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Translating bilingualism into careers

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Cecilia Portal is not one to stay silent long. She has no time to stay quiet, she says. There are too many people who need her words, both in English and in Spanish.

Being bilingual, as Portal is, is a gift, a talent, a resource that New Mexico is rich in, she says.

So Portal created Valley Community Interpreters, or Intérpretes Communitarios del Valle, a grass-roots effort in Albuquerque to train bilingual students to become interpreters in a number of fields.

“It’s a very fast-growing industry, and yet there was really no one here training interpreters,” Portal said. “Our goal is to build and train a bilingual workforce in New Mexico that can work in the industry to help others communicate with society in general.”

The interpreter profession is expected to grow by 46 percent in the next 10 years, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. That’s not surprising, considering that more than 300 languages are spoken in the country and more than 25.2 million people are “limited English-speaking,” 75 percent of whom say their native language is Spanish, according to U.S. Census figures.

Cecilia Portal used her skills as a bilingual interpreter, nonprofit organizer and nurse to create Valley Community Interpreters, which trains bilingual students how to become interpreters, a fast-growing industry. (Courtesy of Cecilia Portal)

Cecilia Portal used her skills as a bilingual interpreter, nonprofit organizer and nurse to create Valley Community Interpreters, which trains bilingual students how to become interpreters, a fast-growing industry. (Courtesy of Cecilia Portal)

Portal, a nationally certified interpreter, explains the important work those in her profession perform by telling the story of a young immigrant woman in Detroit who arrived home from the hospital last winter with her premature newborn to find that the electricity and heat had been turned off.

“That is a life-or-death situation for that baby,” she said. “I was interpreting for this young mother on the phone with the utility company trying to fix what could be fixed.”

She has also interpreted for a Spanish-speaking truck driver speaking to a mechanic, a banker discussing finance with a client new to the country or a limited English-speaking patient trying to understand a diagnosis.

“We don’t stop and think about the barriers language presents in our lives,” Portal said.

But she did.

The story of how Portal got her program up and running is stunning enough, but how she got herself on her feet is even more so.

She was born in Cuba and grew up in Mexico, where she trained and worked as a nurse. But when she immigrated to the United States, she found that not everything, including her nursing license, translated.

“I came to this country and discovered that my nursing credentials were not accepted,” she said. “I started finding work in nonprofit management for different organizations, but I always wanted to find a way to use both my language and my nursing skills.”

About 15 years ago, she thought she might make a good interpreter but found that the industry was haphazard and hard to break into. Six years ago, she tried again, and after a period of trial and error and taking what training she could find, she landed a couple of contracts to interpret remotely and telephonically – meaning she deals with clients by phone from her Albuquerque home to anywhere in the country.

“I thought, wow, this is a great opportunity for people who live in New Mexico with bilingual skills,” she said. “Why hasn’t this come here? It could be a flourishing industry.”

A year ago, Portal added her nonprofit management skill to seek funding and footing to start her own program.

“This was just a labor of love by a remarkable leader,” said Tim Nisly, CEO of Social Impact and Nonprofit Community, or SINC, a nonprofit incubator in Albuquerque that Portal partnered with to turn her dream into reality. “With funding, she was able to democratize her dream to help others do this and create change in their community.”

That initial funding of $300,000 from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation helped Portal adapt a nationally certified interpreting and cultural competency 64-hour training program for local students, who learn how to harness their bilingual skills to become a voice for those who lack the language ability to navigate through a utility bill, a bank statement, a doctor visit.

Portal also teaches a 40-hour medical interpreter training course to bilingual employees of the health care field. She said she has trained about 60 providers.

Earlier this month, she was honored to watch the first 16 students in the community interpreter program graduate.

“It’s so wonderful to see the transformation in these students,” she said. “They learn the importance of lending their bilingual voice to be a voice for others.”

And it started with one voice – hers.

UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Joline at 823-3603, or follow her on Twitter @jolinegkg. Go to to submit a letter to the editor.

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