zone and create 200,000 jobs in this country by 1995 alone.

Nina Porzucki: NAFTA went into effect in January of 1994. And for the last few decades, the US Canada and Mexico had been trading freely without tariffs. But NAFTA continues to be the subject of scrutiny.

News clips: So these years later, what has NAFTA brought?.. the trade agreement that is now two decades old and still the subject of debate…the impact on agriculture has been wide ranging and not always so positive, especially for small scale farmers.

Nina Porzucki: Under NAFTA, Mexico could no longer tax things like US corn, and the US couldn’t tax Mexican corn — by definition, free trade. Except the agreement didn’t make it illegal to subsidize goods. So corn is one product that the US has heavily subsidized in the years following the trade agreement. And while the US can afford to heavily subsidize corn, Mexico cannot. And this has affected the native populations of Mexico enormously, says Seth Holmes. He’s the author of the book, Fresh Fruit Broken Bodies.

Seth Holmes: The native people I know from southern Mexico have felt like, since the time the North American Free Trade Agreement was signed, it’s been less than less possible for them, as corn growers, that it’s not possible for them to make a living anymore working on their own farms.

Nina Porzucki: So from the mid 1990s, a huge number of farmers moved nor looking for work. Seth — who in addition to being an author is also a doctor and an anthropologist — he lived and worked alongside Triqui farmworkers in Oaxaca, documenting their experiences for almost two years. And he saw firsthand how heavily subsidized American corn squeezed Mexican farmers out of business, especially indigenous farmers.

Seth Holmes: Every family I know in the villages where I was, had at least one person in the US at any given time. Every family — in order for that family to survive — someone needed to be far away from the family working and sending money back. So the question was never: Is someone going to go? The question was always: Who’s going to go, and when?

Patrick Cox: This episode of Subtitle is about immigrants in the United States. Which seems like a good opportunity to recommend a podcast that’s about immigrants and the people around them. That podcast is called Immigrantly. Host Saadia Khan is an immigrant herself, so her conversations with Immigrantly guests are rooted in her experience. The conversations are complex, they’re challenging and they’re often messy. But they’re never boring. And the guests? Well, you can hear Saadia speak with Grammy-winning singer Arooj Aftab and with author of the acclaimed book “The Kite Runner” Khaled Hosseini. And there are comedians, Hari Kondabolu and Aparna Nancherla. You can find all these people talking about their immigrant experiences and the lives of the people around them. Immigrantly. Listen and subscribe wherever you’re listening to this.

Nina Porzucki: Israel, the Triqui interpreter, was 11 years old when he came to the US. He crossed the border with his sister. His mom and dad had already been in the US for about two years working to make enough money to pay for the coyotes to bring the kids across. And Israel, when he came to the US, struggled in school with limited Spanish and no English. The first years he says, we’re like a blur.

Israel Jesus: It was really hard for me to understand the teacher to communicate with a kid sometimes.

Nina Porzucki: And speaking Triqui felt like a burden, a mark against him even in school.

Israel Jesus: So when I was in high school, one of the kids came to me they said, Israel, “Why are you in school? Don’t come to school any more, man. You’ll be working as your parents, they work in the field.” “I think I’m smarter than you,” I told him that. And he said, “I don’t think so. You’re going to be working in the field as your parents.” Suddenly, when he said that to me I got mad. Then I feel myself down. And I said, “Why am I from Oaxaca? Why do I have to be from there?

Nina Porzucki: Why am I from Oaxaca? Why do I have to be from there? During the summers, Israel did work in fields, and that high school kid’s words continued to haunt him.

Five years ago with money from farmers from the valley, Linda and Victor set up a paid internship program at the hospital to recruit and train indigenous interpreters: Indigenous Interpreters Plus. When they started hiring and training interns, many folks like Angelica and Israel worked in the fields, they realized that it wasn’t merely going to be about teaching interpreting protocols. Many of these languages didn’t have words for diseases or medical procedures or equipment.

Victor Sosa: One of our doctors conversing with a Zapotec patient was trying to figure out how they would describe tuberculosis. And the Zapotec individual said that it was something similar to like, “The devil is strangling my neck.” You know, is it okay for the interpreter to describe it as you have “the devil is strangling your neck” disease?

Nina Porzucki: And while translating medical terminology was one challenge, translating a different cultural view of medicine proved to be an almost bigger challenge.

