Multiculturalism and Identity

(Article by Daniel Catalaa, published May 1st, 2008)
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Note: This commencement speech was given by Daniel Catalaa in May of 2008 during the City College of San Francisco Health Care Intepreter Certification Program Graduation.

Personal Introduction

Dear students, faculty, families, and support people, I feel very fortunate to be with you today and to have been given the opportunity to celebrate the achievements of my classmates and this graduation.

I would like share with you the personal experiences that transform a person into an interpreter, and talk about the importance of identity. I hope that you will see yourselves reflected in this story.

My name is Daniel Catalaa, I graduated last December from the City College Health Care Interpreter Certification Program and currently I work at California Pacific Medical Center as a Spanish interpreter.

I am a descendant of French sheep herding and dry-cleaning immigrants. My parents grew up here and I was born in the States. When I was still 6 months old my family and I moved to England for 2 years, then to Italy for 10, then to Argentina where I completed high school, France for 1 year in college, and then back to the States. By the time I was 23 years old I had immigrated 4 different times and had 2 different passports.

When I returned to the States as a young adult, I spoke English but understood very little about the culture. People would use abbreviations and I would not know what they meant, they would tell me jokes and I would not laugh, and when I said hi to girls I insisted on kissing them on the cheek the way I learned in Argentina, ...and apparently that is not done here.


While my family and I were globe trotting around the world, a watershed event took place. At age 13 I was diagnosed with Crohn's diseases, a chronic illness that is still with me today and this was a defining moment in my life. For the years to follow I would be poked, probed, examined, would have to give biological samples, wait anxiously for results, and live in a permanent state of uncertainty. This illness weakened me, it slowed down my growth, it prevented me from doing the things I liked, and it stopped me in many ways form having a normal life.

I knew hospitals as a place of suffering and I needed to rediscover them as a place of healing. So it was very transforming, after I became an interpreter years later, to be in the hospital, not as a patient, but as somebody providing assistance. Patients tell me how they feel, but often I already know, and I just sit in silence with them and let the moment of communion happen.


My immigrant background and illness motivated me to change my identity from patient to health care interpreter, to change from a taker to a giver.

Identity is a key issue. As an interpreter you need to have an extremely strong sense of identity because when you work you will need to let it go. Only when you can trust that you know who you are, can you let go of your ego and sense of self and take on the identity and perspective of the providers and patients that you are serving.

But let me tell you, most interpreters struggle with their identity. In part, the reason is that we are multicultural and we are trying to describe ourselves using monocultural terms.

To give you an example, whenever I am filling out an official form I am always perplexed and amused by the categories offered for ethnicity, nationality, racial identity, and linguistic preference. Typically they are all lumped together as if they were all one thing. These categories do not reflect the complexity and richness of human beings. If it were up to me, the form would have a checkbox for "Anglatino" for Anglo and Latino, another checkbox that I would need would read "ex-Catholic, but not sure", and maybe another one for gender "Man, but feminine in cases of emergency". Because that is the reality, our identities are complex and they defy categories.

Even when you try to create better politically correct categories for identity, you are simply building better boxes, and boxes are by their very nature limiting. I challenge the notion that labels can define a person, no matter how pretty the label.

Let me use the sun as an example. Will the sun be rising or setting tonight? Let see a show of hands, how many of you think that the sun will set tonight? How many believe that the sun will rise tonight?

The sun is constantly doing both, rising and setting at the same time. When tonight the sun sinks into the Pacific Ocean off the coast of California, it will be simultaneously resting majestic high above the skies of Hawaii, and, at the same time, it will be the planetary ball of fire that wakes up the residents of Beijing. We are mothers, daughters, and sisters, we are fathers, sons, and brothers, we are Chinese and American, we are patriots and immigrants, we are tax payers and patients, we are undocumented and human beings, we are ignorant and infinitely wise. Identity is an "and" concept, if you view it as an "or" concept, you will create an internal division that does not exist.

