Language Brokers
Children of Immigrants Translating Inequality and Belonging for Their Families
Hyeyoung Kwon




“Thanks for coming on. What’s on your mind, Maggie?” asked Mina Kim, the host of KQED radio Forum, a live call-in show that broadcasts in the San Francisco Bay Area. It was the summer of 2022. The show, titled “Coronavirus Disproportionately Hits Latinos in California,” focused on conditions children like Maggie were facing.

“Me están preguntando qué está en mi cabeza.” Maggie promptly translated the host’s question into Spanish for her mom before saying, “I’m worried that my mom and dad will get the coronavirus again.”

Maggie was ten years old. By the time Maggie reached out to KQED, she and everyone else in her family had already contracted COVID-19. Her mother, who worked at McDonalds, was the first to get sick. Since Maggie’s mother was about to return to work, she wanted to know whether it was possible to get COVID again. But since her mother primarily spoke Spanish, Maggie, who was bilingual, translated her mom’s question into English in hopes of receiving information from the show’s guest expert, a doctor. After the doctor assured Maggie that the chances of reinfection were low, the child translated this information into Spanish for her mother and hung up the phone.1

This exchange lasted less than three minutes, but many listeners heard their own experiences reflected within it. Adrianna Morga, a Mexican American and a KQED contributor, was among them. The tweet she posted on social media received over 29,000 likes and hundreds of responses in just a few days. It said, “As I heard Maggie asking her question about whether her parents could get COVID-19 more than once and telling Kim she was just ten years old, I unconsciously placed my hands on my chest and started to tear up.”

“This was literally my whole childhood,” one person who wrote in a reply. “I don’t know if non-immigrants realise this but it’s a pretty universal experience of basically all immigrant kids whose parents don’t speak English confidently. We really were out here aged seven educating ourselves about government processes to translate and explain.”

In a follow-up segment, KQED asked listeners directly whether Maggie’s story resonated with them. Had they, too, found themselves “standing up” for their parents? The children of parents who had migrated to the US from Middle East, Latin America, Africa, and Asia flooded KQED’s inbox to share their own experiences.

Although children of immigrants translated for their parents long before COVID-19, it was not a coincidence that Maggie’s story gained traction as a global pandemic swept across the US. As hospitalizations and death rates skyrocketed, systematic inequality embedded in virtually every institution—including the welfare state, healthcare, workplaces, education, and housing—left communities of color most vulnerable to the crisis. While mostly middle-class White professionals set up home offices and gyms, the media began to highlight low-wage “essential” workers like Maggie’s mother—those who were risking their lives to work in grocery stores, meatpacking factories, restaurants, warehouses, and hospitals. In this moment, many people appeared to realize for the first time that low-wage workers, most of whom are immigrants and people of color, help ensure the nation’s survival.

Though COVID-19 brought the failures of American institutions into the spotlight, many working-class immigrants of color were already experiencing health crises, financial precarity, and under- or unemployment long before the pandemic. In a nation where the state has historically failed to provide all citizens with sufficient forms of support and resources, low-wage “essential” workers often lack access to adequate healthcare, safe and affordable housing, and paid family and medical leave. Many also struggle to meet the educational expectations required of their children’s schools. It is for this reason that many children of immigrants, including those who flooded KQED’s inbox, vividly describe “standing up” for their parents as a “universal experience.”

Indeed, years before Maggie called into KQED, I spoke with Jungmi, a seventeen-year-old Korean American who immigrated to the US with her family when she was eight. When I asked her to list all the places that she translated for her parents, Jungmi didn’t even know where to start.

“Oh, my gosh, are you serious? Like, everywhere you can think of. Let’s see . . .” Jungmi momentarily trailed off before listing the DMV, the doctor’s office, school, the police station, the immigration office, the emergency room, the bank, the Social Security office, and Macy’s. Sometimes, she recalled, she’d spoken on the phone with their landlord, as well as representatives from car insurance, credit card, and cable companies. Just the other day, Jungmi had phoned the unemployment agency after her mother had been laid off. She translated her parents’ mail and helped them fill out forms. Recently, Jungmi had filed a police report after someone had stolen her father’s identity and began using his credit card and Social Security number.

