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Angela Roth: A hand-made work

By Carol Colmenares

Angela Roth’s story begins in El Barrio, in Spanish Harlem, in New York. A  space on the east side of the island between 103rd and 116th street, where Puerto Rican families had come to work in the expanding factories of the fifties and sixties.   To this day, despite the aggressive gentrification, standing tall underneath the train track, is La Marketa, a street market where you can find green plantains and cafecito, a few Mexican taquerias have opened up and the casitas, little houses, grow crops in community gardens, host domino players and underneath the voices of children and long time neighbors, echoes of salsa, bomba, and plena fill the air.


As a kid, with a full-time working mom, Angela didn’t get to spend much time outside.  “I never learned to roller skate or ride a bike”.  Instead, Nancy Drew, the mystery young adult novels, and vivid imagination were her most loyal companions.  Her aunt, her second mom, a big presence and influence in her life would be the caretaker during the week while her mom worked; first at a garment factory and then at IBM.  “My mom was incredibly smart, reading newspapers by age four, but she never had a break or the opportunities”.  Later in life, Angela’s mom would work as a teacher’s assistant in the school system fulfilling a lifelong dream.  


Angela was transferred to a school in a more affluent neighborhood along with two other kids of color as part of a city-wide program that started in the fourth grade which tested students' IQ's and placed those with a high score in a special advanced program.  It was evident they were not at the same academic level. One by one they went up to the chalkboard to do basic math operations: addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division.  “I remember the teacher’s face, she was upset.” None of the three students could multiply or divide. The teacher took them aside and quickly caught them up to speed. “There was no special class before the fourth grade, so that meant all the kids should have been on the same level”.  It was obvious that Angela and the children in her local school were not getting the same quality education. This experience would follow Angela into her adult life. “I was very quickly aware that we are living in a society that is not equal to everybody, not everybody's welcome, not everybody's getting a fair shake”. The actions of that teacher, who took the time and effort to work with them, who took the whole grade on a school trip to El Barrio, had a profound impact on Angela’s approach to problem-solving.


“I went from the inner city to the countryside with farm animals: chickens, ducks, donkeys”- It was a cultural shock. 


After graduating high school, Angela went to school in Wisconsin, where she saw a very different side of the country and learned about their values and what was important to them. “I also started to get some exposure (to sign language), like a lot of people, do within their religious settings”. It piqued her interest.  When she moved to Illinois, she learned about a young woman in her congregation who was starting to lose her hearing, and her friend was advising her to learn sign language before she completely went deaf… “but what would be the point if nobody could talk to her, right? Nobody knew sign language." So Angela and her friend very casually said, “oh yeah, let's learn sign language” and that’s how it started. 


“As Latinos, we talk with our face, our hands, our bodies… Sign Language seemed pretty easy”

Angela had a natural gift for languages.  In addition to her Spanish-speaking household, her father, a merchant marine, spoke different languages.  In the special high school, Angela had taken French and German.  Angela thrives on challenges. If mastering that challenge results in someone else overcoming a barrier, her motivation triples. Unbeknownst to her, she was paving the way for inclusion and diversity. 

Angela found shared experiences with children of deaf adults (CODA). Similarly, Spanish-speaking parents often rely on their children to act as translators/interpreters. It’s a heavy burden for young people. It is a huge responsibility. “I found that the children of deaf adults and my life had a lot in common, but I had more in common with the deaf community because they could walk into a situation and the moment somebody knew they were deaf like right there, they were dismissed.”  Dismissed, unnoticed, and undervalued is all too common for people of color. People who are deaf have a similar experience.   “We can’t escape who we are, we live with it day and night, we shouldn’t have to escape it”. Angela could fill a book with the countless times she’s been ignored or passed over.  Instead, she found the opportunity to surpass these barriers and help others.  Her “I’ll give it a try” attitude quickly earned her a place in the interpreting field. 


 Angela interpreting at an event


 “At some point I finally said, I guess that's what I need to be doing. Now I look for the barriers and how I can surpass them”

Angela remembers picking signs here and there, mostly from friends.  “My friend who was going to school  would tell me some of the things she learned  but I couldn't go because I had a tribe of children by that time.” As a mother of five,  Angela’s time was spoken for, and yet, she found her way into the community. “One of my friends needed to get her practicum and the best place in Chicago to do so was Goodwill which was in a rough neighborhood”.  Terrified, her friend asked for permission to bring Angela along, who could not only sign but spoke Spanish. With no formal training or experience, Angela got her first job, at the court, she was assigned to a mother who only spoke Spanish and her son, who was deaf. “I left there with this horrible headache, it was the worst, but I also realized that there was a huge need in the Latino deaf community”.

Once again she stepped up to the plate, gaining support in the deaf community and national recognition among interpreters, Angela along with a colleague identified the need for trilingual interpreters (Spanish, English, and ASL) They founded a non for profit organization Mano a Mano to support trilingual interpreters, provide a forum for linguistic differences and offer professional development. “We are not an interpreting agency, though we serve as a resource for trilingual interpreting matters and a professional organization to advance various aspects of trilingual interpreting.” read their website.

To say that Angela’s career has been impressive would be an understatement. She has built not one but three companies to provide ASL services for the deaf and hard of hearing: ASL Services, ASL Latino, and Global VRS. Of course, she has had the unconditional support of her family not only emotionally but also with sweat and hard work in the company. “I'm very, very proud of my family. I have five kids all very, very, very capable, uh, weird kids, and I now have 14 grandchildren so I don't even say it's a family, it's a tribe” And this tribe, works together; Gabrielle Joseph, the baby of the family, is the COO, Tara is the lead interpreter and Vanessa worked with them for over 17 years before moving to explore her own business.

Angela’s bright brown eyes sparkle when she speaks about her family and the life she has built.  But her soul unravels when she’s interpreting: her cadence, her facial expression, and every cell in her body is in sync to transmit and communicate so a deaf person doesn’t miss a beat. “ I was moved to tears when I saw her interpreting A Christmas Story in a Disney performance,” says Maria Victoria Diaz, President, and CEO at Dicapta - “and I don’t even Sign”.  Maria Victoria approached her soon after to join her cadre of advisors for a new project she was developing for the Department of Education based on accessibility to Spanish Language Educational Media.  For over fifteen years, Angela has advised, supported, challenged, and enriched Dicapta’s endeavors “ I learn so much from you guys, you don’t give up and you have opened my eyes to other areas of disabilities where I could have an impact, like with the DeafBlind community- there is so much we still need to do-I am always so inspired”

We asked Angela about her most memorable experience interpreting. 

I’ve had the privilege of interpreting some amazing people like actors or presidents and sometimes in some very unusual circumstances. But the time I always remember is this doctor’s appointment that I said sure I’ll do it. When it was over, the doctor pulled me aside and said “this is the first time I truly saw who my patient was: she’s funny, she’s smart… I get it. I get it”. That perhaps has been one of my most gratifying experiences, to be able to connect two human beings, to be that bridge you know, somebody’s life changed because of my service… that I consider a privilege.

Angela lives in Florida close to her tribe, she loves arroz con gandules, all Motown music, and basically anything with a beat to make her dance.