Linda Ford: One of our interpreters was a patient here at one time. And the physicians and the lab techs kept taking her blood. And I’d go say, “How are you feeling today?” And she would say, “How could I be feeling better? They’re taking on my blood. So I’m feeling worse and worse and worse.”

Nina Porzucki: She actually had sepsis, says Linda. But she couldn’t understand where her blood was going.

Linda Ford: I mean, it scared her. It’s like I’m getting weaker and weaker. And where’s this blood going? So having no concept about blood going to a lab, and why it goes to the lab. What does that indicate? What is pathology? That whole piece of context is missing?

Nina Porzucki: And it dawned on Linda, it wasn’t enough just to train interpreters. She had to train doctors and nurses and the entire medical staff.

Linda Ford: They too have to be trained to understand what the context is not. When they say I’m going to the lab — well, what’s the lab? They have no idea what a lab is.

Nina Porzucki: It’s going to take time to teach the staff and the doctors and change medical culture, says Sebastian Marchevsky. He’s a third-year resident at Navidad.

Sebastian Marchevsky: There’s a culture here of questioning whether we need interpreters or not, in some cases, within physicians and nursing stuff.

Nina Porzucki: So you’ll get into conversations with people like we don’t need an interpreter.

Sebastian Marchevsky: Exactly, exactly. Now, you know, a woman may come in and speak a little bit of Spanish, or at least be able to answer some simple questions. And then they think, “Oh, we don’t need an interpreter, we have the information we need.” But I’ve noticed that when we do get an interpreter, even if they speak a little Spanish, that’s not their primary language in a lot of cases. So when we do get an interpreter, as soon as they enter the room, sometimes I see them just relax. It’s almost as if there’s an ally in the room, somebody that’s familiar who will understand them on many levels, not just their language. And so over time, I’ve developed a lower threshold to try and get an interpreter and incorporate them sometimes more than just the language — getting them to elicit what their understanding is of a certain condition or a process or procedure.

Nina Porzucki: Four years ago, Israel was at the mall trying on shoes, and this woman started talking to him.

Israel Jesus: She said, “Hey, good morning.” Then she said, “Do you speak English?” And I said, “Yeah, I do speak English.” “Oh, awesome. Do you speak another language?” “Yes, I do.” “Which one?” “Triqui.”

Nina Porzucki: That woman was Victor Sosa’s wife. She got Israel’s number. And Victor called him to recruit him.

Israel Jesus: So never, never my life after that, Triqui was gonna become one of the important languages.

Nina Porzucki: This from the kid who questioned why he had to be from Oaxaca. He did the internship program. It wasn’t easy. There were a lot of medical words he didn’t know in Triqui like, “C-section.” So he had to ask the only person who might know them, his mom.

Israel Jesus: And I asked her, “How do you say this word? How do you say “C- section” in Triqui? And then she explained it to me and she’s like my teacher.

Nina Porzucki: Then a few months ago, Israel ran into that high school bully. Remember the one who told him that he would be working in the field with his parents? Well, he ran into kid in the hospital waiting room.

Israel Jesus: He saw me with a suit and shoes. And then that’s why he got surprised.

Nina Porzucki: That must have felt good.

Israel Jesus: Yeah! That felt real good. I never thought that I’d be working here at the hospital.

Nina Porzucki: He never thought that he would work at Natividad Hospital. And he never thought that Triqui would be the reason why. He knows many people now — people who speak Spanish and English. They often ask him, “How do you get a job at the hospital?”

Israel Jesus: “What do you need?” Just need to speak Spanish and English and an indigenous language They say “Oh my God, I wish I was from Oaxaca.

Nina Porzucki: Yeah, “I’m from Oaxaca.” He says that with his big toothy grin. “I’m from Oaxaca.” Israel recently started Community College. He wants to be a civil engineer. And Indigenous Interpreting Plus now offers interpreting services for organizations all over the United States. Victor is now working with several folks to create an official indigenous interpreting curriculum that they hope to publish early next year and train more interpreters just like Israel.

Nina Porzucki: OK, the final segment today. Please excuse my very, very bad voice. I tracked this a week later, and a cold later. Pardon the frog.

Two hundred fifty miles south of Salinas is Oxnard. It’s another agricultural hub of California. Driving down the 101 past fields of strawberries and kale. No pumpkins at this time of year. If you want to hear what Oxnard sounds like, just turn the dial to 94.1.

