Episode 8: Elena Costello Tzintún

(Released August 20, 2021)

Show Notes

You've found yet another episode of Tell Me More!, a podcast for amplifying the work of graduate students. Congrats! This time around, Dr. Elena Costello Tzintún, a recent graduate of the Department of Spanish and Portuguese at the Ohio State University (this episode was recorded while she was a PhD candidate at OSU). Dr. Costello Tzintún is an applied linguist with a focus on race, equity, and inclusion who examines the role of interpreters in healthcare settings to improve accessibility in such spaces along the lines of culture, discourse, and practices of health.

In this episode, Dr. Costello Tzintún chats to us about a program for marginalized students to access university while also giving them a profession in health care while still in high school, which is work that came out of her dissertation research. Specifically, Dr. Costello Tzintún argues that, when you take marginalized students gifts and present them as unique skills, they can then access dual enrollment programs, receive college credit, and learn to navigate academia. She also chats about several other programs and groups she has been a part of, all of which advance an assets-based framework for multilingual people.

Be sure to check out Scholars of Color in Language Studies (SCLS) on Twitter, and join their Facebook group (especially if you are a BIPOC scholar doing work at the intersection of language). If you'd like to learn more about the show, find links to things we talked about, find transcripts, or sign up to be a guest, please check out tellmemorepod.com. Feel free to follow us on Twitter at @TMM_Pod, too. Be well and safe as we enter into the Fall 2021 semester. We here at TMM are rooting for every academic right now.

Links to things discussed in this episode:

Transcript for "Episode 8: Elena Costello Tzintún"

Wilfredo: You’re listening to Tell Me More!, a podcast for amplifying

the work of graduate students. I’m your host, Wilfredo Flores... or just Wil.

[opening theme song plays, “Metre” by Slow Alarm]

W: This is a show where we ask graduate students a

singular question: Tell me more!

[music continues]

W: So, let’s get into the episode.

[music continues and then fades out]

W: Hi there! Welcome to Tell Me More!, where we chat with graduate students about their work, ideas, and more! In this episode, I'm chatting with Elena Costello Tzintún, a fifth-year PhD candidate in Department of Spanish and Portuguese at the Ohio State University. Welcome Elena! Could you tell us a little bit about yourself?

Elena: Thank you! And I have to giggle a little bit whenever I hear the “The” in the Ohio State University. So yes, I'm graduating this semester from the Department of Spanish and Portuguese, and I study language access especially in health care.

W: So you're talking to us today about your program for marginalized students to access university while they're still in high school on their pathway to a profession in healthcare. That sounds fascinating. So please tell me more!

E: Oh, thank you. I'm so excited to share. So I am the first in my family to go to college and the first woman to graduate high school. And the way I was able to go to the university is that, while I was in high school, I started taking Spanish classes and they didn't have them at my level at the high school, so they let me go to the university and let me go to the Ohio State University. And so I started taking classes there and that got me in the foot in the door. And I think if it weren't for that, I know I would never would have been gone to university and I definitely wouldn't have gone on to graduate school.

E: So when I started working with the university of not as a graduate student, but as an employee, I was trying to figure out—and I was supposed to be working with Latino access to higher education—How could I get Latinos on campus before they started college? And so, I thought about my ways and I was like, okay, so we need to convince the university that these are students with special abilities in their bilingualism and their understandings of different cultures. And together with a professor, we created a program called IMPACT that the students high school students take two years of coursework at the university around Latino healthcare in language, and then at the end they become certified medical interpreters. And then they already have a lot of college coursework when they're applying to university, and all of the students are first-gen; they're the first generation to go to college. And most of them are children of immigrants. We know, right, these tend to—your language changes as, through the generations and your exposure to it. So all of them required, were required to have some kind of proficiency, high proficiency in the language already. So that's what ends up making it mostly Latino, mostly children of immigrants. And we only worked with the inner-city schools.

