2010 García Sánchez, I. M. “(Re)shaping Practices in Translation: How Moroccan Immigrant Children and Families Navigate Continuity and Change.” MediAzioni, Journal of Interdisciplinary

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(Re)shaping practices in translation: How Moroccan immigrant children and families navigate continuity and change

Inmaculada M. García-Sánchez, Department of Anthropology, Temple University,


Citation: García-Sánchez, Inmaculada M. (2010) “(Re)shaping practices in translation: How Moroccan immigrant children and families navigate continuity and change”, mediAzioni 10, http://mediazioni.sitlec.unibo.it, ISSN 1974-4382.

1. Introduction

Processes of cultural continuity and change across generations are a crucial

constitutive element in the history of any society or cultural group. Immigrant

communities are perhaps one of the richest cultural milieus for exploring historical

and cultural change. This is, on the one hand, due to the radical transformations

occurring in these contexts, and, on the other hand, due to the fact that negotiating

hybrid practices is integral to adapting cultural dispositions and practices to those

of the host society. Sociologists of immigration, for instance, have offered

longitudinal and comprehensive macro-accounts of the rapidity and far-reaching

impact of many of these transformations (e.g. Portes and Rumbaut 2001, 2006).

Little is know, however, about the on-the-ground, everyday ways in which

immigrant children and families go about refashioning practices which may lever

spaces for the generation of new and hybrid forms of cultural practice. Moreover, in

recent years, some scholars have made a point to highlight immigrant children’s

critical role and active participation in negotiating some of these processes of

cultural continuity and change (e.g. Orellana 2009; Samad 2007), thus drawing our

attention to immigrant children’s agency in the transformation of cultural practices,

artifacts and technologies into hybrid constructions. Although immigrant children

may often find themselves at the forefront of many of the processes of


transformation that immigrant communities undergo, we still have much to learn

about how immigrant children navigate cultural and generational processes of

continuity and transformation in their daily existence, and in the midst of differing

socio-cultural orientations. This paper focuses on the situated ways in which

Moroccan immigrant children and families negotiate the familiar and the new in

their everyday lives in relation to language brokering activities and family

responsibilities. In this light, this paper considers how, through their involvement in

such activities, Moroccan immigrant children in Spain contribute to processes of

cultural reproduction and transformation, especially the (re)shaping of migrant

family practices in households and institutional contexts.

A key premise underlying and elaborated in this paper is that language brokering

itself, as an activity setting and as a socio-cultural practice among Moroccan

immigrant families in Spain, constitutes a hybrid space that allows children to

(re)draw the geographies of familiar cultural boundaries and socio-cultural

practices. For the purposes of this paper, I shall argue that language brokering

makes such space possible because it maintains a high degree of continuity with

expected roles for children in households of the Moroccan diaspora, while

simultaneously allowing for alternative roles to emerge for these children in a new

socio-cultural context. This premise undermines popular and deficit-oriented ideas

about children’s involvement in language brokering as brought about solely by

immigrant parents’ limited proficiency in the language of the host society and as

bringing about emotional burdens for immigrant children, as well as the disruption

of conventional family hierarchical arrangements1. These beliefs, in that they are

often based on contemporary and normative Western views on what it means to be

1 In spite of the fact that, to date, no study has reported negative effects resulting from immigrant children’s engagement in language brokering activities (see Orellana 2009: 149 for a review of this literature), immigrant children’s role as translators has attracted quite a bit of media attention in the last few years. This media attention has often focused on the supposed children’s “parentification” or role reversal within the family system, and the presumed anxieties and distress that these “adult-like” responsibilities may cause among immigrant children (e.g. Flores 1999). Similarly, during fieldwork, I encountered analogous attitudes among doctors and teachers, who disapproved of children’s involvement in translating tasks, viewing it as an unfortunate, but necessary evil. See also Section 3.1 of this paper.



a child and on what should be expected of children (see e.g. Zelizer 1985, 2005),

not only may obscure how immigrant children and families themselves negotiate

and understand language brokering tasks, but they may also overshadow much

needed insights into how immigrant communities navigate the familiar and the new

in these quotidian, hybrid spaces. Rooted in the notion of “childhood” as a socio-

cultural construct (James and Prout 19972), the analysis below examines

Moroccan immigrant children’s involvement in language brokering activities not in

isolation, but, rather, in relation to the range of responsibilities displayed by and

expected of these children in the households of Moroccan diaspora in Spain. It is

only by studying immigrant children’s roles as translators in the ecological context

of family life – that is, how generational and culturally-specific notions of childhood

and of appropriate socio-cultural development organize the distribution of rights,

obligations, and responsibilities among family members – that it is possible to

identify points of continuity and transformation in family practices.

2. Research frameworks

To illuminate the hybrid nature of language brokering as a cultural practice for

immigrant children and families, I draw on research findings and theoretical

perspectives from two different domains of inquiry: (a) studies of immigrant

children’s work as socio-cultural brokers and linguistic mediators; and (b)

anthropological and psychological approaches to the cross-cultural study of

responsibilities in childhood.

2 James and Prout (1997) emphasize that childhood should not be investigated just in terms of “age” or “physical stages” of maturation, but as a fluid notion that is inextricably linked to local ideologies of what it means to be a child, and that, therefore, it is subject to historical and socio-cultural change.