“I wanted to do everything I could do,” she said of shouldering these obligations.

As Jungmi continued, it became clear that translating extended far beyond simple verbal communication. She also spent a considerable amount of time making important decisions and anticipating her family’s needs. For example, whereas at first she had sat down with her parents to translate their bills and letters into English, several years ago she had started to simply “take care” of the mail herself. This was easier than attempting to work around her parents’ busy and unpredictable work schedules. It was clear that Jungmi’s multitasking, planning, and organizational skills helped keep her family afloat. When her father had been a victim of identity theft, for example, she had assembled evidence that showed that her father had been working at the time the transactions occurred. Although she was frustrated that no one took her or her Korean monolingual dad and his young daughter seriously, she maintained control of her emotions to avoid saying the wrong thing to the credit card company. Instead of growing upset, she tried to be “firm” and “let them know that I know what I am talking about.” Jungmi exhibited deep conviction as well as charisma and calm when describing her attempts at proving her father hadn’t authorized the fraudulent charges on his credit card. “I don’t take no as an answer. I am known as the fighter in the family because I have to get what I want, especially when I call the credit card companies. It’s money issues,” she said.

Five blocks away from Jungmi’s home, I interviewed Eduardo, a fourteen-year-old Mexican American. The son of garment worker, his family was experiencing more financial precarity than most other youth who spoke with me. Despite working long hours, Eduardo’s parents could not always pay for electricity and food, and the boy’s perceived “family responsibility” seemed exceptionally difficult. During his interview, Eduardo recalled a time he accompanied his mother—who spent upwards of ten hours a day, six days a week hunched over a sewing machine—to a local emergency room after “serious back pain” prevented her from standing up. With Eduardo’s assistance, she told the ER doctor that concerns about costly medical bills had prevented her from seeking treatment for the near constant headaches, eye strain, neck stiffness, and shoulder and back pain she had suffered for years. Eduardo did his best to temper his frustration when the doctor began mapping out suggestions for his mother’s care. Since her employer didn’t offer workers paid time off, Eduardo knew it would be impossible for his mother to attend—let alone afford—the doctor’s recommended biweekly physical therapy appointments.

Similar to Jungmi, Eduardo’s descriptions of translating revealed the multiple forms of inequality his family encountered. Several weeks prior to her hospital visit, Eduardo’s mother had asked him to inquire about the unexpected fees in their bank statement. After speaking with the bank, he learned that she had incurred overdraft fees; a quick glance at her deposit history also revealed how little money his mother was earning.

“I could not believe that my mom did not have any money in her bank account,” he said. “But I never asked her why.” He knew asking such a question would humiliate her. So instead of telling his mother how much he worried about her, Eduardo pretended her financial situation was not a big deal. “I lowered my voice and politely asked them to reduce the fees,” he said.

These were not the only times Eduardo’s bilingual skills had given him a glimpse into the hardship his parents faced—nor the degree to which his skills were crucial for them. A few weeks earlier, Eduardo had translated an eviction notice his parents received. Shortly thereafter, the reason for their eviction became obvious. A developer had purchased their building and was going to demolish it. Every tenant in his apartment complex found a relocation notice tacked to their door. Because of his reputation as a smart bilingual kid, other tenants began knocking on his door and asking questions about the notice.

Despite their differences, both Jungmi and Eduardo told me it was often difficult balancing their family and school responsibilities during crisis situations, which required them to “drop everything” to help their parents navigate issues as varied and weighty as medical emergencies, legal problems, and housing instability. Jungmi, for example, could not complete her homework when her father’s identity was stolen. Instead, she spent many hours at a crowded police station with her “panicking” father. Eduardo also missed school to take his injured mother to the emergency room. Navigating the bureaucratic hurdles of adult-centric, English-speaking institutions left both Jungmi and Eduardo feeling “overwhelmed” and “drained.” And yet, this did not mean they would ever consider declining their parents’ requests.