So, generally in the United States, Spanish departments are divided into two programs: literature and culture and linguistics. Linguistic studies—why people say the things they say, how they say the things they say. It can study the space, the aspiration, the air that you have between words, between syllables, but a lot of linguists, like to say they don't study people—they study language, right, unless you're looking at socio-linguistics. And I didn't understand—and so when I came into the program, graduate program, I wanted to study how Latinos navigate interpretation, medical interpretation, especially. And I was told that was linguistics. And I said, but isn't it culture as well? And they were like no because it’s linguistics. And I was like, wait, but how do you have language and not have culture and people? So this is how the departments are divided across the United States. You have people in the literature and culture part, and then language and linguistics. And I still don't accept that. So I was allowed to, I guess, I argued for the ability to do both programs. So I did two programs for my master's and two programs for my doctorate because the union, they weren't seen as, I don't know, they didn't meet together. Linguists are seen as generally more quantitative, and literature and culture is more qualitative. And I think you need both when you're looking at how people navigate language. It's not just numbers or counting the seconds between words, there's people behind it.

W: Right! Growing up my sister and I had to translate a lot of documentation for, first for our foster father, because he was from Mexico. So he didn't, he had to get his papers and everything, after he was marrying my mom and they had to navigate that process. And my mom was diabetic, so she had to deal—And she only graduated high school, well not only like she graduated high school, that's an accomplishment. But we ended up having to be that bridge between all those English documents and then the Spanish, like translating it into Spanish for them. And yes. That's stuff that is cultural and also—well from what I know of linguistics—also linguistics. So yeah, I think your work is, is resonates very much with children of immigrants. So at least I can say that.

E: No, I think so. I think it's with all immigrants, not just Spanish speakers, right?

W: Right!

E: It's the, and then we look at Spanish-speaking communities in the US and those tend to be more marginalized. Right. They're less likely to go to college. There's a lot of stuff, and it's like, but look at all the brilliance resources—you're asking an eight year old to navigate legal and medical documents in two languages and to clean it to someone else. I don't think that's fair to have a child do that, but it definitely means that they've, they've become resilient and resourceful, and they come with that idea because it's been presented to them, right, because it's a deficit perspective. So when we do like Latino health, wel right now with COVID times of Zoom, they had family behind them, right? Who hear the conversations we were having. So we read a journal article from the American Family Practice Journal about how to deal with Latino patients, maybe they might drink té de manzanilla, chamomile tea, for an upset stomach, right? The families in the background heard this, right, and started to talk with the students about, “Oh, we do that, right?” And then it was seen by the students as, “My family has a cultural knowledge that I already come with an understand. And here's this fancy pants, academic journal, where they're trying to break down the knowledge we already know.” So it changed their own deficit perspective as well that they’ve been ingrained with, right? Maybe I'm not good enough. Maybe they don't know this well enough. Maybe they don't know the language well enough. And it's like, “Oh no, I know all of these things. And they're out here, people professionals trying to learn it. And I've already brought to the table.” So yeah, it definitely changes the perspective, I think.

W: Elsewhere, you wrote that you are interested in health care based on culture, discourse, and actual practices of health that focus on race, equity and inclusion. Could you talk to us a little bit how that particular focus maybe manifests within your work and in this program or how they intersect?

E: So I look at language—race and language intersect. Right? So one of my favorite books by scholar, Jonathan Rosa, Looking Like a Language, Sounding Like a Race. Right? So we had, you hear people sometimes say, oh, they look like they're Spanish, or they sound like they're Hispanic. Right, one of my favorite words. But there is that concept, right? And we use Spanish as a way to racialize. In linguistics we call it raciolinguistics. So that also then falls into it—that carries an education, but it also carries into healthcare in how we practice health. So there's language differences, but then there's also cultural differences. So one of the examples I frequently give in interpretation is that sometimes they won't use interpreters. They'll say, “We'll just get through it. We'll get by. This will be faster.” And an example I give is where they used a mom. She spoke, they thought her English was good enough. And after the visit, they got to the point in this child who had spent, who had strep throat and then at the end, they called me, I was interpreting, I also work as an interpreter. And they said, “Mom's really angry and kicked us out of the room and said she wants a new medical team. We were already doing the discharge, so we weren't sure what that was about.” And they had brought the child for the discharge a popsicle, like what those freeze pops? And I was like, “Oh, the child has a strep throat and you gave them a cold thing to drink.” I was like, that's why mom thought none of you knew anything about medicine. Cause that's what she kept saying: “How could you ever...” So you went, Wilfredo, you went, “Oooh,” you immediately got it, right? It was a cultural thing. It wasn't a language thing. And a lot of Latino cultures, especially Mexican ones, if you give someone something cold, when they're ill, it can make them sick is the thought, right? Or you don't, especially for a sore throat, you don’t give cold things. And so they had, even though they thought they had had a great visit, it had to do the full thing again, because mom now didn't trust anything they’d done. So there was a cultural disconnect, even though there wasn't a language disconnect. But those go in together; they play together.

