Municipal Court Mondays were always a low roar or outright chaos. Or maybe it was the other way around as the herd of weekend detainees was packed into the courtroom. The crimes for the most part were of a petty misdemeanour-type nature, anything from unpaid traffic tickets, public urination, drunk and disorderly conduct, occasionally shoplifting. Most were public intoxication charges beginning on Friday evenings and ending with the last arrests on Sunday nights.
Madera is a small town and the county seat of Madera County in the heart of the San Joaquin Valley of California. The main economic activity is agribusiness, grapes and cotton, run by gringos and worked by Mexicans. Ranchers pay in cash so as to avoid any unnecessary intrusive government reporting. The agricultural workers support their families as best they can. The single men wire money to relatives in Mexico, then retreat to the colourful local bars on South “C” Street that outnumber residences where the rents are cheap.
Although I had recently passed the interpreters’ test, there were few courts that paid the federal rate. With a family of six, I couldn’t be too choosy about accepting work. Municipal court paid poorly but was within walking distance of our house on South “C” Street, the heart of the Mexican barrio and the source of many Monday morning defendants. Some of them I knew personally or had seen on the street. That morning would provide one of those auspicious neighbourly introductions. A certain Raul Armijo would get the services of his down-the-street neighbour absolutely free, and the best and only Federally Certified Court Interpreter in town.
The courtroom deputy began calling out the defendants in alphabetical order one by one for the judge to summarily read the charges, ask if they understood, explain that requesting an official record of the proceedings would delay their case and their jail release time significantly, and confirm that they were ready to waive the official record and hear their sentence.
With most it was a perfunctory “guilty” and time served if they were arrested on Friday night, or ten days in jail – but not before asking the constitutionally required, “Do you have anything to say before you hear your sentence?” Most simply said, “Nada.” I would follow with, “No,” instead of the literal “nothing.” Occasionally a defendant would say he or she was sorry, or sorry and embarrassed, and would not do it again. The judge would assess the quality of the groveling then pronounce his sentence and strike his gavel for the next case.
Occasionally the judge would sermonize with a comment about their contemptible behaviour and the bad example they set for their family and the community. This routine was predictable each Monday morning as I interpreted for the Spanish speakers, whispering in their ear in their intimate personal space, several years before Madera County would have wireless professional interpreting equipment.
When Raul Armijo heard his name and replied in a loud, very loud, louder than he himself realized voice, “Soy yo!” (That’s me!), he surprised himself in his hurry to explain he’d been unjustly arrested this time.
The judge’s face lit up with interest and a quizzical smile, along with everybody else’s in the courtroom. Most defendants were withdrawn, submissive and contrite at hearing their name and stepping up to face their moment of fleeting justice. Raul’s voice was affirmative and unrepentant, haughty even, because he felt he had done nothing wrong.
This was an invitation for the judge to sermonize about Raul’s dissolute and re-offending behaviour, letting him know he recognized him from prior appearances for the same charge of public intoxication.
“Sí me tomé mis buenas cervezas, eso no tiene nada de malo. Esta vez me detuvieron porque me conocen yo andaba bien, no andaba cayéndome ni nada. Fui a tomarme unas cervezas con mis cuates, es todo.”
I followed dutifully with, “Yes I had several beers, there’s nothing wrong with that. This time they arrested me because they recognized me. I was OK, I wasn’t stumbling or nothing like that. I went out to drink a few beers with my buddies, that’s all.”
The professional interpreter has to be as faithful as possible to the source in tone, meaning and style – in this case colloquial language – and yet maintain a professional distance from the emotions of the speaker, while accurately reflecting his or her words… even in a case of unjustified arrest.
“The police report says you were falling down drunk,” began the judge in a dialogue between them that was to have an interesting denouement. I was translating this into English in a loud voice for the courtroom to hear.
“That’s a lie. Yeah, I was feeling good but I wasn’t falling or tripping, nothing like that,” asserted Raul. “I did not deserve to be arrested this time, Señor Juez.” “Your Honour.”
“So, you’re calling the police liars,” replied the judge.
“They are lying, Your Honour, yes they are,” countered Raul. “I have witnesses.”
“Are your witnesses, here?”
“No se haga, Señor Juez, usted sabe bien que no tengo testigos aquí. Me acaban se sacar de la cárcel. “Don’t play dumb, Your Honour, you know very well that I don’t have any witnesses here. I was just brought over from jail.”
“Oh, we have a wise-guy Mexican here.”