2.1 Previous research on immigrant children as language brokers

Over the last decade the widespread activities of children across immigrant

communities as socio-cultural brokers and linguistic mediators between parents

and representatives of social institutions of the host society has become the focus

of attention for researchers across different disciplines. This role has been

documented, for example, for Latino and Chinese immigrant children in the U.S.

(e.g. Chao 2006; Orellana 2001, 2003, 2009; Tse 1995, 1996a; Valenzuela 1999);

Chinese immigrant children in the U.K. (Song 1997); Pakistani immigrant children

in the U.K. (Hall 2004), and for Moroccan and Sub-Saharan African immigrant

children in Spain (García-Sánchez 2007, 2009; Valero Garcés 2001). Due to the

increased attention that this phenomenon has received in the last two decades, the

terminology to describe it has flourished3. In this paper, I will use the term

language brokers/-ing (one of the most popular terms in the literature),

interchangeably with child-translators and children as socio-cultural and linguistic

mediators, to refer to both, the children and the practice itself.

While the study of language brokering is still a fairly new research enterprise, a

broad range of phenomena has been taken up in this rapidly growing field4.

3 For a comprehensive review of the different terms that have been suggested and their analytical and theoretical underpinnings, see Orellana (2009) and García-Sánchez (2009).

4 Studies have identified immigrant children’s attitudes towards translating and the relation between children’s work as translators, academic achievement, and psychological outcomes such as self-efficacy (e.g. Acoach and Webb 2004; Buriel et al. 1998; Dorner et al. forthcoming; Parke and Buriel 1995; Tse 1995; 1996a; Weisskirch and Alba 2002). Additional outcomes investigated are the impact of language brokering on immigrant adolescents’ mental health (e.g. Buriel et al. 2006; Chao 2006; Chu 1999). Educational researchers, for example, have examined the literacy demands in children’s translations of written texts (e.g. Orellana et al. 2003b) and their implications for immigrant children’s development of academic skills (e.g. Malakoff and Hakuta 1991; Valdés 2002). The skills that Latino immigrant youth deploy as family translators can facilitate their acquisition and development of academic literacy skills, such as school writing tasks (Orellana and Reynolds 2008; Martínez et al. 2008). Also, language brokering in home-school communication allows child-language brokers to act as facilitators in these intercultural encounters (Orellana et al. forthcoming; Tse 1996b), helping bridge the often-wide gap between immigrant families and educational institutions (Quiroz et al. 1998, 1999; Trumbull et al. 1998; 2001).



Relevant to the present study is, on the one hand, research that examines

language brokering as a socio-cultural practice in the context of immigrant

children’s contributions to their households, and, on the other, research that

investigates the impact of language brokering on immigrant children’s

(re)negotiation of social identities and relationships.

With regard to language brokering in relation to immigrant children’s daily lives,

responsibilities, and family expectations, there are a handful of studies that have

focused on the importance of language brokering for family processes of

settlement in the host society (Orellana 2001, 2003; Orellana et al. 2003a; Song

1997; Valenzuela 1999). Valenzuela (1999), for instance, has identified Mexican

immigrant children’s types of contributions to their households and how these

contributions facilitate their families’ settlement in the U.S. In describing the value

of these contributions, Valenzuela attempts to establish a linkage between the

three types of contributions he identifies – namely tutors (translators), interlopers

(advocates), and surrogate parents (sibling care) – and conventional family

expectations in Mexican households, particularly in relation to gender and age.

Song’s (1997) study of Chinese immigrant youth in Britain goes a step further in

situating these youth’s contributions to their family businesses in relation to both

British and Chinese cultural norms, as well as to family and generational

ideologies. Song (1997) draws attention to how different siblings within the same

families juggle their Chinese family expectations and what they see as British ways

of being in the world through differential levels of involvement in family

responsibilities. Orellana’s5 (2001, 2003, 2009) longitudinal study of Latino

immigrant children’s work as translators in Chicago and Southern California offers

to date the richest ethnographically-grounded observations of how language

brokering impacts the everyday life of immigrant children and families. Orellana

(2001, 2003, 2009) documents language brokering tasks while drawing a nuanced

picture of the home and school-related responsibilities of these children. Although

she emphasizes how children’s contributions benefit the community, the families,

5 See also Orellana et al. (2003a).

and the children themselves in terms of learning and development, Orellana also

takes a complex look at how, beyond the language barriers and economic strains

that strap many immigrant families, Latino parents encourage and expect these

contributions as normal and as critical to their children’s moral, social, and civic


In terms of immigrant children’s (re)negotiation of social identities, thick

ethnographic accounts of actual language brokering events indicate how children’s

contributions and involvement as language brokers help shape their relationships

and their emerging processes of identification (García-Sánchez and Orellana 2006;

Hall 2004; Orellana 2009; Reynolds and Orellana 2009). Hall (2004), for example,

has investigated how Pakistani immigrant children in the U.K. handle generational

and hierarchical contingencies in the context of parent-teacher conferences. These

conferences were, however, mock encounters involving a script, as well as actors

playing the roles of mothers and teachers. From this standpoint, more realistic is

the perspective offered by García-Sánchez and Orellana (2006) and Reynolds and

Orellana (2009). Focusing on actual parent-teacher conferences, García-Sánchez

and Orellana (2006) have examined how, when translating teachers’ narratives

about their academic performance to their parents, immigrant children co-construct

their moral and social identities as students mostly in relation to host society school

values, but without losing sight of parental expectations for their academic

development and behavior in class. In commercial encounters, Reynolds and

Orellana (2009) have investigated how children negotiate negative stereotypes and

identities about their immigrant families, engaging in active face work on behalf of

their parents.