So that's what I look at is how to provide better care and also the importance of utilizing interpreters. While it's legally required in the United States to use an interpreter at any place that receives federal funding—and that's according to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and it's specifically for hospitals with the Affordable Care Act then it talks about hospitals and they need to be trained interpreters. And even though these are the laws, we know that law and practice are two different. So my research looks at showing people why it's also important, for example, return on investment, to use interpreters. And while I don't like looking at humans as if from an economic perspective necessarily, it's sometimes how you sell it to people. So, if I can say it, you know, you don't use an interpreter, you're more likely to have the patient relapse, not take the medicine correctly. There's like more likely to be error. This will cost you in the long run. Just use the interpreter from the beginning. So that's what a lot of my research does as well as looks at that. And then, for example, even in COVID, how do we access vaccines, right? Or an appointment? For—what do you do, if you do, if you're undocumented, which also plays into race right in the United, at least in the context of the United States how, what happens when you get there? And what's understood, how's the paperwork given to you all, all those things. So it's... they all intersect. It's not one, one thing. But I come at it from the perspective of a linguist.

W: Hearing you talk about these things reminded me of kind of one of the first moments where I realized that this is the thing that people wanted to know more about in terms of academia. And it was when I was an undergrad in a critical theory class, like the, the, the standard critical theory class that the undergrads take that's like, this is what feminist theory is. This is what queer theory is. And everyone's like, whoa! But we were doing LatCrit. And one of the novels was about a mother who had like wrapped her baby up in a particular way. And then she had to deal with doctors telling her she didn't know anything about what she was doing because she was wrapping the baby too tightly and it couldn't breathe, but the baby was staying warm in that way. And that's why she was wrapping it in that way. And that was like what was taught to her via culture. So it's just, it sucks that there's so many different spaces, I guess in, throughout medic medicine, healthcare and just, I guess all of the other processes that we go through our daily lives, that this is still a thing. Like it's still a thing.

Elena: Yes. And when you talk about the wrapping of the baby, it reminded me of one where the mom had been discharged. Her baby was only a few days old, and she had already come to the urgent care and the primary care center, maybe four or five times. And she'd only been out for like, within a three-day period. She just kept going back. And they use an interpreter for all her visits. And then I was the interpreter for the last visit where we figured out what was going on, but it wasn't because I wasn't a great interpreter it's because, her Spanish is similar to my Spanish and her culture is similar to mine. So even though she had an interpreter, the issue with her baby, she kept saying the belly button, the belly button, and the doctor would look the belly button, and say, “It's fine.” So same thing happened with me. The doctor said, “It's fine. You know, you don't worry about it.” And the mom still look really concerned. And I stepped out of the role of an interpreter, which you're not supposed to do in interpretation, unless actually necessary, and I said, “May I ask mom a question?” And I said, “Mom, are you concerned that your child's belly button is still sticking out and this may impact how your child loves you? And she said, “Yes!” And so exactly. Right. And I was like, oh, okay. So then it's let me explain to the doctor. Do you usually put like wraps—a faja is what we call it in Spanish—like a bandage. She was like, “Yeah, but no one's here,” and she was alone. So I was like, let me explain this to the doctor and then we'll have the conversation again. Because the doctor hadn’t asked, no one had asked, well, “What is your concern?” Other than passing the belly button. So in some Mexican cultures, we put a coin on the belly button or button or something and we push the umbilical cord in. And when a baby is, a newborn in the first week or two, the umbilical cord has to dry up and fall on its own. But in Mexican, in some Mexican cultures, and some Guatemalan, you put a coin and you wrap a bandage around it and the belly button goes in is what the idea was. My mom would always tell me, you have a beautiful belly button because I made sure that your bandage was really tight. And I pushed him the coin really hard. So since mom didn't have anyone around to help her put the bandage and drop the baby, so she was very concerned that her baby would think it was unloved, which is also part of the idea of how deep it goes is how deep your mother's love is for you. And the child's belly button was sticking out. The biblical cord was still out, so the child would think they were unloved. So again, there was language, but there wasn't a cultural understanding. So they had Spanish interpreters, but they weren't at the same Spanish-speaking countries. Right? Anyway, so that comes up too. That was a long story. [Laughter]

E: So my dissertation, I was really interested in language and identity, and I also didn't want to be in Ohio anymore and I had a fellowship, so I could go. So I'm going to Mexico, is what I decided—I'm in Mexico right now, actually.

