Organizer Roberto Tijerina began informally interpreting for his Spanish-speaking family at age 8. By 7th grade, at his school outside of Chicago, he was translating his own parent-teacher conferences. “Without having any language for it, I came to understand how fraught the process is,” he says.

With the American Community Survey estimating that over 25 million people in the United States speak a language other than English at home, the issue of language access is more crucial now than ever. With over 37 million people using it, Spanish is the second most spoken language in the U.S. Language interpreting is a relatively mainstream industry, with trained professionals providing the service at meetings, in the courts and at medical establishments. But it is most often treated as a practical function rather than a vehicle for empowerment. But there is a growing group of activists who are dedicated to addressing power imbalances in their language-access work and connecting it to a social justice vision.

Some have found that interpretation is a natural part of their political work. That was the experience of Catalina Nieto, an immigrant from Colombia who started conducting bilingual meetings while doing immigrant rights organizing in Nashville, Tennessee. Two others, Maria Garcia and Telesh Lopez, volunteered with Domestic Workers United before starting a collective called Caracol Language Coop.

Tijerina, who interprets American Sign Language and Spanish, says he began to inject political ideas into his practice while working at Highlander Research and Education Center. “I didn’t change the mechanics on a basic level, but I gained a greater understanding of the role of the interpreter and the politics involved,” he says. He went on to develop an interpreting for social justice workshop that has helped shape the careers of many. Says alumnus Salem Acuña, “It made me think critically about the power dynamics that come with language access.”

The social justice interpreters I interviewed use a number of methods to change power relationships at gatherings. “We really challenge the predominance of English as the main language where all the ideas of justice and organizing are produced,” explains Garcia.

For instance, they make sure that people speak directly to one another instead of to the interpreter. They also make sure all signage and materials are translated, they encourage presenters and facilitators to use non-dominant languages in their presentations and they refrain from placing non-English speakers in a separate section of the room. Doing so, says Acuña, ensures that non-English speakers aren’t “the other and not at the forefront of the conversation.” 

Some of the social justice interpreters I talked to use the technology of the trade in a non-standard way. Tijerina says it’s best practice during simultaneous translation to provide equipment such as radio headsets to all of the participants rather than limiting them to those who don’t speak English. This allows the non-dominant language speakers to participate in real time. ”You’re kind of like an equal sign so that people can communicate with each other directly,” adds Acuña. 

This approach is not without pushback. All five interpreters told me that monolingual English speakers have refused to use equipment that is usually reserved for non-English speakers. “It’s like ‘Oh no, this is not for me!’” says Nieto. Some English-only speakers believe that speaking a small amount of Spanish means they don’t need the equipment. But, says Garcia, “These are not spaces for practicing your language ability. This is a moment where you have to be the most effective possible and allow people to get the content and the bulk of the information.”

These may seem like subtle shifts, but they can really change the way a gathering goes, says Acuña. “There is nothing more wonderful than seeing a room full of people who speak different languages wearing headsets and laughing at the same time at the same joke.”

For Lopez, the overall goal is true language justice. “We want folks who are impacted to be part of decision making,” she explains. “If we can work on the language barrier then there is a possibility for that to happen.”