Building on this wealth of research, this paper addresses an area of children’s

language brokering that still remains understudied: how language brokering

encounters constitute hybrid activity settings that provide a space for immigrant

children to contribute to the (re)shaping of family and institutional practices in

migration contexts.



2.2 The cross-cultural study of responsibilities in childhood

The notion of responsibility in the anthropological, sociological, and psychological

literature has traditionally been conceived in terms of expectations and

performance of tasks that are associated to certain social and gender roles

(Berleant-Schiller 1977; Whiting and Whiting 1975; Munroe and Simmin 1984;

Seymour 1988). In Whiting and Whiting’s (1975: 54) seminal cross-cultural analysis

of children’s development in six different cultural contexts, responsibility is defined

as follows: “In any situation in which performance of a task is required, expected,

or preferred as part of one’s social role, responsibility consists of tendencies to

perform the task”. Thus, children’s responsibilities have mostly been discussed in

terms of tasks that contribute to the economic and general well-being of the

members of the family group (Munroe and Simmin 1984), and they have further

been divided as instrumental responsibilities, such as household chores, and social

categories of responsibilities, such as performing hospitality (Seymour 1988).

More recent literature on children’s responsibilities has identified two additional key

aspects in relation to responsibilities in childhood that are absolutely crucial when

looking at immigrant children’s involvement in language brokering tasks: morality

and socialization (e.g. Cohen 2001; Fasulo et al. 2007; Klein et al. 2008; Ochs and

Izquierdo 2009; Such and Walker 2004). This later literature highlights that, beyond

their contributions to household economy and sustainability, the tasks children

perform for themselves and for others are inextricably interwoven with socio-

cultural understandings of the moral status of childhood and parenthood and

constitute an essential aspect of child socialization and human development. In

other words, moral identity and children’s socialization come together in the

organization of responsibilities in that the latter are linked to the social roles that

children have in relation to socio-cultural notions of childhood and in that they are

also organized in relation to appropriate notions of moral development (what it

means to become a moral son or a moral daughter). In their examination of

responsibility in childhood among middle-class Los Angeles children, Matsigenka

children in the Peruvian Amazon, and Samoan children, Ochs and Izquierdo

(2009), for example, have argued that these three paths to responsibility involve

children’s and their families’ socio-cultural awareness and responsiveness, and

that, further, albeit differentially in these three context, these trajectories are

organized by the ecological contexts of social situations and of cultural notions

about child development. In this sense, the authors document how in these three

different socio-cultural contexts much effort is devoted “to socializing children into

being self-reliant and helpful to doing things at once on their own and

cooperatively” (ibid. 407). Ochs and Izquierdo (2009), however, also note that

these cultural and moral paths to responsibility must not be understood as static

ways of socializing children into obedience and into reified “cultural traditions”.

Rather, these scholars are careful to emphasize the power and agency that such

socializing paths also bestow upon children.

These theoretical orientations on responsibility in childhood speak to the need of

examining and understanding Moroccan immigrant children’s involvement in

language brokering within the wider social and family contexts that organize these

children’s responsibilities in their households and communities, without losing sight

of the complex, and sometimes, paradoxical positionalities that immigrant children

and families have to come to terms with in reconciling the “old” and the “new”.

3. Data collection, participants, and methodology

This paper is part of a larger ethnographic language socialization study,

investigating the family worlds, the neighborhood peer worlds, and the school

worlds of Moroccan immigrant children in a rural Spanish community6. In

documenting the socio-cultural matrix of the lives of Moroccan immigrant children, I

focused on the everyday communicative practices that the children participated in

with extended family, peers, teachers, and other community members in the

diverse settings that make up their daily lives, including language brokering

6 This research was supported by funding from a Wenner-Gren Foundation Individual Dissertation Research Grant (Grant # 7296).



activities at the local health center, in the households, and at school7. The six focal

children in the study were relatively recent immigrants to the country, raging from

one to five years of residence. The naturally-occurring interactional routines of this

group of children were systematically observed and video/audio-recorded over a

period of sixteen months. This paper draws from and is informed by more than 100

hours of video and audio-recordings, as well as the field notes collected during this

sixteen-month period. The audio and videotaped corpus yielded by this body of

data collection was transcribed and ethnographically annotated with the help of two

Moroccan Arabic native speaker assistants, who provided nuanced metalinguistic

commentary of children’s language use and insights into cultural ideologies and

attitudes toward that use (Garrett 2007; Schieffelin 1990). In addition, questions

concerning the actions and speech of the children, as well as the situations in

which these occurred, were addressed to the children’s caregivers and other adults

(i.e. teachers, doctors, and trainers) during several interviews and consultation

periods over the course of the study. The transcripts were also annotated with the

information gained in these consultations.