As interpreters and multicultural people you will breath in in one language and breath out in another. To chose between different cultures and identities is equivalent to choosing between inhaling and exhaling. We cannot. We will not. We need both realities to exist, we need both live.

I also challenge the notion of a static unchanging identity. Identities are dynamic. Your notion of who you are changes over time. We change dramatically when we become parents, when we immigrate, when we overcome a fear, or discover something great about ourselves. We chose who to be, how to be, and when. During the course of a day, we adopt different roles and identities and use the ones that are the most effective for the context that we are in.

If somebody in the hospital asks you "who or what are you?", ask them in return "who do you need me to be?" Only when you have total confidence in your identity, can you let it go. You are no longer looking for external validation or approval, you have transcended labels, and you are focused on doing and becoming whatever it takes for the patient to receive the best care possible.


I am asking for you to come to peace with your identity because the divisions we experience internally become manifest externally at the level of relationships and at the level of society.

For example, US citizens are unsure what type of relationship to have with their immigrant community. At one point we want to hire them, then we want to deport them, we intermarry but we fear that members of that group will take over, we may enjoy each others food and music but we are uncomfortable rubbing elbows on the bus. We trust immigrants with the well being of our children but deny them public assistance or driving privileges.

We adopt each others superficial customs, but we feel threatened by the underlying deeper values. So we go out drinking for Saint Patrick's, but we are afraid of transforming a funeral into a celebration the way the Irish do. We will listen to RAP music, and then avoid the very neighborhoods where it started. We will dance salsa or we can count up to five in Spanish, but we we are resistant to sacrificing a personal goal in order to put family first as a Latino person may do.

Here is the antidote: You fight disconnection with self-knowledge. I encourage you to seek the deepest level of self-knowledge possible through meditation, poetry, art, keeping a journal; because this self-awareness is the platform from which you operate daily. Your blind spots will be revealed, hidden talents, insecurities, and gifts. The more we accept ourselves, the better interpreters we will be for others.


One layer that you have added to your identity is that of interpreter. This is a role that you have been rehearsing for over a year and that you are taking on consciously. So let me ask you, who are interpreters? What attracts them towards this profession? Where does their passion come from?

We become interpreters because we know what it is like not to belong, to be the outsider, the minority. We become interpreters because we or somebody we care about has been sick all of their lives and we have felt powerless to help them. We become interpreters because as immigrants and sons and daughters of immigrants, we use the uniqueness of our experience to benefit ourselves and benefit others.

In effect, we belong to all those who do not belong, we identify with those who cannot be identified, we include those that are excluded, we help to heal individual patients and in a larger sense to heal the internal divisions that separate a society. One encounter at the time, we replace mistrust with understanding, isolation with connection, and judgment with curiosity.

I am going to ask you to think broadly of what it means to be an interpreter. In my view, any person that has experienced two different realities and can bridge the gap between them, can be considered to be an interpreter. An effeminate man, or a manly woman, can reach across gender stereotypes. A mother who introduces her children to her parents, bridges the generation gap. A teacher in the classroom connects experts in the field with students.


I have stressed the importance of identity and inner harmony. But why did I do this?

There is a saying in English that goes "Don't shoot the messenger". Well, guess what. You are going to get shot, and both sides will be firing.

When you are aware and connected to your identity it will ground you to weather the demands of the job, so that you can convey the content of emotionally charged meetings or the content of messages that you disagree with, and so that you will be able to make somebody else's sorrow and their joy temporarily your own.

Stay connected with your identity and stay connected with your passion. Your history has steered you towards interpreting, honor that history and sift through it because somewhere in there, that is where your passion is.

I want to thank my instructors Nora Goodfriend-Koven, Carlos Vargas, and all of the language coaches for their dedication, for their support, and for giving me the words to describe things that I had experience all of my life but for which I had no name: dominant culture, power dynamics, belief systems, stereotypes, empathy, and professional standards.

To all my classmates and soon to be colleagues, please leave today with the understanding that you have been entrusted with a unique opportunity: to heal your sense of self, to heal your fellow man, and to heal us as a community.

Thank you very much.