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Inmaculada García-Sánchez Joins the Faculty of UCLA’s Department of Education

Inmaculada García-Sánchez (’09, Ph.D., Applied Linguistics), has joined the faculty of the UCLA Department of Education as an associate professor in the division of Social Research Methodology (SRM). A native of southwestern Spain, she most recently was an associate professor in the Department of Anthropology at Temple University. 

García-Sánchez’s research interests, which have been supported by UCLA, Temple University, the National Academy of Education, the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research, and the Spencer Foundation, center on the experiences of immigrant children and youth in and out of the classroom. Her international range of projects have included studies of peer relations and ethno-gendered bullying; mapping immigrant childhoods through storytelling; the everyday communication of immigrant children and its impact on cultural citizenship; and the experiences of Muslim children and youth in Spain around language and belonging. 

García-Sánchez’s expertise in language and education enhances her most recent writings and work on immigrant children who serve as language brokers for their parents and families. García-Sanchez published her co-authored article, “How Can We Study Children’s/Youth’s Out of School Experiences to Inform Classroom Practices?” in the July 2020 issue of Literacy Research: Theory, Method, and Practice. The article was based on her findings as a member of the Integrative Research Presidential Panel of the Literacy Research Association last winter. 

García-Sánchez is the author of “Language and Muslim Immigrant Childhoods: The Politics of Belonging: Studies in Discourse and Culture” (2014, Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell) and a co-editor of “Language and Cultural Practices in Communities and School: Bridging Learning for Students from Non-Dominant Groups,” (2019, New York: Routledge) with UCLA Professor of Education Marjorie Orellana. 

Other recent publications include a book chapter on “Interactional Contingencies and Contradictions in the Socialization of Tolerance in a Spanish Multicultural School” in “Language Socialization in Classrooms” (2018, Cambridge University Press, Howard, K. M. and Burdelski M., Eds.) and the article, “Children as Interactional Brokers of Care,” published in the Annual Review of Anthropology earlier this year.

Professor García-Sánchez earned her master’s degree in education, curriculum and instruction from Boise State University, and her bachelor’s degree in English from the Universidad de Valladolid in Spain.

García-Sánchez, who was a visiting associate researcher for the UCLA Center for Race, Ethnicity, and Language and the UCLA Department of Anthropology in 2019, discusses her work on immigrant children who serve as translators for their parents, brokering not only language but cultural differences and even racism for their elders and families. 

Ampersand: Much of the literature around child language brokering implies that this responsibility may have adverse effects on their development – is this entirely true?

Inmaculada García-Sánchez: Children are [thought of] as more naïve or passive recipients of adults’ socialization efforts rather than social agents in their own right, who do have a certain amount of agency that they are learning to exercise in good ways and in not-so-good ways. As I move along as a more mature researcher, I’ve strived to more and more put children and youth at the center and realize that … if we listen, they have a lot to tell us and a lot to teach us.

There is a long tradition, particularly in other areas of the social and behavioral sciences, to the default assumption to be that [children] participating in these kinds of [language-brokering] activities – if it is not negative, it has the potential to be negative. And of course, there is something to say about that. I really don’t want to erase, or minimize or obscure that. But I’m also saying, let’s look at this work that children do, in its own right, without imposing the lens that it might be bad for children or detract from their childhood experiences. Let’s try to get, if you would, a little more of their perspective.

What you find is that for a lot of children and their families is that this is part of normal, everyday life, what it means to contribute to a household and to be there for each other. A lot of them feel very empowered because they are able to do this, and of course, that is very contextual. 

When talking to parents, one thing that I found very interesting is that when you take this lens that this might be potentially bad for children and their development, when you actually talk to parents, [they] worry that … that they are losing parental authority, not if their children do [language brokering], but if they actually refuse to do it. If they refuse to go to the medical clinic with them to translate or to the bank with them, [parents say], “Look at him” or “Look at her, how disrespectful. Her mother asked her and she refuses to do this.”

Some kids don’t like it, they may feel stressed. And some kids really do find a sense of self-worth and self-efficacy doing this kind of work. That’s also very important to point out. 

Very recently, I finished a portrait of one of the child language brokers that I worked with for another publication, and I really was digging deep into the interviews I did of this 10-year-old girl. I was trying to find out whether it bothered her to do this. At one point, she lowered her voice as if somebody could listen to us. She said, “No, it’s the mopping and the sweeping that I don’t want to do. I want my sisters to get stuck with that. I want to go to the medical clinic and do the translation because I like that.”

