For 25 years, Amparo Ames has been a common sight at Newport-Mesa Unified school board meetings. She translates English into Spanish for Latino parents.
So in a zone is Ames when on the job that she's been jokingly been called the 'mumbler' — for the manner in which she puts her hand over her mouth and transmits Spanish words to parents wearing headphones in the audience
Conversely, when the Spanish-speaking parents have questions to ask, Ames steps out into the audience like a talk show hosts and translates Spanish to English for the board members.
The following is a question-and-answer session with Ames.
Where were you born?
Mexico City. I lived in two different neighborhoods there, in a place called Navarte, then as a teenager, I lived in Bosque de las Lomas.
Did you go to college there?
Yes, I went to La Universidad Iberoamericana in Mexico City, where I earned a B.A. in TESOL, which stands for the Teaching of English to Speakers of Other Languages.
How did you wind up in California?
I met my husband in 1982, when I was studying for a master's degree at La Universidad de las Americas in Mexico City. He was from the San Francisco Bay Area. We ended up getting married, and I moved to Northern California with him.
When did you start working with the Newport-Mesa district?
What is your title?
I'm the district's coordinator for school and community relations, but one of my chief duties is to interpret for the district at the school board meetings and all sorts of parent events.
I noticed you said 'interpret.' What's the difference between 'interpret' and 'translate?'
Interpreting is oral; translating is actually something you usually do in writing, but that's just in the United States. Most Latin American countries just have one word for translating, and it's 'traducir.'
Hmm, that's interesting. How many Spanish-speaking students are there in the district?
There are 7,793 students who speak Spanish in the home but speak English at their schools.
Is bilingual education being taught at any of the schools in the district?
No. If we teach a student in Spanish, we need to get the parents' approval under the current law. So far English is the only language of instruction in the classroom. If a parent wants their children to be taught in Spanish, then the parent has to sign a waiver, and we have to have several requests at the same grade level. When we do get requests, and they are rare, we usually don't have the right number of students at the same grade level. In short, bilingual education hasn't been an option.
Why do you think there's such an emphasis among even the Spanish-speaking parents to teach their children in English only?
There has always been that push, but I think more than anything, speaking another language other than English, has always been forbidden — especially Spanish. Or the Native-American dialect. There was that push years ago that if we learn English, we'll get ahead, and that's certainly true. But the bad thing over time was that we were thought of as stupid if we didn't speak English, and that's not the case obviously. There was this negative attitude toward speaking Spanish, but all that is changing now.
Well, this is totally personal, but I think the United States has been very fortunate. For the most part, the rest of the world has had to learn English in order to communicate with the United States. That's because English was the official language of business. We were always at the forefront of science and technology, and so many other things. But I think now, as the world has evolved and trading has become more global, companies and private industry are now seeing the need to learn other languages. They're seeing the need to know other cultures too. The marketplace is now in the rest of the world. It's not just the United States.
What is the most difficult part about being an interpreter?
Keeping up with the new technology and the terminology, especially computers. In Mexico, for example, they use English words like mouse, but if you're scanning something, the verb is 'scaniar,' which isn't really a word in Spanish. That sort of stuff happens all the time. For example, you'd think that 'text' would be 'textiar' under the same logic, but it isn't. When people want to say 'Send me a text,' they say, 'mandame un texto.'
Could you give us other examples of how English words over time have made it into the Spanish vocabulary and have become bona fide Spanish words on the streets of the Latino community or inside the corridors of some of the Westside schools?
Sure, there's 'Don't push me,' which has become 'No me puches.' In Spanish, it's actually 'No me empujes,' but kids use, 'No me puches' all the time. There's also 'parkeadero' for 'parking lot' or 'troca' for 'pickup truck.' If you want to say hot pink, by the way, it's 'rosa mejicano,' not 'rosa caliente.'
Do you have any funny stories on something you've ever misinterpreted?
Well, I remember once the board was talking about a swing-a-thon to raise money, and they were actually talking about getting into swings, like on the swings on a swing set. But I thought they were talking about the swing, as in the dance. And I was thinking of the word 'bailar,' but then I caught myself and told the parents that it was actually 'un columpio.' That's 'swing' in Spanish.
You seem to really know your stuff in English and Spanish. Which language do you think in?
Which language do you dream in?
Are you fluent in any other languages?
I speak French, but I haven't used it in a while, so I'm pretty limited now.
Do you still have family in Mexico?
Yes, I have lots of cousins, aunts and uncles living in Mexico City and Oaxaca.
Do you have dual citizenship, in both the United States and Mexico?
Yes, but I became a U.S. citizen 10 years ago. I consider myself more of a U.S. citizen than a Mexican citizen.