W: Oh, cool!

E: COVID helped in terms I could keep on teaching online and not come back. But so I came down for it to do my dissertation research and I started working with a nonprofit that helped repatriated people with the readaptation process. So what that means is people that have were deported or their family members came back and they came back with them. Right. So maybe your dad gets deported and you're a US citizen, but dad's going so we’re all going, right? And, and I say US because it's mixed status for everyone: some are Mexican citizens, some are duals, some are US. Some are working undocumented in Mexico because they don't have Mexican documents. It's a, it's a mixed bag. So I started working with them and I was too embarrassed to say that I needed to do research. I was like, how can I, cause I don't want to just take. And I was seeing a lot of academics come down and... their phrasing right— “study these people.” And it felt like my people I grew up in a mixed status home. My mom feared deportation a lot. She made us memorize how to find, that, if she did end up in Mexico, how to find her via my grandparents, so that it's something happened. And at the time I didn't realize those are traumatic experiences, right? It was just what you do. So I really disliked white academics coming down and what they were saying, and they came back and the articles I read and was reading were very awful. It usually focused on the white savior kind of stance. So it was like, well, I want to study language and identity and how they navigate, how can I give back? And then I shared with them the things that I did it, and they said they would love to do a interpretation training course. So we did that. And that turned very much into almost like a Chicano studies class. Because part of it is understanding that your language is validated. And as we spoke earlier, oftentimes we come from the US from a deficit perspective: your Spanish isn't good enough, your English isn't good enough. You're a lifelong language learner, they'll say in education, right? Even though maybe English is actually your dominant language. So, a lot of ideologies we have would say... Okay, so if someone from Spain says “parquear,” why is that okay? But not if you do, right? And then they’re like, “Oh, that's racist. And I was like, yeah, so let's look at how race and language intersect. And they have the knowledge, but a lot of them had never had that Chicano studies or ethnic studies class to be like, “Oh yeah, it's the system, not me.” Even though they kind of know it, right? But so that's what the interpretation class turned into a little bit of, and then we did a lot of interpretation and I strongly believe that people who grew up with both languages and both cultures are better interpreters. And by the end, I think they felt the same way. Or at least that's what my research has shown is that they felt the same way and they felt more confident and more legitimate in their language abilities at the same time, they're exploited for their language abilities.

So, for example, if you order from Amazon in the United States, the shipping, some of the shippers for Amazon are independent contractors. It's not just like UPS or FedEx, whatever it is, it's independent contractors. And a lot of those are truckers who are also undocumented, who don't speak English. The people doing the purchases and the moving usually do speak English. So in terms of the logistics, there are call centers here in Mexico, where they take bilingual people to speak to the drivers, to try to find the cheapest rate. They underbid each other. So usually, you know, undocumented Mexicans and Central Americans to drive it, and then talking to the, the more the companies which has got some English and both companies and individuals in the US particularly way ones prefer what they think is an American English. So you have a lot of call centers as well for other stuff. ICE also uses an interpretation phone line with deported people in Mexico, interpreting over the phone to those that they are in the process of deporting.

So it's a, it's a cycle. There's a lot of exploitation. And so part of my dissertation is that, but there's definitely work to follow up for the next five years and the 10 years, and to substantiate some of the things, right? Like why is it and is it so that when people are reported, they're dropped off in front of call centers instead of social services. There's a belief, in the community that that's, because there is an agreement between the government, the US government and capitalist enterprise. So my dissertation looked at language and ideas ideology, not ideas, very language ideology of those who use their language to navigate labor. And also what happens when they end up taking a class on medical interpretation. I, I didn't plan that part with my dissertation. It's the part that probably most developed the expected and how their views changed or themselves in their work. So that's my dissertation research.

W: It’s so interesting to see how your work is trying to, like, put a, put a, throw a wrench in that gear, that turning gear of these huge, insidious machines. Yeah...