Sound of a radio annoucer

Carlos Jimenez: I think the station came into being just out of a blatant need.

Nina Porzucki: Again, this is Carlos Jimenez, who helped start Radio Indigena. It’s just a small station, really more like a windowless room slash studio, in the offices of the Mixtec Indigena Community Organizing Project.

Carlos Jimenez: You have a bunch of people in the indigenous community who have absolutely zero sources of information in their language from any of the local radio stations here.

Nina Porzucki: And on top of all of that, Oxnard has hundreds of undiscovered bands, says Carlos.

Carlos Jimenez: When you drive around Oxnard, Friday, Saturday, Sunday, there’s a lot of these like bands going from venue to venue, which are restaurants mostly. That’s where a lot of the bands do play. But outside of that, this community plays at quinceañeras, baptisms, backyard parties, that’s their sort of venue. And so within the community, people know about them. But outside of that there’s not a mediated network for them outside of what maybe their Facebook or their YouTube channel.

Sound of music in the background

Nina Porzucki: Until Radio Indigena started broadcasting them over the internet about a year and a half ago. DJs started playing some of these local groups, bands like this one that you’re hearing now. They’re called Grupo Sin Control. They play a type of music from Oaxaca, called Chileno.

Carlos Jimenez: From what I’ve heard from the community has its origins in Chile. This music made its way north, north to the rural parts of Oaxaca.

Nina Porzucki: What happened was, it was brought over to Mexico by Chilean sailors in the 19th century, who brought the music and the dance style with them.

Carlos Jimenez: These are long songs, these are 8 to 12 minutes. And you’re not just standing listen to the songs, you’re dancing, all 8 to 12 minutes. So you’re out there doing something with your body. And from my experience, it’s this really particular dance where it’s sort of a two step. And you just jam into the beat. And then you don’t touch, you rarely touch. And from what I’ve noticed, you’re just sort of watching everybody else.

Nina Porzucki: You don’t even look at your partner?

Carlos Jimenez: You very rarely are looking at your partner. You’re dancing with somebody, but you’re not looking at each other. You’re sort of perusing everybody else. And for me, I’m trying to see how everybody else is dancing so that I blend in and I don’t stand out. But beyond that, I mean, the music when the song goes on, let’s say they’re playing rancheras or whatever, you have 5-10 people. But the moment that they play a Chilena, everybody is on the dance floor. Everybody.

Nina Porzucki: So basically, it kind of sounds like Oaxacan jam band music, you know, with the dance that goes along with it. And since getting airtime these small unknown bands like Grupo Sin Control, have blown up. So much though that a local Spanish radio station recently started featuring a weekly show of Chilena music. Radio Indigena doesn’t just play music. Programming ranges all over the place, from shows like Jesus Noyola’s show about poetry to a program on relationships and women’s health to a man who talks about the traditions from his village back in Oaxaca. Or the show by this DJ I met named Jorge. Jorge’s show is called “La Lucha Social.” The Social Fight, where Jorge discusses workers’ rights.

Jorge speaking Spanish

Nina Porzucki: “I want to reach the people,” he says. And Radio Indigena is reaching people. Since the station began broadcasting in languages like Mixtec, Zapoteca and Triqui, these indigenous Mexican languages, the station DJs have heard from listeners tuning in all over California.

Carlos Jimenez: If you can just imagine, you yourself, as a person who’s left their home to go to another country: No signs, no radio, no TV, no nothing is in your language. And then all of a sudden, there’s this group of people who are broadcasting in your language that your mom spoke that your brother spoke, that your family spoke, and you get to hear it, it’s — there’s no words. And I think what the calls that we got were that emotion: “Thank you. Thank you for doing this.”

Nina Porzucki: And that’s all for this week, thanks to everyone who shared their stories and their languages with me in Oxnard and in Salinas. And I would say thank you in Mixtec but I don’t want to insult Mixtec speakers with my very sad attempt. It is very hard language! Thanks so much for listening.

Subtitle is a member of the Hub & Spoke audio collective. We’re a bunch of independently-minded podcasters, who — well, I think most of us start thinking about an episode with a bunch of questions. If we want to know more about something, be it science, tech, arty, or about language — if we want to know, we figure you do too.




A podcast about languages and the people who speak them. Co-hosted by @patricox and @kbpillay. Twitter: @lingopod