During the course of the recordings of language brokering practices, I adopted the

role of observer and minimized my participation in any of the translation tasks that

the children were asked to perform. For instance, I never elicited any form of

translation or of language use, and I never directed or made decisions regarding

language brokering events in which the children were involved either voluntarily or

by adult request. Finally, I never asked either children or adults to engage in “mock

7 In addition to children’s language brokering practices in these three contexts, I videotaped the children’s participation in routine peer group activities once a month. Because a central goal of this study was to investigate how children juggled languages and social practices to meet different situational expectations, once a week I also videotaped focal children’s linguistic practices in different institutional learning contexts (the town public school and Koranic classes at the local mosque) and formal after-school activities (training sessions with the local track and field team). Accompanying the video record, there are comprehensive ethnographic notes, along with photographs, maps and charts, children’s textbooks and other printed material collected during fieldwork, about family and social interactions in the community, including celebrations, professional meetings, and special events, as well as more quotidian aspects of the community life. In-depth ethnographic interviews were also conducted over a period of several months with focal children, parents, teachers, doctors, and school officials.

enactments” of language brokering tasks for the sake of data collection. During

some home visits, a few mothers asked me to translate some school letters that

they had received. Although I reminded them that I was interested in learning how

they negotiated these contingencies as a family, there were some occasions in

which I could not refuse to help with these translation tasks. At times, parents also

asked to “double-check” children’s understandings of complex governmental

paperwork after they had already recruited the help of their children for the original

translation. Nevertheless, these requests for assistance were few and far in


Documenting naturally-occurring language brokering events is indeed challenging.

Unlike more systematized household and daily routines in which children and

family participate (e.g. cooking, doing homework, setting the table, etc.), children’s

involvement in translation tasks is fairly unpredictable. It is difficult to foresee in

advance, for example, when an official letter is going to arrive in the mail, who is

going to be present to translate it, or whether a translation is necessary at all.

Therefore, collection of these data requires on-going involvement in the children’s

daily life and frequent visits to families, schools, and other institutional settings.

One of the institutional contexts in which I was able to record language brokering

encounters more systematically was the health center. Working with one

pediatrician and her nurse in particular, I went to the health center once every two

weeks. The pediatrician and her nurse were extremely generous in advising me in

advance about which day of the week they would have more appointments with

Moroccan families. This set of data, however, involved a large number of non-focal

Moroccan children due to several reasons. Partly, this was due to the

unpredictability of medical needs and/or children’s availability to act as language

brokers in these encounters. There were also other constraints, such as the fact

that I had to obtain permission of each individual family before recording the

medical encounter. Since I started recording at the health center after being in the

field for four months, many families already knew me personally or knew of my

research. These families almost always granted me permission to record their

interactions. There were a number of families, however, who either did not know



me at all (particularly those who came from nearby small villages) or who were

uncomfortable with me recording their interactions. Therefore, many times during

my visits, I was not able to obtain a single recording, whereas during other visits to

the health center, I was able to obtain recordings of multiple families in one


4. Contexts of and attitudes towards language brokering

It did not take long after my arrival in the rural Spanish town where I conducted this

study to establish that many Moroccan immigrant children had a special role in

their homes as linguistic brokers and socio-cultural mediators between their

families and institutions of the host society. Children’s work as translators had been

even more widespread in the years prior to my arrival. Parents, children, school

staff, and many other community members confirmed that two or three years

earlier, it was extremely common to see Moroccan immigrant children in the town

hall, at the banks, and in the offices of different social services helping their

families take care of official matters. Because the business hours of many of these

establishments coincided with morning and early afternoon hours during which

children were required to be at school, educational authorities in the town were

concerned about what they perceived to be the habitual absenteeism of a high

number of Moroccan students who performed these translation duties regularly.

They strongly lobbied for the town hall and public social services to hire translators

during school hours. The elementary and middle school principal noted that he did

not necessarily mind children using their bilingual skills to help their families; it was

the fact that they were doing so during school hours that was, in his view, a serious

problem. Although it was still possible to witness occasionally Moroccan children

translating for their families in some privately run businesses (i.e. banks),

immigrant children’s language brokering in the public sphere during school hours

had been almost completely eradicated by the time I began conducting this study.

Nevertheless, Moroccan immigrant children continued to have a critical role as

linguistic brokers and socio-cultural mediators in their communities. Through

informal conversations with children, parents, and community members, I soon

learned that Moroccan immigrant children translated for their families on a regular

basis, particularly at home and at the local health center. An interview extract with

one of the focal girls, aged 11, illustrates this point:

Participants Original English translation

Researcher: Alguna vez (.) has tenido que traducir para tus padres?=

Have you ever (.) had to translate for your parents?=

Meryem: =Muchas veces =Many times

Researcher: Muchas veces. Todavia traduces para ellos?

Many times. Do you still translate for them?

Meryem: Si Yes

Researcher: Donde traduces? Where do you translate?

Meryem: (Pues/A ver) Cuando van al medico o cuando tienen que hacer un papel o algo

(So/let’s see) When they go to the doctor or when they have to do paperwork or something.

((Researcher nods))

Meryem: Y-y tambien vienen mujeres a mi casa que conocen a mi madre

And-And also women who know my mother come to my house.

Meryem: No saben hablar pos voy con ellas (.) al medico.

They don’t know how to speak so I go with them (.) to the doctor.

