Voiceless Latinx. Domestic Violence, Socioeconomic Precarity and the Monolingualism of London’s Police Apparatus

This month we have a contribution from educator and thinker, Arnaldo. He currently teaches in London where he also researches and writes about the London Latinx community. 

It is my first time in a London police station.  My nerves are crackling like water on hot grease, however, on the surface I am stoic.  I have the impression when Guillermo and Mario arrive I will need to exercise a calm composure, so I am practising now with my headphones in my ears.  The irony is that no music is streaming, but the silence grounds me. So I hold on to that, but not for long.  Guillermo and Mario have just turned the corner with a baby stroller and are making their way towards me.

Guillermo was my introduction to South London’s Latinx community.  We became friends and bonded over being new to London.  Although his Bolivian cultural background is different from my own mixed race Puerto Rican, Spaniard and American cultural cues, we share Spanish as a common language and Latinx as an identity.  As I spent time with Guillermo, I realised that his obstacles with English were representative of how language affected Latinx Londoners’ access to resources.  As a result, my bilingualism positioned me as a language intermediary, and at the same time, I played a balancing act between two worlds.  On one hand I identified as Latinx and mixed race, but simultaneously I had the privilege of English as a native language.  I ultimately internalised a responsibility to community, and therefore when Mario and Guillermo called I agreed to help.

Mario wastes no time and in Spanish begins recounting a physical altercation that ensued the night before with his wife Veronica.  With sunken embarrassment on his face, he walks me through last night’s scenes.  First, there was the argument with both adults ricocheting insults at one another while the baby cried in the background.  Second, was Veronica’s temper manifesting itself into a physical rage and the use of a knife to attack Mario.  The last scene involved the police arriving and arresting Veronica, as Mario and the baby watched from the apartment door.  Por eso nos hemos llamado Arnaldo.  Creo que Veronica esta aqui en esta estacion de policia.  Ahora, quisiera saber que me hace falta para que ella puede volver a casa. (That’s why we called you Arnaldo.  I think Veronica is being held at this police station.  I want to know what it is I have to do so she can be released and come home).  Mario does not speak English and does not feel linguistically confident enough to advocate for his wife’s release.  Additionally, he is unsure if she is being held at this situation because the officers who arrested Veronica explained everything to him in English, to which he simply nodded without completely comprehending.  I interrupt Mario who continues to nervously speak, and looking at the dark circles under his eyes, I suggest we walk inside.

Once we are inside, the interaction with the police officers is tense.  Although I am bilingual, I am unsure where to take my cue from or how to begin, so I greet the officer and then ask Mario what I should say.  Mario tells me “Dile que queria averiguar si Veronica estaba aqui y si es posible quitar la queja para que ella puede salir.” (Tell him I want to inquire whether Veronica is here and is it possible to retract my complaint against her, so she can return home).  The officer immediately has dozens of questions and is unaware of how fast he is speaking English.  Several times I have to stop the officer and ask if I can translate some of what he has said.  In the end, we learn that Veronica is being held at the station, but she cannot be released until an interpreter arrives for her exit interview.  Mario protests to me explaining that the baby has not fed since yesterday and wonders if Veronica could at least reunite with the baby for a feeding.  The officer is unmoved, however, so Mario and I sit down next to Guillermo and the baby.

A few hours pass and the heat and lack of ventilation inside the waiting room makes time feel like slow molasses churning.  Mario taps my shoulder and motions for me to look up.  A tall female in civilian clothing has appeared next to the officer we spoke to before.  The officer is now making a hand gesture for us to approach the glass partition.  Mario stands and I follow.  “¿Tu eres Marcos?” (You’re Marcos?) the woman asks Mario.  Mario corrects her by responding, “Si, soy Mario” (Yes, I am Mario).  She introduces herself in English as the detective working the case.  She speaks rapidly without checking for comprehension from Mario and I attempt to interject and translate on Mario’s behalf.  “Your wife says you hit her.  She said this is not the first time.  She also said she wants a divorce.  She doesn’t want anything to do with you anymore.  You are not allowed to return home,” the detective says to Mario.  I begin translating each line of the detective’s instructions as Mario’s face twists in emotion.  “You drink cerveza mucho and then come home and hit her, no?  You like cerveza, right?” the detective says to Mario (cereveza-beer/ mucho-a lot).  Mario responds with “¿eso es lo que ella dijó?” (that’s what she said?).

Mario releases his keys to the detective and walks over to the baby to say a final goodbye.  I volunteer to wait at the police station with the baby as Mario and Guillermo return to the apartment, so that Mario can collect his belongings.  Guillermo gives me a knowing look.  I am able to interpret it because Mario and Veronica’s situation is a reoccurring theme that Guillermo has recounted to me in the past.  For two years Guillermo has witnessed what he describes is Mario’s descent into alcoholism.  Mario and Veronica, former professionals in Bolivia, had deskilled and moved to London as cleaners to create a better life for their newborn son.  Mario had not anticipated the whirlwind of stress and anxiety that would encompass London life.  His zero-hour contracts as a cleaner earning minimum wage was taking a toll.  Additionally, the cramped conditions of living in a three-bedroom apartment with six people was stifling.  The cyclical monotony of work and family responsibility had finally combusted, and language was playing a contributing factor to Mario and Veronica’s limitations of choice and resources.  AdiosAdios I responded to Guillermo and Mario as they exited the station.

