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Finding the power of words

Posted by Marcia Dick  August 20, 2010 10:04 AM

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Kathleen Portillo (right) uses her translating skills.

You expect a 5'10" woman to have a commanding presence. But Kathleen Portillo, 18, doesn't come across as tall. As she stood in the Assembly Square Bed, Bath & Beyond, poking extra-long twin comforters and comparing prices against her checking account, there was a quietness about her presence, if a loudness to her towel choice: teal and hot pink.

If you've attended a city meeting in the last few years, you might have seen Portillo. She was at the July police chief candidate Q&A; at the city's Martin Luther King Jr. celebration; at health fairs. At all these events, she's done work that requires a blend of assertiveness and effacement: interpreting the proceedings into Spanish for the Welcome Project's Liaison Interpreter Program of Somerville

Next month, the personal growth she's gained through the job has taken her from shyness to Union College in Schenectady, N.Y. — with a full-tuition Posse Foundation scholarship.
LIPS began several years ago when activist Alex Pirie began hiring bilingual teens to interpret for his organization Immigrant Service Providers Group/Health. About two years ago, the immigrant advocacy-focused Welcome Project formalized the program, said youth programs coordinator Maria Landaverde. This past year, 17 students interpreted in six languages: Spanish, Portuguese, Haitian Kreyol, Nepali, Hindi, and Mandarin.

Thumbnail image for xscene2.jpgBefore she joined LIPS, Portillo was "crushingly shy," Pirie said. She spoke slowly and haltingly, Landaverde recalled. As Portillo put it, "I didn't like to put myself out there," she said, sitting in the power chair in Landaverde's office. She made a big decision for a shy person: Taking on the challenge of standing up at events, talking to strangers and making her presence known.

It's "not quite one of those dramatic ugly caterpillar to beautiful and extravagant butterfly scenarios," Portillo told an audience last spring at a LIPS celebration, "but I feel as if this change is occurring gradually."

Landaverde listed all the extra work and leadership positions Portillo took on with LIPS: scheduling interpreters, supervising newer interpreters, mentoring a shy student, MCing a meeting on immigration issues. After that event, Portillo's mom called the program to thank them.

This summer, Portillo and five of her compatriots became certified at Tufts to participate in an economic impact research study, which Pirie called a "fairly significant achievement for a group of immigrant children." At a recent session at the Mystic housing development, Landaverde said, Portillo completed more survey interviews than anyone else.

All this comes on top of her school work and activities: art club, a social-event planning group, the Newcomers Club and the National Honor Society, where she served as secretary. No wonder both the school and the Welcome Project nominated her for the Posse scholarship.

The immigrant experience is front-and-center at Somerville High: According to state statistics, 54 percent of the school's 2009-10 student population did not count English as their first language. "It's definitely an advantage because you get to learn about a lot of different ethnicities and cultures," Portillo said.

xscene3.jpgPortillo's achievements are all the more impressive when you consider her modest beginnings: Her parents work as custodians at Harvard. Still, it was never a question that she would go to college. Her father's college credits from El Salvador didn't count in the US, leading to frustration. "He feels like he could've done so much more," Portillo said. So he wanted his children to have an impact — preferably, in his daughter's case, as a doctor. When she became more interested in sociology, "He kind of got mad." (He got over it.)

LIPS also gave Portillo the opportunity to keep up her language skills; despite speaking Spanish with her parents, she was getting rusty "and that made me really sad because it's part of my culture." LIPS participants undergo 20 weeks of interpreter and leadership training, including sessions with Woburn-based Cross-Cultural Communications Systems.

The commitment powered her forward. At first "I was really really really really nervous because I thought "Oh, the community is depending on me," Portillo said. "Eventually you get used to it." She's even come to prefer the fast-paced simultaneous style, where interpreters follow a few words behind the speaker. "It keeps you on your toes," she said.

With all the jargon flying around Somerville meetings, many assignments call for extra preparation. How do you translate "Green Line Extension"? (They ended up resorting to the literal option, "extensión de la línea verde," Portillo said.)

LIPS still has work to do in outreach. No one needed interpretation at the police chief Q&A; evidently the word hadn't gotten out that non-English speakers could be accommodated. "That gets a little bit frustrating because you know there are people who need it," Portillo said.

But along with helping in Somerville, she's spent the summer preparing to move on. The Posse Foundation supports disadvantaged city kids to attend college both financially and socially; the Union College Posse has been meeting all summer to learn and bond. Portillo is "the quiet one in the group." Her brother's been talking about turning her bedroom into a game room. ("I think deep-down he's going to miss me. He won't have anyone to bother," she said.) Just the day before, she had called her new roommate: a New Yorker from Poland.

At Bed, Bath & Beyond, she unfolded her heavily crossed-out school supply list. The comforter would have to wait for Mom, but Portillo bought a storage shelf, those towels, and plastic containers for snacks, squinting to envision herself in a new world.

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