During the course of the study, I was able to document children translating in three

different contexts (see below: Figures 4.1 through 4.38): (1) In the homes, where

8 The present study is in compliance with Institutional Review Board ethical guidelines and was approved by the UCLA Office for the Protection of Human Subjects. All participants in the study gave their informed consent to be videotaped and photographed. They also gave their informed consent for pictures and frame grabs to be used in academic presentations and articles. To further



they sometimes translated official paperwork and letters for their parents and

neighbors. (2) At the public school, where Moroccan children were often unofficially

recruited by teachers to translate directions for newly-arrived Moroccan

classmates. At school, however, Moroccan immigrant children were never asked to

act as translators in more formal situations, such as parent-teacher conferences.

The school had a policy that children, in general (whether Moroccan or Spanish),

could not be present during these interactions between parents and teachers. In

addition, and in contrast to the principal’s earlier statement, school administrators

had a negative attitude towards children’s involvement in language brokering

because they felt that it was not appropriate for children to assume translation

responsibilities. Therefore, the Arabic language teacher and other community

volunteers provided translation in these more formal school contexts. (3) Finally, I

was also able to record Moroccan immigrant children’s role as translators at the

local health center9. The health center had a translator on staff in the morning and

early afternoon hours. The health center was also open during late afternoon and

evening hours, however, and there was no translator available during late

afternoons and evenings. Because children were not in school at these times of the

day, parents (particularly, mothers) would continue to take their children with them

to perform interpreting tasks in this setting. In fact, an interesting finding of this

study, discussed below, is that the lion’s share of the translating tasks I

documented was performed by girls who interpreted mostly for mothers, and very

rarely for fathers. When fathers were present during the medical visit, fathers

usually took the initiative since, in general, they tended to have higher fluency in

Spanish than mothers had.

safeguard the privacy of the individuals who participated in this study, distortion filters have been used so that, while the actions taken place can still be easily recognizable, individuals’ features cannot. In addition, all participants’ names have been substituted by pseudonyms.

9 The local public health center is a small-scale clinic facility that covers the basic medical needs of the town’s population. For more serious conditions, births, and surgical operations, patients were referred to specialists in a bigger hospital situated in a larger town approximately 6 miles away from the rural community where the study was conducted. In Spain, health care is public, government-run, and free, including health care for immigrant children and pregnant women, independent of their legal status. All documented immigrants have access to the public health care system.

Contexts in which Moroccan immigrant children act as language brokers

At the health center, attitudes towards children’s roles as translators were mixed

among health care personnel. On the one hand, the staff valued children’s efforts,

and how much children’s work as interpreters facilitated their work as health care

professionals. On the other hand, and mirroring the popular beliefs towards

language brokering described in the introduction, doctors and nurses would also

tell me that they disliked this practice because they felt it was putting too much

pressure and responsibility on the children. In fact, they tried to eradicate it by

Figure 4.3 School: Moroccan girl translating an exercise for a classmate

Figure 4.1 Health center: Moroccan girl translating for her mother

Figure 4.2 Household: two Moroccan girls translating paperwork for their mothers



hiring a professional translator in the mornings. As mentioned above, however,

there was no translator available in the afternoon or in the evening hours, when the

local health center and its emergency unit was still operative, and that is when

Moroccan children would often accompany their families and neighbors to perform

translation services. Another instance of medical personnel’s concern and

ambivalence towards children’s involvement in language brokering is that, when I

approached the clinical staff requesting permission to record medical visits

involving Moroccan children who translated in the afternoon hours, they were very

supportive of my study because they were interested in knowing whether or not

children felt uncomfortable performing these tasks, whether they experience any

difficulties in translating, and if and how children were able to handle in translation

what the staff considered “cultural problems”10, usually involving taboo topics, such

as women’s menstruation.

An additional area of concern for doctors was children’s effectiveness in conveying

institutional expectations and in “re-socializing” Moroccan adults into different

health standards. The main point of contention was that Moroccan families

sometimes missed mandatory check-up appointments. The clinic’s staff had

developed a local theory of why these situations would happen so frequently. They

posited that most Moroccan immigrant families had taken on a “survival mentality”

due to the high cost of and difficult access to medical care in rural areas of

Morocco. During my conversations with them, doctors reported that one of the

main difficulties that they experienced working with the Moroccan community was

in helping them make the transition from a mentality of survival, that is, going to the

doctor only when someone was sick, to a mentality of prevention, involving regular

vaccinations and mandatory check-ups. Although I do not dismiss the doctors’

hypotheses, I also suspect some Moroccan families sometimes missed these

10 In my conversations with them, I learned that doctors and nurses had had problems with such “cultural” issues in the past. The staff reported to me instances of heated discussions with Moroccan families in which families would leave the clinic in anger because the doctors were asking “inappropriate” questions. However, during my visits to the clinic and my recordings with Moroccan families, I never witnessed such incidents and cannot attest to the frequency with which these interactions occurred.

appointments as a result of having trouble understanding the complex institutional

letters that families would receive regarding these appointments. Very often during

my study, I observed parents and children working together on deciphering such

letters (as mentioned above, the household was another site were language

brokering occurred on a regular basis).

