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Riding Along with
Bilingual Worker Frederick Machado

Sept. 2000

by Richard Bermack

The stress, strains, and pressures from a rapidly changing culture turn many family homes into pressure cookers. Imagine being an immigrant from a culture with an intact family life, based on traditional, non-materialistic religious values and fixed parental authority, trying to do the best for your teenage children, who claim that they need to dye their hair orange, stay out late, and act out TV culture. And to make matters worse, they speak the language and you don't.

Bilingual workers have the task of resolving these cultural-generational conflicts. Like most social workers, they have a fascinating and rewarding job, on the cutting edge of social transformation-if only they had the time and resources to do it.

Nicaraguan-born Frederick Machado retired from being a minister in 1992 to become a San Diego County children's social worker. One of the problems facing bilingual workers like Machado is the lack of services to offer clients in their native language, forcing workers to provide the services themselves. "There are few anger management or parenting classes in Spanish," Machado explains. "So I have to spend more time with the family, explaining to them what is expected of them as parents and what they can and can't do. If I can't find a bilingual therapist for the family to provide the services they need, when I go to the home I have to be the therapist." And that takes a lot more time than he is allotted on his already overloaded caseload. In order not to cut his clients short, Machado takes his paperwork home and does it after hours on his own time.

"I get a lot of cases where parents grew up in a different culture, with different perspectives," Machado says. "They need different tools than they learned growing up. They don't understand how to educate the kids here in the states, and I have to give them new tools for correcting the behavior of the kids. They don't know how to do it. In many situations, the kids are born in this country so they feel that they are better than the parents, and they take the lead at home. Because they speak English, they are the ones who answer the phone, who talk to the doctor. They speak to the counselors at school. They deal with San Diego Gas and Electric. They take care of family business. So the mother is put aside and the father is put aside. Instead of the kids following the parents, the parents are following the kids. The parents no longer have credibility and respect. Then the parents expect us to come to the home and explain the rules to their children. They expect us to tell the kids, 'You kids are not supposed to do this or that. And you have to listen to your parents.' But that is not what happens."

We rode along with Machado as he visited with a family from Central America, where he is trying to bridge the cultural and generation gap between the parents and children. He describes the situation: "The oldest wanted to dye her hair orange, paint her nails, and have a boy friend. The parents don't understand that a boyfriend or girlfriend at this age is like a close friend. They believe that having a boyfriend at this age is like having a lover. They don't understand the culture. They don't want to be permissive. In other words, they expect their children to behave the way they behaved when they were growing up in Guatemala, which is a more conservative culture. It is not a difficult case, but it requires a lot of time.

"Not only do I have to be a social worker, but also a counselor. Now normally I spend an hour or more with the family, translating to them the culture of this country and explaining what youth can do in this country. It takes more time, but I enjoy doing it because I know that I do it well. You can see it in their faces. When I told the mother that being a boyfriend meant that he was just being her daughter's close friend, the mother smiled. She didn't expect me to say that. Now she understands that her daughter is not in danger."