Translating education, building community
There’s an Ag for That
This article is part of an ongoing series about the impact UC Davis alumni are making in our world.
By Corrie Jacobs
The Need for Multilingual Educators
- Approximately 5 million K-12 students in the U.S. are English Language Learners (ELLs).*
- 25% of ELLs reside in California
- 75% speak Spanish at home
- 37% do not graduate from high school
- 1% of U.S. K-12 teachers teach English as a Second Language
*U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics (2020), The Condition of Education 2020. Sanchez, Claudio, “English Language Learners: How Your State Is Doing,” NPR, 23 Feb. 2017.
When Mariel Becerra Arellano ’19 was 12 years old, her family moved from Mexico to Colusa, California. Everything seemed new, and it wasn’t the easiest transition.
“I started learning English in middle school, and it was difficult” said Becerra Arellano. “It took me years to feel comfortable speaking it in front of others. My parents couldn’t help me and my cousins knew how to speak English, but they didn’t know how to explain it to me.”
“My mom has told me that I once came home frustrated and said, ‘one day, I’m gonna help parents translate and give them support.’”
Becerra Arellano forgot about her afterschool announcement as she grew up, but she held on to the idea of helping others. While attending Woodland Community College, she decided she wanted to become an English teacher.
And when she transferred to UC Davis, she balanced her double major in English and Spanish alongside a full-time job for La Cooperativa Campesina de California, a nonprofit that supports farm workers throughout the state.
It was during her Spanish coursework, specifically Professor Michael Lazzara’s senior capstone seminar on “The Art of Literary Translation,” that she discovered another way to combine her love of literature and language with her commitment to serving her community.
Now a translator for Fairfield-Suisun Unified School District, Becerra Arellano interprets documents and assists with meetings for English learner students and their families at 30 schools throughout the Northern California district.
“Translation is an essential and valuable area of expertise within our multilingual, multicultural and richly-diverse California communities,” said Lazzara, a professor in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese and associate vice provost of academic programs in Global Affairs. “Mariel nourished her expertise and innate talents as a heritage speaker of Spanish through a broad array of courses she took on Spanish and Latin American literature, culture and linguistics.”
“Her desire to give back to the Latinx community in Northern California coupled perfectly with her adept translation skills. I deeply admire how she is making education and the culture of educational institutions accessible and legible to so many students and their families.”
Becerra Arellano is passionate about her job not only because she’s helping her community, but doing so in a way that she gets to bring her best talents forward. For her English major coursework, she focused on creative writing and still writes contemporary fiction and fantasy during her free time. She enjoys the challenge of flexing that same artistic muscle in both her spoken and written translation work.
“I think one thing people may not fully comprehend is the amount of thought that actually goes into translating a piece,” said Becerra Arellano. “Just because you know a language doesn’t necessarily mean that you can translate correctly and convey the same meaning.”
She added that translation is about communicating in a way that makes sense to your audience.
“Ultimately in my position, it’s about making underserved families feel like they’re being heard and giving them a place to feel like they belong when they may otherwise feel left out. I want them to feel comfortable and confident to say what they think and give their true opinions without the risk of misunderstanding.”
Becerra Arellano is doing what Aggies do best: using her world-class knowledge and skills to build a more inclusive future. Inspired by her own experiences, she has dedicated her career to making sure everyone has equitable educational opportunities.
“Mariel is one of the great students I have had the pleasure to teach at UC Davis,” said Lazzara. “She is extremely generous, committed to her community, and someone who wants to live her life in the service of others. We are proud to count her among the alumni of the Department of Spanish and Portuguese.”