Raul replied in a loud unequivocal voice after hearing my interpretation, “You got it, a damn proud Mexican! You know you don’t treat us Mexicans like the gringos.”
“Well, first of all I treat everybody the same under the law, damn proud Mexican; how do you plead, guilty or not guilty?”
“Not guilty! I am not guilty this time and I can’t miss work in jail. I have a family.”
“Well, I pronounce you guilty by the weight of the evidence. You should have thought about your family before you went out drinking. Do you have anything to say before I give you your sentence?”
“Sí, Señor Juez, a usted y a todos los presentes me los paso por los huevos.”
Oh my God! I recognized him as the young man on “C” Street I occasionally saw going to and from the neighbourhood panadería bakery. Sometimes with his young wife and two little kids.
Wow, what a rare opportunity for an official court interpreter! To be able to faithfully convey what is stated in the source language (whatever its tone and intent), without being subject to contempt of court charges when translating it into the target language for the court and for the (non-existent) record. I was in a sense lucky as an interpreter to have this opportunity so early in my then still fledgling professional career. But it broke my heart, as Raul had the audacity to accuse the system of the unspoken hypocrisy of justice meted out against Mexicans and thereby bring down upon himself certain retribution.
I thought about my own evident insecurity in these hearings, wishing I were a lawyer to help. But for me, the interpreter, these colloquial expressions really inspire and demand creative translations. Too bad there would not be an official record of this exchange — I would order a copy for my memoirs.
The courtroom, which was packed with many Spanish speakers, had a long ways to go as the docket was still on the letter A. Before I could give my English translation, all the Spanish speakers in the courtroom erupted into boisterous laughter.
“Yes, Your Honour, you and all those here present can kiss my ass!” I was sworn to repeat it as I heard it, without changing or modifying anything.
Upon hearing me, English-only speakers present in the courtroom broke out into a loud but quickly smothered laugh, looking at the judge for his reaction.
The judge flushed in anger at the defendant’s temerity but controlled himself except for his trembling grasp of his gavel.
“Six months in the county jail is your sentence, Mr. Armijo.”
After hearing my translation of the judge’s sentence, Mr. Armijo yelled back at the judge as the bailiffs were beginning to drag him away, “Es una injusticia pero los seis meses se los hago y me la pelan.”
Interesting, most of what Raul uttered was pretty straight-forward until “…me la pelan,” such a vulgar expression regarding male genitalia. A literal word-for-word translation wouldn’t work; Americans just wouldn’t say that in these circumstances. But this expression would become a classic for my confessions of a court interpreter or a tequila-sharing moment with colleagues and maybe eventually with grandchildren when they were of tequila-drinking age and past virginity. The Spanish speakers were already rolling on the floor.
Here goes: “This is an injustice but I’ll do your six months and…”
Here, I was still debating in my mind which of the several possibilities I thought would be an English equivalent to the colourful evocative Mexican expression. These terminology calls are instantaneous, much quicker than it would take to write them out many years later for my professional memoirs. I went for the more contextually equivalent impact if not a literal translation.
“… you can suck my dick.”
Should I have used “cock?” “Penis” was out of the question… way too lofty. I had considered, undaunted by the stately surroundings, “I’ll do your six months and stick it up your ass.” Probably okay, but I had opted for the “dick” word and stuck to it, and it went into the lamentably non-existent record. It would have had a very different effect had I been inhibited by the courtroom and the sanitized and elevated tone and had instead said something like: “I can endure the six months’ sentence and Your Honour may perform fellatio on me…” Not! His Honour would have gotten the message and still given Raul the same maximum sentence. But I was sworn.
As the bailiffs were about to clobber Mr. Armijo, a young man maybe in his early twenties, the now visibly angry judge ordered them to stop: “Don’t take him away yet!”
“Now it’s my turn,” gaveled the judge. “Six more months.”
All the English speakers, as if now their team had scored some points in a hotly contested game, laughed and ooh’d.
I translated it very loudly into Spanish for Mr. Armijo, with all the noise, and for all the Spanish speakers to hear. It was very hard to not show my personal objections and not whisper to Raul to knock it off for it would only get worse. When they heard the additional six months, the rowdy onlookers also laughed and made gestures with their right hand and fingers, equivalent to touching the hot comal grill that tortillas are made on. The whole courtroom environment was like a soccer match or basketball game, depending on your cultural background and who was kicking goals or scoring baskets.
The judge, now that his cheering section was alive on his side, then said with a loud voice and an equally loud smashing of his gavel, “Now it’s your turn.”
