I grew up speaking both English and Spanish at home. Little did I know employers and workplaces would often expect me to use this skill at will —without recognition or compensation to show for my work.
Growing up, I got mixed messages about being bilingual. When Prop 187 passed in California, many students and workers were shamed for not being fluent in English. During that time, I remember being told that it’s better to speak “English only,” and that speaking Spanish in public would cause people to question my citizenship status and intelligence.
As attitudes around language and fluency changed, I grew to see the advantages of being able to speak both English and Spanish. I saw how many bilingual people in my community used their skills to help others: at the dentist, the doctor, at school, church, in libraries and other establishments.
As I got older, I began noticing that many job postings said “bilingual preferred.” In Los Angeles, businesses depend on bilingual or multilingual employees to run efficiently.
My parents owned a small jewelry shop in my teen years. Located in the St. Vincent Plaza in 7th and Broadway, downtown Los Angeles, the business ran on mostly Spanish-language clients. It was common for me to speak Spanish all day with my mom’s clients because this was accessible and comfortable for them.
Many of the shop owners in the plaza were also immigrants. I heard Farsi, Armenian, Russian, Korean and other languages on a daily basis. In culturally diverse parts of the country, every business needs a translator at one point.
First-generation immigrants are taught to work hard and give our all on the job. The only problem with this type of work ethic? It sets us up for unpaid labor and exploitation in later years. Those of us who are able to speak more than one language are often asked to rise to the occasion, but rarely are we rewarded for our efforts.
My freshman year of college I was part of Jumpstart AmeriCorps, a program that connects students with paid service projects that last an academic year. My assignment was to tutor a preschool student four hours per day and help a teacher four hours a week.
Once I began, I found that many parents and students spoke Spanish as a first language, and part of the job was to help students who needed to improve their English. We weren’t told that speaking Spanish was a prerequisite, and indeed many of the participants didn’t speak Spanish and weren’t Latinx. My colleagues were diverse and many of them were bilingual as well, but in languages other than Spanish. Occasionally they needed extra help explaining certain concepts or guidelines to the children or communicating with parents.
When my skills were necessary, I was happy to contribute. In this case, I noticed that other team members collaborated in other ways: giving rides to team members without cars, tipping each other out on fellowship or work opportunities, or giving each other advice on how to best help the child or classroom to which we were assigned.
Leveling work like this wouldn’t be the case in the private sector, as I later saw.
I graduated during the recession into a challenging job-search environment. I had an art degree and was hoping to become a photographer, but had to seek other types of work instead.
I became a teacher’s assistant at an elementary school. On top of my regular duties, I was also asked to work specifically with students who needed more attention — including children who are English Language Learners (ELL). The main concern with this was that I’m not certified to teach anything. Helping students learn English is something that I wasn’t equipped to do.
Looking back I know this happened because many school districts in California are underfunded, particularly those with high numbers of immigrant students. I’d grown up attending the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD). I knew how much students needed someone who could occasionally talk to them in their language or lend them a hand. But this was a lot to handle with no training. I was still responsible for other tasks, such as helping with photocopies, assisting with supervision, and supervising children during lunches and recess.
The post-Great Recession era was cutthroat when it came to employment, and the message I’d received from elders, mentors and media was that it was necessary to go above and beyond in order to maintain a job.
Every other bilingual employee also helped and this meant the work was somewhat evenly distributed. To my knowledge, there was no accounting for our language skills or the extra work we’d be expected to do because of them, when deciding our pay.
We never even brought it up.
My first salaried job was as a community organizer at a small immigrants’ rights nonprofit. Though immigrants come from all cultures, Latinx people were the ones most likely to seek help from this organization. Once again I found myself in a job where speaking Spanish was an asset, but I had to use it more often than I was prepared for while also dealing with my regular workload.