5. Understanding language brokering as a hybrid activity setting

Like children in many other immigrant communities around the world (e.g. Orellana

2001, 2003, 2009; Song 1997), Moroccan immigrant children also make important

contributions to their households that are essential to the sustainability of their

communities. Acting as cultural and linguistic mediators between their families and

members of the host society is only one of the responsibilities that Moroccan

immigrant children have in their households. Although immigrant children’s roles as

translators could be mainly seen as related to new circumstances brought about by

processes of settlement in a new socio-cultural environment, the analysis below

attempts to show that the practice of language brokering is shaped by the role and

the responsibilities that are expected of Moroccan immigrant children in the

households of the Moroccan diaspora in Spain. In describing the distribution of

responsibilities in Moroccan households, it then becomes important to understand

how community-specific notions of childhood and family practices organize roles,

rights, and obligations (e.g. Berleant-Schiller 1977; Cohen 2001; Gill 1998; Fasulo

et al. 2007; Klein et al. 2008; Munroe and Simmin 1984; Ochs and Izquierdo 2009;

Orellana 2003; Seymour 1988; Whiting and Whiting 1975).

5.1 Language brokering, household responsibilities, and cultural reproduction

In many households of the Moroccan diaspora in Spain children are expected to

engage in a significant amount of daily chores from an early age, such as sibling

care, running errands, cleaning, washing clothes, and cooking. Thus, Moroccan 197


immigrant children contribute significantly to the needs of the family11. While this

phenomenon can be partially explained by the economic constraints faced by

many immigrant families, these practices are also linked to notions about children’s

appropriate socio-cultural, moral, and civic development among the Moroccan

diaspora. In the focal households that were documented in depth, as well as in

many other Moroccan households that I visited frequently, there was an ethos of

generational interdependence and a strong expectation that children also had to

contribute their share to the sustainability of the household. This strong ethos was

visible, for example, in terms of task-initiation, with children regularly carrying out

household chores without having to be told explicitly by parents. Most children

indeed displayed a remarkable level of efficiency, self-sufficiency and autonomy.

Furthermore, when I would discuss these issues with the families, mothers

emphasized that it was not only necessary, but also important for children to learn

how to do these chores. Mothers and girls, in particular, would often speak of

“doing things together” (or xedma ž-žma3a in Moroccan Arabic). This “working

together”, however, did not necessarily refer to a physical sense of togetherness

or to performing tasks simultaneously. Rather, this “working together” had more to

do with what could be translated as “team work”, or accomplishing larger tasks in a

collaborative fashion. In fact, Moroccan parents would shame and reprimand

children who resisted or complained about these chores, worrying that this refusal

– perceived by parents as lack of respect and obedience- would lead to negative

future outcomes for the child. Or, in other words, Moroccan parents were

concerned that children who resisted these tasks were not turning out “the right


In addition, children’s responsibilities were organized according to two main

factors, gender and age, with most of the household responsibilities falling

11 Although this description is congruent with the organization of responsibilities in the vast majority of the households, it is also important to mention that there were degrees of variation among the children and the households I studied. For instance, the children of one of the families I had the opportunity to visit often were very rarely given any household responsibilities, including language brokering tasks. The mother would take care of most of the household chores, and the father would take time off work if there was any paperwork, medical or official issue to mediate.

progressively on the oldest female siblings, or on the oldest male in the absence of

females. Girls were in charge of cooking, washing clothes, cleaning the house,

taking care of younger siblings, and doing grocery shopping. In contrast, boys, if

they had any responsibilities at all, would mainly help by running errands and

helping with the family business (see Figure 4.4 through Figure 4.9 below). In

interviews with the focal children in the study, girls in particular discussed at length

what a major part of their daily lives household responsibilities were12. In the

following interview excerpt, Worda and Wafiya, two of the focal girls, both aged 9,

discuss how they help at home:

Original English translation Participants

Y- y ayudas en casa? And- and do you help at home?


Yo, sí= Yes, I do= Worda:

=Yo, sí =Yes, I do Wafiya:

Y en que ayudais? And how you help? Researcher:

En que ayudais-ayudamos? E:::n (.) en ha-hacer la comida

How do you help- we help? I:::n (.)in pre-preparing meals


Sí Yes Researcher:

Lavar los platos, barrer= Doing dishes, sweeping=


12 Fernea (1995) and Schaefer Davis and Davis (1995) have also documented a high degree of children’s involvement in household responsibilities in Morocco. Like in many Moroccan households in Spain, in Moroccan households in Morocco the division of chores is remarkably distinct. Both researchers coincide that most households they studied displayed a strong division of labor by sex. Girls typically have many daily chores that are not expected at all of boys, and, in addition, girls also start to perform these chores at an earlier age. Fernea (1995) and Schaefer Davis and Davis (1995) have described that boys become an extension of the father outside the home and girls become an extension of the mother inside the home, whether they are or not in school. Moreover, as in the households I documented, an exception to this strong division of labor according to gender occurred in those families in which there were no girls. In those cases, these responsibilities fell on the oldest male brother.



Participants Original English translation

Researcher: Y- y ayudas en casa? And- and do you help at home?

Worda: =Ayer estuve toda la tarde trabajando toda la casa- todo el piso

=Yesterday I spent the whole afternoon working the whole house- the whole flat.

Researcher: todo el piso the whole flat.

Worda: Algunas veces cuando mi madre esta trabajando yo hago la comida

((Nods)) Sometimes when my mother is working. I prepare the meal.

This lengthy interview fragment continues with a detailed description of the

preparation stages of meals that Wafiya and Worda usually cook either by

themselves or with their older sisters, and finishes with a description of the most

effective ways to wash clothes by hand to minimize wrinkles and to make sure that

the stains come off.

