Immigrant Parents Rely On Kids For Help Online

Oct 12, 2011
Originally published on October 12, 2011 9:25 am

On a weekend in East Los Angeles, kids do what they do anywhere else — play games, hang out in restaurants. But in this immigrant neighborhood, many of them have grown-up responsibilities. Fifteen-year-old Gonzalo Cruz says his parents depend on him for help online.

"When they need to look up a place, like a doctor's appointment, I show them," Cruz says. "Computers right now, in our country, they're just English. You have to use them a certain way, and they didn't learn to do that when they were little."

Thirteen-year-old Cassandra Flores helps her parents pay bills online.

"Yeah, a lot of kids from school do the same thing," Flores says. "It fills a very important role because you're helping your parents with a lot of work and [the stress] of understanding."

Of course, it's not unusual for younger generations to help adults with strange and challenging new technology. But when you add in the language barrier, that help becomes a crucial family responsibility. Vikki Katz, a professor at Rutgers University, has studied the way immigrant kids help their parents with technology.

"A lot of the resources immigrant families need the most are online, and sometimes they are only online," Katz says — things like visa forms and school applications and important everyday things, too, like finding a local business.

A Spanish speaker in Los Angeles looking for an orthopedist might go to Google.com and type in "oficina ortopedista Los Angeles." The top result is in Madrid.

"There's no excuse for us not doing a better job with this," says Trystan Upstill, an engineer at Google.

Upstill says this is a problem all over the world. There are a lot of Turkish speakers in Germany, for example, who have a hard time finding what they need. But right now, if you search in Spanish, it's difficult for Google to guess that you want an orthopedist in the U.S. Upstill says to determine that, Google needs to deal with mind-bogglingly high numbers of combinations.

"It's quite clear that you have to build very scalable algorithms to not just deal with native language speakers in a particular country," Upstill says. "It's a difficult problem and we're always looking at how we can do a better job here."

For now, it falls to bilingual kids to pick up the slack.

On a Saturday at the Perez household near Los Angeles, Pedro Perez has asked his 17-year-old son to look up information on the soccer player Lionel Messi. Pedro looks over his son Victor's shoulder as Victor reads aloud from his smartphone. Victor helps his dad, and mom Violeta, with everything online, from finding job forms to finding local stores and news.

"When we need to see something in the Internet," says Violeta Perez, "he finds it. When we go somewhere, he finds the directions. When we have to go to work, we have to get there fast. He also helps us with the business with the house that we rent."

It can be a lot of responsibility for a teenager. But helping out online is just an extension of what immigrant kids have long done. Recently, Victor was on his way to a party when his Mom received some important information about their home.

"I had to take her to the lawyer that's handling what we had to do, and I just didn't go," Perez says. "I stayed with her. I didn't really mind, because our family is more important than a party."

Victor's parents have access to the Internet in their home, and they can afford computers. But until they can use those devices the same way English speakers can, kids like Victor will be closing the language divide — and the digital divide, too.

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This week, we're exploring the lives of Latinos in the U.S. in our series, Two Languages, Many Voices. In a moment, we'll talk about the economic and educational progress of Mexican-Americans, who make up the largest group of Latinos in this country.

But first, you may have heard about the digital divide – people who have access to smartphones and broadband internet, and those who don't. But there's another digital divide, and that's between those in the U.S. who speak English and those who don't. As Alex Schmidt reports, kids are the ones bridging the digital language divide.

ALEX SCHMIDT, BYLINE: On a weekend in East L.A., kids do what they do anywhere else - play games, hang out in restaurants. But in this immigrant neighborhood, many of them have grown-up responsibilities. Fifteen-year-old Gonzalo Cruz says his parents depend on him for help online.

GONZALO CRUZ: When they need to look up a place, like a center place, a doctor's appointment, I show them. Computers right now in our country, they're just English. You've got to learn, like - you have to learn how to use them a specific way.

SCHMIDT: Thirteen-year-old Cassandra Flores helps her parents pay bills online.

CASSANDRA FLORES: Yeah, a lot of kids from school do the same thing. It fills a very important role, OK, 'cause you're helping your parents with a lot of work and stressing out of understanding.

SCHMIDT: Of course, it's not unusual for younger generations to help adults with strange and challenging new technology. But when you add in the language barrier, that help becomes a crucial family responsibility. Vikki Katz is at Rutgers University and has studied the way immigrant kids help their parents with technology.

VIKKI KATZ: A lot of the resources that immigrant families need the most are online, and sometimes they are only online.

SCHMIDT: Like visa forms and school applications and important everyday things, too, like finding a local business. So, say I'm a Spanish speaker in Los Angeles and I want to find an orthopedist. I go to Google.com and type in oficina ortopedista Los Angeles. The top result I get is in Madrid.

TRYSTAN UPSTILL: There's no excuse for us not doing a better job with this.

SCHMIDT: Trystan Upstill is an engineer at Google. He says this is a problem all over the world. There are lots of Turkish speakers in Germany, for example, who have a hard time finding what they need. But right now, if you search in Spanish, it's difficult for Google to guess that you want an orthopedist in the U.S. Upstill says to determine that, Google needs to deal with mind-bogglingly high numbers of combinations.

UPSTILL: It's quite clear that you have to build very scalable algorithms to not just deal with native language speakers in a particular country. So it's a difficult problem and we're always looking at how we can do a better job here.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken)

SCHMIDT: For now, it falls to bilingual kids to pick up the slack.

VICTOR PEREZ: (Foreign language spoken)

SCHMIDT: It's Saturday at the Perez household near Los Angeles. Today, Pedro has asked his 18-year-old son to look up info on the soccer player Lionel Messi. Pedro looks over Victor's shoulder as Victor reads aloud from his smartphone. Victor helps his dad, and mom Violeta, with everything online, from finding job forms to local stores and news.

VIOLETA PEREZ: (Foreign language spoken)

SCHMIDT: When we need to see something in the Internet, Violeta say, he finds it. When we go somewhere, he finds the directions. When we have to go to work, we have to get there fast. He also helps us with the business with the house that we rent.

PEREZ: (Foreign language spoken)

SCHMIDT: It can be a lot of responsibility for a teenager. But helping out online is just an extension of what immigrant kids have long done. Recently, Victor was on his way to a party when his Mom received some important information about their home.

PEREZ: So I had to take her to the lawyer that's handling what we had to do, and I just - and go. So...

SCHMIDT: Were you upset or were you like that's just the way it is and this is what I do.

PEREZ: Well, I have to care for my parents because if we don't have a house, where will we live? So I stayed with her. I didn't really mind because our family's more important than a party, so...

SCHMIDT: Victor's parents have access to the Internet in their home, and they can afford computers. But until they can use those devices the same way English speakers can, kids like Victor will be closing the language divide and the digital divide, too.

For NPR News, I'm Alex Schmidt. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.