Indeed, when I asked Jungmi if she had ever considered telling her parents no, she looked at me like I was from a different planet. “Because they are my parents!” she exclaimed. Her voice rose as she said, “I love them. Plus, if I don’t go with them, people are going to think that my parents are dumb.”

Eduardo echoed Jungmi’s reply when I asked him the same question. “Of course not!” he scoffed. “I feel that people look down on my mom because she can’t speak English. I feel bad. I get angry.”

Eduardo and Jungmi are smart, capable, resilient—and much like many other children living in the US. Today, nearly a quarter of US children have at least one immigrant parent,2 and nearly two-thirds of these children’s parents aren’t fluent in English.3 Among Korean and Mexican immigrant parents—such as those whose children I interviewed for this book—the numbers are even higher. Seventy-six and 81 percent, respectively, have limited English proficiency.4 Even in US cities where non-English-speaking immigrant neighborhoods and communities help attract billions of dollars in tourism revenue annually, institutions routinely fail to offer immigrants adequate translation services. As a result, children, who often learn English faster than their parents, regularly serve as language brokers or communication liaisons between their parents and English-speaking adults in a variety of situations.5

Although a lack of translation services compels young people like Jungmi and Eduardo to serve as translators for their parents, their language brokering encompasses far more than verbal exchanges. After language brokers Jungmi and Eduardo stepped in to translate, they quickly learned that their family lacked access to affordable housing, high-quality healthcare, and jobs that paid a living wage with flexible work schedules. Language brokers keenly understand that gender, race, age, and class all intersect to shape the way English-speaking agents perceived them and their parents. Jungmi, a Korean American girl, did not want to appear passive. Instead, she wanted to be a “fighter” and be “firm” with the institutional agents in order to be taken seriously when speaking for her father. Eduardo, a Mexican American boy, tried to sound “polite”—rather than appearing aggressive—when representing his mother.

Casting light on the invisible realities of working-class immigrant families, this book takes readers inside the daily lives of Mexican and Korean American immigrant families as youth use their bilingual skills to serve as their parents’ language brokers. Through extensive interviews, including with youth and healthcare workers, and ethnographic observations within a police station, I show how, for children of immigrants, language brokering becomes a way to solve the structural problems their families face in a variety of encounters. In these ways, bilingual youth whose lives are structured by inequality come to understand how important their assistance is and strive to ensure their families’ survival. The language brokers I met wanted to “do everything” to make sure their parents could access vital social provisions: they filled out unemployment benefits forms and police reports, spoke with landlords, reversed bank overdraft fees, negotiated for lower credit card payments, and spent hours in crowded emergency rooms. In doing so, these young people also blurred the boundary between “adulthood” and “childhood” as they attempted to present their immigrant parents—who were stereotyped as inassimilable and undeserving free riders of social welfare systems—as Americans who deserved full social membership.


1. This information is outdated; the COVID reinfection rate has gone up since 2022. At the same time, the question demonstrates how people, especially immigrant families, tried to keep track of shifting information as the pandemic unfolded.

2. Foner and Dreby 2011.

3. Katz 2014.

4. Author’s calculations using US Census Bureau 2010 American Community Survey 1-year estimates.

5. Scholars have employed various terms such as “family interpreters” (Valdés, 2003), “advocates” (Abel Valenzuela, 1999), “problem solvers” (Park, 2005), and “para”-phrasers (Orellana, Dorner, and Pulido 2003) to describe young people who utilize their bilingual skills to speak, listen, read, write, and represent their immigrant family members. Here, I use the widely accepted term “language broker” to underscore how children act as agents when mediating conversations, using their bilingualism with the clear intent to serve the interests of their family. While I interchangeably use interpreting or translating throughout this book, what bilingual children of immigrants ultimately do is much more than explaining words. Despite the unequal power dynamic they have to navigate, they broker belonging using their bilingual abilities.