Assistant professor Vikki Katz explores the complicated role of "child brokers," the offspring of immigrants who serve as their eyes and ears.
As Vikki Katz remembers the story, a derivation of one she heard innumerable times in conducting her research, the tension was rising in the doctor’s office. The young girl could see that her parents were getting angry with the family physician. The child also knew they were angry for the wrong reasons. So in her de facto role as designated mediator, communicating for her non-English-speaking parents, the girl altered what they were actually saying to fit her understanding of the situation—and to ensure the peace. Eventually, everyone was satisfied.
This episode goes to the heart of Katz’s groundbreaking research on the ways in which immigrant children manage communications for their Spanish-speaking parents. Katz, an assistant professor of communication at the School of Communication and Information since 2009, says the realities of these compacts are largely misunderstood and do not reflect the healthy family bonds that develop from the practice.
The most common misconception is that the children serve merely as passive translators and message-bearers. So Katz uses the phrase “child brokers” to describe the sophisticated, occasionally fraught, détente these children engage in on behalf of their families—at doctors’ offices, in schools, and among social-service providers.
“Children who have done this for a long time, and really do it well, understand that it’s not just about moving words, but about moving meaning. It’s a cultural negotiation of what their parents mean to say and what they think will be understood by a doctor or teacher,” says Katz, author of Kids in the Middle: How Children of Immigrants Negotiate Community Interactions for Their Families (Rutgers University Press, 2014).
“Sometimes, a part of these negotiations is about not only the message, but also trying to maintain an appropriate place for themselves in the eyes of the adults they’re speaking for,” she continues. “The children are very aware that people’s discomfort with them can hurt their family’s chances of getting the things they need. But most kids draw pride and strength from being able to help.”
Many of the families whom Katz interviewed for her book did not see why these strategies were cause for interest, let alone long-term research. Child brokering is common in many communities, and immigrant families have always relied on it for integration. Yet, the topic has hardly been studied, at least to this degree.
Katz conducted four years of research in a Los Angeles community that had an equal number of African Americans and Latinos. Drawing from a random survey of 600 families, she interviewed 20 of them closely; shadowed three of the families as they visited service providers and schools; conducted 35 interviews with service providers; spent 18 months observing provider interactions with these families; and, after four years, went back to the three targeted families for updates.
Having arrived in the United States from South Africa as a teenager herself, Katz became interested in the integration challenges of immigrant families. She says the experience shifts the roles and responsibilities in those families in ways that would not have otherwise occurred.
Today, she says, the contributions of child brokers are threatened by formal and informal regulations that limit their participation at various facilities, mostly because of legal concerns. This strikes Katz as particularly shortsighted. “Until there are adequate resources in these places to support families, parents are going to depend on the best resources, which are usually their kids,” Katz says. “Until we are able to own up to what is truly necessary to support increased population diversity, we shouldn’t be making it harder for families to engage with the institutions they need. And we shouldn’t be making it more onerous on these children.”
The last chapter of her book includes a practical guide for stakeholders and providers on improving the tenuous relationship with child brokers and their families. Katz also emphasizes that as families learned the new language, and their resulting confidence grew, the necessity of child brokering decreased. “A child’s help is not a replacement for parents becoming literate in English or becoming a part of American society,” Katz says.
Katz recently received a two-year grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, allowing her to study how low-income Latino families use technology. She will be conducting interviews in three immigrant communities to determine who is using different forms of technology and how they benefit from them. Katz’s findings will contribute to a national survey of low-income parents on these same issues.
“The goal is to inform policy related to digital equality, and how technology can be leveraged in ways that are useful to the families,” says Katz. “This is the stuff I love to do. And I feel very lucky to be able to do it.”