Range of household responsibilities displayed by and expected of Moroccan immigrant children

Figure 4.4 Cooking: Kamal’s cousin, Mouna (13), helping her mother prepare a meal

Figure 4.5: Karim’s sister, Jalila (14), preparing and setting up a meal for a guest

Figure 4.6 Kamal’s older brother, Mustafa (14), helping lay the table for an extended family meal

Figure 4.7 Sibling care: older sister, Houriya (18), helping Wafiya get ready for an athletic competition

Figure 4.9 Karim’s sister mopping the floor while her mother tends bab

Figure 4.8 Cleaning: Sarah (8) sweeping rugs in her home y



As mentioned earlier, when there were no females in the household, parents

recruited males’ help to perform some of the responsibilities typically assigned to

girls. Nevertheless, even in these situations, mothers tended to involve males less

than if they had been females. In one of the focal households, for example, (that of

Kamal’s), there were no daughters, only three sons. In this case, most of these

responsibilities tended to fall on Kamal’s older brother (see Figure 4.6 above).

Kamal was also sometimes involved in a few daily chores; something that I

observed sporadically and that he also reported in interviews conducted with him.

Kamal’s involvement in household responsibilities was relatively low, in spite of the

fact that he was two years older than the focal girls in the study. While focal girls

were responsible for taking care of their younger brothers and sisters, neither

Kamal nor his older brother had this responsibility on a regular basis; their mother

often told them instead to take their four-year old brother to their aunt’s house.

Given the range of responsibilities that Moroccan immigrant children perform with

and for their families, translating work can be seen as an extension of the

expectations of the Moroccan diaspora community about children’s appropriate

contributions to the household. Children’s involvement in language brokering on

behalf of their families is congruent not only with conventional roles of children in

homes of the Moroccan diaspora in Spain, but also with the collaborative ethos

documented in the vast majority of the households. In light of the many points of

cultural continuity that language brokering shares with the family practices

described above, it is not surprising that most Moroccan immigrant parents and

children that I had the opportunity to talk to about this issue viewed and

experienced language brokering as normal and appropriate. Rather than a reversal

of family and generational hierarchy and power, Moroccan parents would complain

if, after being asked, children refused to translate. Much like the Latino families

documented by Orellana (2009) who felt that kids have “too much” power when

they were not willing to help and/or translate, Moroccan parents‘ in this study

interpreted these refusals as their children being inconsiderate and disobedient.

When considered in relation to the larger ecological context of family life and

relationships, children’s willingness to perform and provide help with translation

tasks when asked upholds, in many ways, community-specific notions of childhood

and of appropriate development (or what being a “good”, “moral” and respectful”

child means in households of the Moroccan diaspora in Spain). In addition, and

contrary to widespread popular beliefs, it may also help maintain family structural

arrangements and bonds of generational interdependency among Moroccan

immigrant children and their parents, given the importance given to values of

cooperation and sharing among these families.

5.2 The potential for cultural shift in language brokering

Adding a layer of ethnographic complexity to the account just presented, it must

also be considered how language brokering also makes available new roles for

Moroccan immigrant children to appropriate. Children’s engagement with this “new”

responsibility has the potential to lever open spaces for shift and transformation in

children’s roles within the family, since language brokering is a “novel” family

practice for recently-arrived Moroccan children and their parents. While adhering to

family values and practices that are highly regarded in households of the Moroccan

diaspora in Spain, language brokering responsibilities are also different from the

more conventional ones described above, such as cleaning or running errands.

One important difference, for instance, is that, unlike other responsibilities where

the division of labor by gender tends to be fairly distinct, language brokering

responsibilities cross gender boundaries. I documented both boys and girls

translating for their families, for doctors, for their teachers, and for classmates. How

Moroccan immigrant families situationally negotiate their children’s engagement in

language brokering may, then, have implications for shifts concerning Moroccan

immigrant children’s socialization into gender and social roles in their households.

Yet, consistent with the assignment of most household tasks to females, girls were

primarily in charge of executing translation tasks among the families I studied. In

fact, seventy percent (7 out of 10 video-recorded visits) of the translation

encounters videorecorded were performed by girls. Recordings and observations



in the homes, where children often translated official letters and paperwork for their

parents, also support this female-laden gender trend. Although more research is

necessary to establish a widespread gendered nature of language brokering in

Moroccan immigrant communities13, the fact that girls seem to be overwhelmingly

the ones carrying out these responsibilities can also be consequential in the

refashioning of family practices and children’s roles in migration contexts. Girls’

greater involvement is translation tasks makes available novel social roles for

young females to appropriate in Moroccan diaspora communities. If in some of

their communities of origin, particularly in isolated, rural areas of Morocco where

most of the immigrants in this town come from, Moroccan girls’ roles in the public

sphere tend to be relatively limited with most of the chores that must be performed

outside of the home being assigned to boys14, their role as translators for parents

and other adults in their diaspora communities in Spain, take them to the town hall,

to the bank, to the health center, etc. In becoming instrumental for their parents’

dealings with these institutions, young Moroccan girls may have wider access to

the public sphere, and starting at an early age. In addition, as I was able to observe

in many family dealings involving the translation of official paperwork, in these

interactions, girls often take up an agentive role and exercise a certain degree of

power, often participating in family decisions regarding institutional dealings and

often making those decisions themselves on behalf of, but with the acquiescence

of, their parents. Children’s, particularly young girls’, more agentive role in family

decisions, that otherwise would only involve adult family members, constitutes a

powerful example of how Moroccan immigrant children in Spain may contribute to

processes of cultural transformation, especially those related to the (re)shaping of

migrant family practices.