Elena: Yeah, I’m a little scared, like right now, Amazon has been posting about how their, their employees don't have it that bad—it’s a Twitter trend going on. Which is hilarious to me, and it's was like, well maybe when I think the current conditions of their employees is bad, but I also know they do so much subcontracting where it's even worse. But I'm scared to write about it, cause I'm like, I don't know how much. I'm scared of a large corporation like that. Right? And what that means for me or any research I do. In wonderful news though, the... so I trained over 60 repatriated people, and they launched their own interpretation organization. So there's now an interpreter co-op in Mexico, and it's the only national interpreter organization because there's some individuals and there's some like companies in Spain instead of interpreter companies here. But this is the first like fully Mexican one. And it's all repatriated people. So I was like, that's the most exciting part for me about my dissertation is that it was able to give back to the community that gave me the ability to get a doctorate. Right?

W: Yeah!

E: So I'm one of the founders for Scholars of Color and Language Studies (SCLS). The American Association of Applied Linguistics a few years ago stopped counting the number of Latino linguists because it was under two, like every year for five years in a row of those who were getting PhDs, right? And I was like, there's gotta be more of us. I know we exist. Right? So I, and three other people I'm started this group, SCLS, and we're now about 400 members and it's people who study language. So it's linguists and some people in education. And like we've talked earlier, linguistics intersects with so many other things, right? People speaking, intersects with race studies with gender studies, with queer studies, it's all, it's all there. So SCLS is, is one of my big things and I'm on Twitter with SCLS. It's S-C-I, in, L-S: Scholars of Color in Language Studies on Twitter and on Facebook. And we're launching a new journal. It'll be partially open—

W: Hey!

E: Yeah! I’m excited! It'll be open, which is how I like it. And other people do want peer review. I'm kind of old, I feel like, back in the day, you sent things to your colleagues and they read it and criticized it and you ran, send it back. Right? And I was like, we have internet now, we don't need to do this peer-review process. People will tell me exactly what they think of my work [laugher] and what the faults are by making it public. And that's the peer-review process really is. It doesn't need to be in my, for my stuff. Right. Is in my view, is it doesn't need to be private. People are always happy to give you their opinions and their criticisms. And then other people do want it; peer review is the kind of more traditionally looked at as prestigious way. So we're launching that, but we're on Twitter, we're on Facebook and if you want to join anybody, that's a person of color, feel free to join. If you're not a person of color, you can follow us on Twitter and send us money. [laughter] Yeah, so that's it! And then the interpreting organization, they’re on Facebook is Dreamer’s Interpretation, is what they've called themselves. And it's, let me pull it up. Dreamer’s Interpretation dot Wordpress dot com as well for their website. So they're pretty, they're still small and building, but they're trained.

W: Awesome. I will link all of that in the show notes. And yeah, I should say your comment about this cutting across so many different disciplines is valid—is true too. Not valid. Like who am I to say? It's valid. It's true.

E: You are! You one hundred percent are!

W: There are people in my field doing the, like the most immediately that comes to mind is Laura Gonzales, whose work on translingualism ad multilingual workers is very much in line with this, and yeah, her argument and she's trying to push our field—our sometimes old-school field—into this... like we need to adapt social justice perspectives that help us rethink what we think of as deficits—not deficits—as assets.

E: Yes, that’s my fight all the time.

Wilfredo: Hopefully people listening to this will think of these intersections and then yeah. See how they're work can benefit from that. Thank you!

E: No, thank you. This was so much fun,and I'm sure you have other things, so many other things on your plate. So I appreciate it, thank you.

W: No, yeah. Thank you for—sorry for being late! I was like, wait, my schedule!

Elena: Oh, I totally forgot. And then it beeped on me. Like I got a notification, and I was like, “Oh, fuck! Is that today?”


W: So we both missed! [laughter fades]

W: Thanks for listening. You can find out more about this and other episodes that tell me more pod.com. We also find transcripts for each episode. The opening and closing theme song is meter by slow alarm music, licensed under an attribution. Non-commercial share like license and special. Thanks to slow alarm for providing the music free of charge.

W: You can learn more about slowly. At NOLA teal records.blogspot.com. You will.

[outro music plays]

W: Thanks for listening! You can find out more about this and other episodes at tellmemorepod.com, where you’ll also find transcripts for each episode. The opening and closing theme song is “Metre'' by Slow Alarm. Music licensed under an Attribution, Non-commercial, Share Alike License, and special thanks to Slow Alarm for providing the music free of charge. You can learn more about Slow Alarm at nultielrecords.blogspot.com. Be well!