A few more hours elapsed before Veronica appears from a side door with the same detective that requested Mario to release his keys.  Veronica looks disheveled and her blouse is stained from lactating all night.  She sobs uncontrollably and I place the baby in her arms.  Veronica recounts that without a translator they were mandated to keep her overnight.  She has not eaten and barely slept.  Her emotions are scattered and I suggest we leave the station.

Days later I found myself with Veronica inside the police station negotiating how to allow Mario to return home.  Veronica and Mario have made amends, but Mario is intimidated to return home because he was instructed by the detective days before that returning would result in his arrest.  It is an entangled scenario of domestic violence and linguistic intermediation, which I have volunteered to intermediate as Veronica and I sit inside Peckham police station waiting our turn to speak with a police officer.  After a short wait, we both approach the glass partition and I explain to the officer that earlier this week Veronica had been arrested in a domestic violence dispute, but her husband Mario has subsequently attempted to withdraw the complaint against his wife.  Moreover, I explain that Veronica now feels comfortable with Mario returning home, but Mario is unsure if he is legally permitted re-entrance.  The officer explains that he can legally return, but that the original arrest against Veronica is labelled as attempted murder with a knife. If she wants to dispute the written statement she has to visit the Walworth Police Station and discuss it there.   I translate this to Veronica and we leave Peckham en route towards Walworth.

Once we get to Walworth Police Station we find an empty seat and wait for an available clerk.  A door suddenly opens and a Latinx woman exits with a tall white male saying adios in a very anglicised Spanish accent.  The woman returns his adios with a byebye.  I thought to myself, I wonder how that interview occurred?  Was it in Spanish or English?  The same gentleman who said adios walks over to a clerk and says, “Any word on the translator?  I haven’t started the next interview yet because there’s no one in the room with me who can translate.”

Veronica and I are now next in line and the clerk finally calls us to the partition.  I explain to the the situation to the clerk.  He looks at us and says to write her name down on a piece of paper.  I instruct Veronica and she obliges.  He proceeds to turn to his screen and without acknowledging us or explaining what it is he is doing, he remains silent.  He is a dark skin man above the age of forty and has a regional British accent.  After five minutes he says “Right, so you are Veronica?”  “Yes, I Veronica,” she says.  “Well, you were arrested for attempted murder with a knife and that will stay on your record forever,” the clerk says.  I ask the clerk what happens if the statement that Mario gave was incorrect, how could it be amended?  The clerk looks taken aback and says, “I am done with you both.  No matter what is done any time she applies for a job her arrest will show.”  I was astounded at his flippant and brisk demeanour.  My surprise turns into defiance and I immediately alleviate my register to a more academic and formal tone:  “Whereas you have succinctly made clear your position on providing further assistance to us I am still left to repeat my request for the protocol or process by which one is to follow in the event allegations have been made against a person and the protagonist in the situation, in this case, her legal partner, would like to rectify his statement that was recorded in English, although Spanish is his first language?”  His demeanour changes a bit and he reaches into a filing cabinet and retracts an application. “This would have to be filled out and mailed to Scotland on her behalf,” the clerk says.  I say thank you and exit the station with Veronica.

Once we are outside I vent at how frustrating the clerk was, but Veronica says she had not perceived anything.  We speak at some length and simultaneously my mind silently begins to race.  I begin to play out each scene from the last couple of days and an overarching motif of inadequacy emerges.  Police officers, detectives and clerks, alike, are linguistically unable to cope with the demands of citizens’ requests.  The whole process of inquiring at a police station, or telling one’s account of an incident, only exists through the lens of English.  I feel defeated and overwhelmed as Veronica profusely expresses gratitude for all the help I have provided her family.  My false smile provides a façade for the burning sensation that what I have witnessed in the past few days is a living representation of how linguistic hegemony becomes a de facto tool at barricading access to resources and reproducing marginalised citizenship.  “No pasa nada Vernocia.  Por cualquer cosa me llamas.” (No problem Veronica.  Call me if you need any more help). And yet, as I say these words I begin to think about all the other Marcos and Veronicas who are grappling with gaining access to their constitutional right to be equal in front of the law, but because of their multilingualism are subjected to incarceration and separated from their families.  In Veronica’s case, my intervention as a linguistic intermediary has slightly diminished the fundamental source of inequality that characterises London’s society. However, it has also highlighted a wider issue that at times Latinx (and other multilingual citizens) rely on the arbitrariness and goodwill of law enforcement officers to access constitutional rights.

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