&: That is a great example of how the experience of language brokering benefitted the child. What’s an example of how it did not benefit a child?

García-Sánchez: There are some times when kids, either because they may not feel they have their linguistic competency – because this is tremendously difficult work – that’s when they start reporting that they become stressed, they try to avoid it and they don’t want to do it. 

Especially if you are an immigrant bilingual child, you are assumed to be naturally bilingual, and if you don’t have the competency that sometimes it takes people all their lives to develop, immediately you’re thought of as deficient, which really bothers me that assumption is always there for immigrant children.

The reality is that there is nothing natural about it, even if you are bilingual. Translation and simultaneous interpretation are tremendously hard work – huge linguistic demands, huge cognitive demands, memory, processing. 

&: What are some other skills that children employ and develop – besides language translation – when acting as language brokers for their parents and elders?

García-Sánchez: I think this is also a way that they display their social sophistication. They are children speaking to adults, but they cannot take up the authoritative voice of adults. They are still conveying the message, but they are mitigating the force with which they deliver it.

For instance, in my work in Spain with Moroccan Muslim immigrant children in a school and medical context, the children are very aware that something is going on, in the assumptions that doctors and medical personnel have about their parents. There is a stereotype [that] the Moroccan families are poor and come from places where there is no medical infrastructure. They are only going to get them to come to the doctor when they are sick and they won’t come for preventive [medicine] like vaccinations. 

And the children in a way, become sort of institutional agents of surveillance for their own families. They sometimes slightly modify translations and mitigate certain things. They have a very complicated moral positionality. On the one hand, they are agents advocating for their families – sometimes they are the only ones who are going to be able to advocate for their family. But because they are the official translator in the interaction they become the agent of surveillance. 

Sometimes the parents say, “I don’t really understand Spanish, but don’t tell that to the doctor – tell him I understand a little.” The children engage in enough interactions that they are also [aware] that, ‘Look, I also have to be a little strategic because I don’t want to expose my family more than they are already exposed.’ But they already have a sense that their family is being racialized.

Sometimes doctors speak in this very authoritative voice – “You have to do this, you have to take this medicine. Tell her to do that.” Systematically, all of the kids use this grammatical construction in which they say, “There is a need for you to …” thereby mitigating the force of the [doctor’s] command. 

In my research, I use really close discourse analysis. This is one example I did grammatical mitigation. There was a mother who took her son to the pediatrician. He has anemia and they cannot get him to eat anything and his growth is very stunted. The doctor is very worried, the mother is very worried.

The doctor asks, “Are you giving him the medicines? What are you feeding him?” Throughout this process it turns out that the mother starts telling stories that meal interactions in the house are very emotional, that there is a constant battle between the mother and the child. And at some point, the mother says, “Sometimes I lose my temper and I hit him.”

The 8-year-old neighbor who was translating for the mother, instead of describing this emotional interaction at mealtimes, said to the doctor, “When he refuses to eat, she tells him off.” So, basically, she translated a verbal form of punishment for a physical form of punishment.

In reality, physical abuse in immigrant families is no higher than in non-immigrant families. But that is one of the ways that immigrant parents are racialized – there is more physical discipline. And I know that this is one of the areas that children are aware of. They are being constantly asked in school, “This bruise, how did you get it? Is somebody hurting you?” 

&: How do parents decide when a situation is appropriate for a child to serve as a translator and when it is not appropriate?

García-Sánchez: Immigrant parents themselves are very aware of this. They don’t ask their children to do this, and at any time. They use their own judgement – they don’t purposefully try to put their children in situations that are going to be incredibly emotionally stressful for the child.

I’ve never met an immigrant parent where there is a family dispute, like something with a social worker or a divorce lawyer has to come in and mediate between the parents and they say, “Oh, my kid is going to translate.” They say, “This is really delicate – we don’t want a child in the middle of this. I’m going to ask a neighbor or a friend. I’m going to get an adult to do this.”

In the article itself, I write about a German team that did a bit of qualitative and quantitative research. They interviewed children on the most common situations where they did this. Once again, the main finding of that research was that children only do mundane, low-stakes tasks.

They [studied] interactions where parents went to retailers. Basically, the parents needed to buy things and the situation turned unpleasant because the store clerks made all these racialized assumptions about the parents: that they had no money, that they wouldn’t qualify for credit. 

So, then we asked, is the problem that the children are being asked to do this? Or is the problem the trauma from children interacting with a society that is basically racist? We need to protect the children, but we need to worry not that they’re doing language brokering but [about] the trauma of the racism that they and their families may be encountering.