For more than 30 years, Luis Lozada has used his talent and love for language to help others in a variety of ways, but primarily as a Spanish-language court interpreter. The Puerto Rican born, New York City raised former teacher has worked for the City of Houston Municipal Courts Department since 2010.
Think of his talent as his superpower. “I left teaching because I felt trapped teaching in a classroom. I can’t be trapped,” he said. “I have to be out there helping people solve problems they cannot solve themselves. They don’t have the skills, mainly, language skills.”
“They can’t communicate with people. Oftentimes they speak to people in broken English and cannot be understood, and then they hear English in a perfect way, and they can’t understand it. That’s what makes me do this, what’s kept me in this,” Lozada explained. “You know how old I am? I just turned 80 in March this year. I feel like I can do this for 20 more years.”
Being bilingual, however, does not guarantee you automatically will succeed as a court interpreter, Lozada added. “It’s not enough. If you are bilingual, you have a chance of getting in,” he said. “But you must go to school and learn the three modes of conversation: consecutive, simultaneous and site. You can’t learn that out there; you must learn it in school first and then apply that knowledge.”
“Consecutive conversation is translating what the judge says to the defendant and the response back from the defendant,” Lozada explained. “Site conversation is looking at something that is written and translating it right there. Simultaneous conversation is sitting down with the defendant while the trial is occurring and translating the prosecutor and defense attorney’s statements and questions as they are speaking in the courtroom.”
No one is born knowing consecutive, simultaneous and site conversation, he said. “You have to learn shadowing, or doing what the person does,” Lozada explained. “You try to repeat the same language as the person is speaking. If you can do that over and over, you’re doing good.”
“Then they switch the language on you, English to Spanish, and then Spanish to English. Back and forth. That’s how you start. And you keep practicing it. That is the foundation of interpreting, and then it gets harder,” he said. “Your short and long-term memory is very important.”
In this business, the days can be long and tiring, but Lozada loves it. “I sit down with the defendant for several hours, usually the whole day or entire morning. I did a lot of trials that went on for weeks. It’s exhausting. But it’s exciting to me because I love doing it. I’ve been doing it for 32 years,” he said.
The longer you talk with Lozada, the more apparent his passion for language becomes. “I love Spanish. That was my first language. I love English too, but when they asked me in seventh grade to choose between French and Spanish, I did not hesitate,” Lozada explained. “I took Spanish all the way through high school. I just love the language. In my senior year, I took honors Spanish and I never got less than an A.”
After high school, Lozada went off to college at the University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras Campus, starting in 1962, but he didn’t finish the first semester. He was also drafted into the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War. His high language skills scores on his Army exams (90-plus, he proudly said) enabled him to be used as a Spanish language linguist voice interceptor surveilling Cuba.
He was assigned to Homestead Air Force Base, located south of Miami with the Air Force Security Group as part of a joint operation. “I was in the Army Intelligence Group. They asked me why I was there, and I told them I was attached to the Air Force base because there was no Army post there,” Lozada laughed. “They had to put me somewhere. We even had Navy and even Marines there.”
After being honorably discharged from the Army, Lozada returned to the University of Puerto Rico to complete his studies, graduating four years later with a bachelor’s degree in Secondary Education, with a specialty in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL). He later earned his Master of Arts degree in Educational Psychology in 1987 from Teachers College, Columbia University.
He moved back to Miami and got a job as a TESOL teacher. After six years, he decided it was time for a change.
“I had to decide what I wanted to do with my skills, so I did some research and found a local course given by a woman from Mexico who learned court interpreting there and taught it in Miami. She taught
a group of us … about 15 students,” Lozada said.
“TI had to take two tests … one written and one oral,” Lozada said. “The oral test was like being an interpreter in an actual case. Some of the interpreters asked me questions.”
“Out of four or five candidates, I was the only one chosen,” he said.
And so began the journey toward his second career. He remembers his first murder trial as a court interpreter in Miami. “They threw me into the ring,” Lozada said. “I already had done other things in the courts, but I had never done a murder trial. That’s something else.”
Lozada left Miami and moved out west to California, where he spent eight and a half years in Los Angeles and one and a half years years in Sacramento as a court interpreter before moving to Texas. He spent three years working as a contractor for the City of Houston before becoming a full-time employee in 2010.
There are only two Spanish court interpresters who work for the city, Lozada said. The city also employs contract interpreters to help support its diverse community.
There are other cases where his skills proved invaluable. “One time I went to an office, and I had to translate a medical exam. I’ve done social security hearing, divorces, marriages … I even did one where they took a child away from their family. That was heartbreaking, I never did that again. It was too much seeing a child taken from his mother,” he said.
“But then I did a case I loved which was the opposite: a child was adopted by a family. That was beautiful,” he said, choking up slightly.
Lozada said having court interpreters experience is an invaluable skill to have in a city this size and there is a real need for it. “There are not enough interpreters in the state of Texas,” he said. “There’s a need that’s still not being filled at all levels … city, state and federal.”