Was this fun or what? “Your turn,” I said in Spanish, “Ahora te toca a ti.”
I had to concentrate on my job and do it well. There are too many bilingual witnesses around ready to challenge everything I say. I would be out of work, and I had a big family to feed if the judge lost confidence in my work. And it sure beat picking grapes. This hearing would be talked about throughout the legal community if not most of the town. For sure in the barrio, about how Armijo sang it to the judge.
“I already told you what you can do with your six months,” adding another respectful, “Señor Juez!,” “Your Honour!”
By now the judge knew he had lost control and respect that morning; he knew he had to re-establish his authority. So with each disrespectful utterance by the defendant, the judge stated, punctuated with his heavy gavel, “Six more months!”
As the laughter withered away with the defendant’s gradual realization that he was accruing some serious jail time for something he had never done more than ten days for in the past, he heard the judge say in a very loud but solemn voice:
“Mr. Armijo, you now have two years of jail time. I can continue this as long as you want to. Do you have anything further to say?”
At this point, my continuous faithful translation into Spanish was not necessary to convey the meaning. Although the defendant remained uncowed and proud, a real sense of fear swept across his demeanour and spread to the other defendants, both Spanish and English-speakers awaiting their turn before the pissed-off, in-a-bad-mood judge.
Without another word, Raul was led out of the courtroom with a bailiff on each arm. He was unaware that municipal court cannot impose more than a one-year sentence on misdemeanour crimes.
Amidst the buzzing and murmuring among the still sizeable number of defendants waiting to go before the judge were all the other personnel, attorneys and Bailiff Andres Inocente Sanchez, only a few months away from retirement.
One of the attorneys suddenly shouted out from the back of the courtroom where the entrance of the packed venue was situated, “Your Honour, you have a rabbit!”
The judge looked up and we all followed his gaze in time to see Armando Arevalo slip out the door. Taking advantage of all the commotion, Armando had stepped away from the group of defendants who had already received their sentences and would be herded away to jail after all the cases on the morning docket had been heard.
The judge admonished the bailiff. “Andy,” he quipped, looking over at Andres, “one’s getting away from you.” “Andy” was completely unaware, as he had been following the two bailiffs who were taking away Raul Armijo to the holding cell.
Upon hearing the judge yell out his name, Andres alias Andy returned, confused, and replied, “Yes, Your Honour?”
“One of your prisoners just escaped out the front door,” the judge told him. Then he asked the attorney, “Did you see who it was?”
“I think it was Mr. Arevalo, Your Honour.
“You’d better go after him,” the judge said.
“I’m going to call the police right now, Your Honour,” replied Andy, without any inkling of irony in his voice. He re-entered the courtroom a few moments later, returning from his desk next to the judge’s office. “OK, Your Honour, got it covered, you can continue.”
The chuckling and whispering in the courtroom ceased when the judge asked loudly, “Wasn’t he the one who wanted his sentenced delayed until next year?”
“Yes, Your Honour, he’s the one,” stated the public attorney, who was only a few years away from becoming an excellent Federal Public Attorney. “He’s been before you several times.”
The judge, rather than actually speaking for the record, mused, “He’ll turn himself in after the New Year. He wants to work a few extra days to buy Christmas presents for his kids. I’ll just add ten days to the sixty I already gave him.”
The rest of the morning settled down into the predictable “Inferior Court” routine, as all Madera County Superior Court personnel called it. The court adjourned just a little past noon. I went up to Bailiff (and friend) Andres Inocente Sanchez, who had been hanging around for a while after escorting the judge to his chambers.
“So, Chente,” (the nickname for Inocente in Spanish) “you went out to call the police when Armando took off, eh?”
“Hell yes, I’m less than six months away from retirement. I made it this far, I’m not going to chase after any escapees. Que chinguen a su madre!” I can’t stand the treatment they get. Armijo has a family to feed and you don’t make much picking grapes. He can’t go a whole year without working. His wife will have to go back to her parents’ to live. The cops always say the same thing about the detainees. The judge never questions them and he gives the gringos timed served for the same thing.
While I agreed with Chente’s spot-on assessment of justice for us, which was standard practice throughout the San Joaquin Valley, I wondered how I would translate “…chinguen a su madre.” Probably not the literal, “Go fuck your mother” — it’s just not that serious in Spanish any more, and is too graphic in English. Maybe, “Hell no, I’m not going to chase after no escapee!”