There are many shocking things about the murder of Guatemalan immigrant Deisy Garcia and her two young daughters. For one thing, the murders were allegedly committed by Garcia’s husband, the children’s father. While just about anyone would agree that these deaths are awful, there is at least one aspect of the situation that has divided people’s opinions: the NYPD is being criticized for not having translated the Spanish-language police report that Garcia filed against her husband for spousal abuse a few months before the triple murder. This report was especially important because in it, Garcia said she was sure her husband would kill their family if he wasn’t stopped.
No matter how moved you are by this tragic event, you might also be thinking that translating reports isn’t the police department’s job. You might wonder why Garcia didn’t think to at least bring an English-speaking friend or neighbor with her to file the report. As an immigrant in a country whose native language isn’t my own, I have to admit that I did. But it turns out that Garcia was perfectly in the right; while my adopted home of France has an official language, the United States does not.
Not only does this mean that people who say “This is America- speak English!” know less about their beloved country than they think; it also means that there’s no legal reason for this command to be heeded.
Garcia and her children’s deaths have put the spotlight on a federal lawsuit that several Spanish-speaking women have filed against the NYPD for not translating domestic violence-related police reports. One claimant even accuses an officer of refusing her a translator and telling her – in Spanish – to shut her mouth. Regardless of what tongue is being spoken, that kind of reaction from authorities is unacceptable and frightening.
When you think of it that way, the complaints seem much more reasonable.
And yet, I will say one thing: Since English is the predominant language in the US, it probably is a good idea to speak it well enough to at least give a basic account to police if you get into trouble. When you’re an immigrant, you learn that language is power, and if you don’t have that power, there can be dire consequences. Unfortunately, Garcia and her children met with those firsthand. Then again, it’s hard to blame her: with children only one and two years old, she was likely a busy young mother, and she may even have been taking English lessons, for all we know. As I’ve followed the story, I remember reading at least one comment at the end of an article that asked if maybe Garcia did speak English at an acceptable level, but because she felt more comfortable expressing herself in Spanish, and knew that she had a right to do that, she chose the latter option.
Even so, I’d still like to give this advice: If you’re in a place where you don’t speak the native language, think of learning it as a form of self-defense. If you can’t learn it, make sure you know how to reach interpreters or at least someone you know who could translate for you, if necessary.
It’s sad that in addition to the grief Garcia’s relatives and loved ones feel, there might be a lingering suspicion that the murders could have been prevented. No one, regardless of what language they speak, should have to suffer. And yet, it seems that even in a multi-cultural city like New York, even in a country without an official language, if you don’t choose your language wisely, that just might be your fate.