Meet Veronica Torres Martin: A 'cultural broker' who translates customs as well as words
ACCENTS: THE VOICES OF OUR IMMIGRANT NEIGHBORS IN THE BERKSHIRES
PITTSFIELD — Veronica Torres Martin had an accent in her own country before she had one in the United States.
Torres Martin, now 44, is from Chile, but she was born in Germany and lived in Algeria before her parents felt safe enough to return to what was then Augusto Pinochet’s military dictatorship. She was 7 years old.
“That’s when I got introduced to my own culture, and grandparents and cousins that I had never met,” she says in her office at Berkshire Medical Center in Pittsfield. She runs Berkshire Health Systems’ Language Services Department, dealing with hundreds of translation issues in dozens of foreign tongues each month.
“I was Chilean, but I wasn’t considered Chilean in my own country. I spoke Spanish well, but with a twist; a French sounding accent,” she continues. “But after a few years in the school system I felt very comfortable.”
Only much later did she learn about her parents’ political involvement. Her father, Juan, was in and out of exile. Her mother, Anamaria, explained the military presence on the streets, the curfews, the bomb explosions, shootings and power outages away by creating “games” around them, Torres Martin remembers.
“We were kept in a bubble,” she says about her and her older sister Ana’s early years in Chile’s capital city of Santiago. “If there were explosions and we had to sleep on the floor, my parents would tell us we were ‘camping out.’ For us, that made it normal and safe.”
By the time she was in high school she knew better.
On her office computer, Torres Martin shows a YouTube video of a song by the Chilean folk music group Illapu. The song – “Aunque Los Pasos Toquen” – is included in the podcast. berkshireeagle.com. The melody is made more haunting by the accompanying pictures of political prisoners held and reportedly executed in Santiago’s Estadio Nacional soccer stadium after the 1973 military coup.
General Pinochet’s junta lost power in 1990. Veronica Torres Martin never thought she would end up living in the United States “because of the political things that had happened between the U.S. and my country.”
She’s referring to CIA involvement in establishing Pinochet’s regime. Her father had vowed never to set foot in the soccer stadium again. Her parents had friends among the “disappeared” victims of Chile’s military. But it was her father who made her change her mind.
“Do not mistake the government for the American people,” she remembers him saying when she got the opportunity to do environmental work in an exchange program with EarthCorps in Seattle. “You are going to meet great people there.”
She arrived in Seattle in 1997. “Again I was the foreign one with the accent,” she laughs.
She met the man who’d become her husband and the father of their three children, Antonia, 13, Juan Emilio, 11, and Santiago, 5 1/2. He was from Pittsfield. They settled in the Berkshires 15 years ago.
When their marriage ended a few years back, Torres Martin contemplated returning to Chile.
“That was my first instinct, to go home” she shares. “But then my children asked, ‘Is this not your home?’ And that grounded me.
“I realized that I have grown deep roots in this community,” she says. “I love my job. This is my home.”
“I love languages and accents,” she says about her job working with an increasing number of foreign-born patients and doctors at BHS. More than a translator, she sees herself as a “cultural broker.” Not only different languages but also diverse customs, values and beliefs come into play in the various hospital interactions.
“For example, pain tolerance is cultural. People hurt differently in different languages,” she says. “Doctors need to know that.“And sometimes I’m brought in to explain to a patient that their doctor with a foreign accent and a darker skin will take care of them just as well as any other doctor.
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