First Days In America: Medical Interpreter Alma Del Rio

Jul 9, 2019

This week, KUNR is airing a series called “First Days in America.” Today, we hear from Alma Del Rio. She’s an interpreter at Renown Regional Medical Center in Reno, where she works with a growing population of Spanish-speaking patients. She begins her story with an early childhood memory.

When Alma Del Rio was a kid, she translated her mom’s Spanish into English. 

She sat in the doctor’s office, explaining ailments and illnesses that were not her own.

“Seeing people struggle within the medical system, seeing my own mother and parents struggle with the medical system is important,” Del Rio said. “It’s given me a reason to go into this line of work.”

Now an interpreter at a Reno hospital, she sees how a growing demographic of aging Spanish speakers also need help navigating the medical system. 

“People know my shift now; they ask me questions,”  Del Rio said. “I hate saying ‘no,’ or, ‘I don’t know.’ I try to help as much as possible.”

Alma Del Rio stands outside of the apartment she shares with her younger sister, Carolina, in Reno, NV.
Credit Michelle Baker

THE OUTSIDER

Del Rio’s family permanently left Valparaíso, Zacatecas, Mexico when she was 5 years old.  She started kindergarten in the U.S. not knowing English. 

“I was sobbing and crying; nobody knew what I wanted to say; nobody understood me,” Del Rio said.  

Del Rio’s dad was frequently going to and from America. It was on one of these return trips to Mexico when he met Del Rio’s mom.

While the parents traveled between countries, the children stayed in Mexico with relatives. 

Del Rio’s mom got a job to support the family of seven. Del Rio said she worked in warehouses, casinos and restaurants in Northern Nevada. 

The kids learned how to take care of each other.

“It’s always been really difficult for me growing up in heavily white communities,” Del Rio said.  “There’s this saying in Spanish ‘ni de aqui ni de alla’ [which means] ‘not from here nor there,’ and that’s kind of how I feel every day.”

Del Rio wonders how her life might have been different if she had stayed in Mexico all these years.

“The cousins that I grew up with in Mexico, they’re all doing wonderful,” Del Rio said.  “People know how hard it is living there and if you don’t go to school, you won’t get out, you won’t make it.”

But in the U.S. Del Rio and her siblings had each other. When they got home from school, they’d commiserate about the bullying. 

"Did anybody call you poor today at school?" they’d ask. “Yeah, oh, OK. Me, too.”

"Did somebody make fun of your teeth today?" they’d ask. “Yeah.”  

Their classmates made fun of their teeth because they were stained yellow from the overuse of fluoride in the Mexican water. They also made fun of their clothes, heavily worn and swapped between them, and their accent. 

“I knew we were poor. I knew because of the clothes we wore; I knew because of the portions of food that we got,” Del Rio said. “I knew because kids told me. That’s really what it comes down  to: because kids told you.”

HER MOM’S DEFENDER

Although her mom had picked up some English through her various jobs over the years, the English that Del Rio learned in elementary school was far better than her mom’s. 

“She says, ‘Yo me defiendo’, [which means] ‘I can defend myself,’ ” Del Rio said. “I’ve worried since I was little that someone might go and try and take advantage of her.” 

Del Rio has taken this caregiving chore and turned it into her career. 

She’s a Spanish interpreter at Renown Regional Medical Center and plans to continue her education to become a social worker. 

“Seeing firsthand how difficult it is for my mom, to see how hard it is to just get a simple question through to the doctor really shaped that goal “

Del Rio also plans on becoming nationally certified as a Spanish interpreter. At the hospital, she works with a growing population of older Spanish-speaking people.

“It’s something so small, but I forget how much of a big deal it is,” Del Rio said. “It’s such a big tool; I’m so happy to have it. My Spanish is here for them.” 

This story was produced by Michelle Baker, a student at the Reynolds School of Journalism who participated in NPR’s Next Generation Radio program, which mentors student reporters.