For Erica Maldonado and Diego Pons, co-founder-owners of the San Luis Valley (SLV) Language Justice Cooperative, being bilingual wasn’t always a good thing. This sentiment changed, however, when they learned to leverage their bilingualism in a way that advanced them professionally and allowed them to fulfil a need within their community.
Pons and Maldonado met in 2019 at a language justice training hosted by Colorado’s Community Language Cooperative (CLC), an interpretation company based in Englewood, Colorado and founded as a worker-owned cooperative in 2014. In addition to interpretation services, CLC provides training and mentorship to people like Pons and Maldonado who want to expand language accessibility in their own communities.
“I was unaware that you could do interpretation in different ways. I always thought it was in a clinical setting, but this was a new level of interpreting for me,” says Maldonado, who works with many bilingual families with her career in an Early Childhood Center.
By the end of the training, both of their eyes were opened to the meaning of language justice. They say that the training educated them on the history of language oppression in the United States and showed them that they could get paid for something that they’d been doing for free their entire lives.
“It told us that you should never do something you are good at for free,” says Pons about the CLC Language Justice training.
During the training, people from CLC encouraged participants to form their own cooperatives if they felt passionate about language justice. Pons was mobilized by what he learned in the training and expressed his interest. Maldonado, who has always had a disposition of helping others, volunteered herself, and together they created the SLV Language Justice Cooperative. In addition to providing guidance, CLC helped the SLV Language Justice co-op to secure start-up funding from Colorado Trust. They also worked with Linda Phillips, Senior of Counsel at the Jason Wiener p.c. law firm, to establish their co-op.
Once Maldonado and Pons had the tools to advocate for themselves and be successful interpreters, they were eager to serve their community. Over 30% of the San Luis Valley population speaks Spanish and it’s also home to some of the most impoverished counties in the state. Maldonado and Pons both say that by forming the SLV Language Justice co-op, they were able to give these communities a voice.
“I think it’s a great opportunity for other families and community members to know that we are here. It opens more doors for them to join more community meetings and activities,” says Maldonado.
In terms of how Maldonado and Pons personally benefit from the formation of SLV Language Justice, the cooperative business model affords them both more flexibility. Maldonado hopes that she can eventually transition into full-time work for SLV Language Justice, recognizing that a full-time co-op position would allow her more freedom to spend time with her family.
Pons also enjoys the independence that comes from being part of a cooperative.
“I’m a rebel… I don’t like having a boss,” he says.
Pons is now working full-time for the cooperative. He was able to transition to full-time in 2020. He says that the pandemic opened opportunities for their business in some aspects, allowing them to provide their services over Zoom to people outside of the San Luis Valley.
While speaking two languages is a source of empowerment for Pons and Maldonado today, it was a source of anxiety for both earlier in life.
“Being bilingual to me was not a gift, it was actually a burden,” says Pons about his experience growing up bilingual.
Pons was always expected to interpret during school, he says. When he entered the workforce, employers likewise expected Pons to volunteer his interpretation skills for free. Frustrated by this assumption, Pons tried to advocate for himself. He told employers that he wouldn’t translate unless compensated, but they instead stopped asking him. Pons says that he now understands that there are many people who have similar experiences.
Maldonado is a child of immigrants, meaning she’s been a translator for most of her life. Similar to Pons, Maldonado has spent most of her adult life providing her translation services for free in the workplace. She asked to be certified in medical translation while working for a pharmacy, but they turned her down saying that she couldn’t hold two job titles.
Today, the outlook that Pons and Maldonado have on their bilingualism is a far cry from what it was in the past. They now have the skills to not only advance themselves but also to help their community.
With Pons and Maldonado being the SLV Language Justice Cooperatives’s sole two employees, it is sometimes a lot of work, Pons says.
“We would love the cooperative to grow in the long run, it’s just a matter of finding the right people to join us,” says Maldonado.
They want to expand the co-op to serve more people in the future by providing a wider range of languages they can translate. For instance, they have both noticed the need for interpretation services in Q’anjob’al, a Guatemalan dialect, in their community.
They currently plan on expanding their services by hiring contracted workers. Down the line, they hope that some of the contractors have the skillset and desire to become partial owners of the co-op.
The SLV Language Justice Cooperative is evidence of the fact that the empowerment of workers can have positive rippling effects through the community.
“I certainly am a believer that language justice is not a waste, it’s actually a good investment. It does good for everyone,” says Pons.