13 The same female-laden gender pattern vis-à-vis translation work has been documented in other immigrant communities (see e.g. Orellana 2009; Valenzuela 1999).

14 See description above regarding the organization of household responsibilities according to gender, as well as footnote 10. At the same time, however, it is also important to note that the social roles of children, both boys and girls in Morocco, is currently in rapid transition due to increasing urbanization and the spread of universal education.

A final aspect of how involvement in language brokering tasks makes available

new social and family roles for Moroccan immigrant children to enact and

appropriate is related to what is often conceived of as the hierarchical reversal of

family authority in these interactions. However, Orellana (2009) has argued that

rather than just reversal of generational hierarchy between children and parents, it

may be more accurate to regard what transpires between parents and children in

translation encounters as a reversal of expert and novice roles. Adopting

Orellana’s perspective may indeed be more productive, particularly for the

purposes of this paper, because, if it is certainly important to pay attention how

language brokering practices may disturb generational power relations, it is also

crucial to examine how children’s involvement in this practice may create spaces

for the reformulation of these relations. The following excerpt is an example of how,

when acting as language brokers, children are often the experts about the “host”

society language and culture, helping parents navigate administrative requirements

and bureaucratic structures, as well as helping them acquire important institutional

knowledge. This example is taken from a longer interaction between a mother and

a daughter in one of the Moroccan homes I studied. The mother needs to go to a

government office to complete the registration process for two of her younger

children to obtain permanent resident cards; however, she is unsure about the

instructions regarding the paperwork that she needs to take with her. Both, she and

her daughter, begin to look at the multiple forms included in the package they have

received in the mail and at the instructions to ascertain what documents will be




Participants Original (Moroccan Arabic in bold and italics, Spanish in regular font)

English translation

Girl: šufi Look ((pointing at the instructions))

Girl: Fotocopia de DNI, documentacion para...

Photocopy of “DNI” documentation for... ((Continues reading the instructions in Spanish in an inaudible way, almost as if reading completely for herself, although the mother is following along attentively))

Girl: ol foto safi and a picture, that’s it.

Mother: Ya3ni, ga3 Hadu našriHum, ndirHum-?

That is to stay, all those ((pointing at some forms and documents))do I buy them, do I make them-?

Mother: Naddi ġir Hadi? Hadu wasmu idiru?

Do I take only these? And those what are they for?

((As the mother is asking these questions, both mother and daughter look alternatively at different forms and documents))

Participants Original (Moroccan Arabic in bold and

English translation

italics, Spanish in regular font)

Look ((pointing at the Girl: šufi instructions))

Hadi ġir armiHa, ġir dir fotocopi el Had ašši ol Had= =ašši igulu lek aswaleh alli khassak addirilHum

These, leave them, you only have to make a photocopy of this one ((holding a form in her hand)) and this ((holding a different form)) they will tell you what needs to be done with them.


Hadu? Those? ((Holding some papers in her hand))


Hadi, foto, DNI These, picture, DNI Girl:

In this example child and adult work together towards accomplishing a larger goal;

thus, this segment underscores how children’s and parents’ differential levels of

expertise in migration contexts create a space for the emergence of new forms of

generational interdependency, in which generational relationships may not

necessarily be disturbed in a negative sense, but rather reshaped and


6. Conclusion

By bringing together bodies of literature on immigrant children’s language

brokering and on childhood responsibilities in relation to my own work among

Moroccan immigrant children in Spain, this paper has examined language

brokering responsibilities as a path for understanding immigrant children’s critical

role and active participation in negotiating cultural and generational processes of



continuity and transformation in quotidian contexts and in everyday practices. A

key premise that has guided this analysis is that, rather than as an isolated practice

explained just by the many constraints immigrant families face or against normative

constructions about what children should be expected to do, language brokering

must be studied in the wider context of the family practices that organize children’s

roles and responsibilities in immigrant households. Concomitantly, language

brokering must also be considered within the ecology of community-specific

notions about childhood, as well as parental expectations for children’s

socialization and for appropriate generational relations.

Within the context of the range of responsibilities expected of and displayed by

Moroccan immigrant children, I have examined the ways in which language

brokering constitute an extension of Moroccan family expectations for children’s

appropriate roles and contributions to the households, and the ways in which it is

congruent with important socio-cultural values of cooperation, generational respect,

and solidarity. I have also probed how, simultaneously, language brokering

activities can create spaces for the emergence of new social roles for Moroccan

immigrant children in households and institutional contexts that may have the

potential to disturb expectations for these children’s socialization into gender roles

and social identities. Finally, I have also considered how, through their involvement

in language brokering activities, Moroccan immigrant children may enjoy a certain

degree of agency in (re)configuring forms of generational interdependency and in

reconciling the familiar and the new in their everyday lives.

In this light, I have argued that language brokering as an activity setting can be

considered a hybrid practice unto itself, encapsulating both, aspects of cultural

continuity and transformation regarding children’s roles and participation in the

households of the Moroccan diaspora in Spain. Because of the hybrid nature of the

practice, the situational, on-the-ground investigation of language brokering events

can offer a privileged vantage point through which to examine immigrant children’s

agency and their crucial contributions to the (re)shaping of migrant family practices

in households and institutional contexts.

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