In today’s society, being bilingual is not only a social or professional advantage, it can also help those in need and give back to undeserved communities. Knowing two or more languages can also transform how people relate to the world, as well as how they relate to themselves.
Below is the experience of Maia, a bilingual social worker who uses her bilingualism to make an impact on Spanish-speaking children and families in need of social services.
Why did you become a social worker?
When I was 18, I became pregnant. I was unmarried and had just started my freshman year at New York University on a full scholarship. Family and friends were telling me to have an abortion because having a child so young would ruin my life. My mother sent me to an abortion clinic with my older brother, and I was told that I had to speak to a social worker before having the procedure. The social worker, who was also a woman, asked me two important questions which have never left my mind: What did I want to do about the pregnancy? And how would I feel about going through with the abortion? No one had asked me what I wanted or how I felt about the situation before she did.
At that point, I sat back and thought about my future, and decided that I was going to keep my baby. I became determined to finish school and have a wonderful life regardless of the hardships I would face. This woman made huge impact on my life, and is the reason that I became a social worker. I wanted to be able to help children and adolescents make the best choices for themselves because I feel this is the way I can make a difference in the world.
How has being bilingual helped you be a better therapist/social worker to your clients?
Because of my abilities to speak two languages, I have been labeled as a “bilingual therapist” in every social work position I have taken. At first, I resented this because I felt uncomfortable speaking Spanish in a professional setting. However, I began to realize that there was a major need for therapists who speak both languages, and started to see the value in my ability to communicate with others in their native tongue. Now 20 years into my field, I demand to work exclusively in bilingual, urban communities so that I can put my skills to use for people who need it the most. I serve Spanish-speaking children and families in ways monolingual therapists can’t because I make them feel comfortable with talking to me freely, and can connect with them on a more familiar level. I feel proud to be able to use my Spanish, no matter how imperfect it is, to improve the lives of others.
How has being bilingual impacted your life beyond your career?
Growing up, I was discouraged from speaking Spanish. My parents and grandparents are from Puerto Rico and spoke Spanish, but forced me to speak English in fear that it would hold me back academically. As much as I was deterred from speaking the language of my family, I understood it and ingested it. It was always inside of me, but I was insecure to speak it unless I had to. As I got older, I started to speak “Spanglish” with friends. It was a bonding experience for me and my Latino peers growing up in a world controlled by the English language. We packed ourselves into beat up old cars that we called “minority mobiles” and drove around, embracing our differences when we were together.
As an adult, I started to meet others from all different cultures and parts of the world. I began to see and appreciate the beauty in diversity, and started to notice both the similarities and differences of our many Latin [American] cultures. I yearned to know more, to taste their delicious foods, and to hear the many forms of Spanish music that were evolving around me. I wanted to learn their dialects, which, at times, can almost feel like a completely different language. Speaking Spanish helped me want to connect to my culture.
Is being bilingual important to your identity as a Latina? Why or why not?
Yes. I have always been proud to be Latina, but having to speak Spanish for work made me even more proud. Loved ones have told me that since I started to speak Spanish more, I seem happier and more at peace with my identity. It helped me relate to my culture even more because as my Spanish improved, so did my appreciation for my roots. Being bilingual is a gift that I would not trade in for anything, mostly because of how many families have opened up to me because I could speak their language. I make more money as a bilingual therapist, but helping people heal mentally and physically in that way is priceless.