Long before serving as an interpreter at ETSU Pediatrics, Zepeda was a university student in El Salvador. He got his first degree as an English teacher in 1956, and while teaching English in elementary schools, he continued to pursue a master’s in education.
“After graduating, opportunities broadened from just teaching into working in the private enterprise,” said Zepeda. “This gave me the opportunity to come to the United States and teach Spanish in a program that was being started in Mississippi’s public school system.”
Zepeda and his fiancé, Carmen, moved to Perry County, Mississippi, in 1960, and were married shortly thereafter. However, neither of them anticipated that they were moving just in time, and in place, for the American Civil Rights movement.
“Unfortunately, during the age that we came to America, the Martin Luther King revolution was starting,” Zepeda said. “[This movement] was unlike anything we had ever experienced in our home country, and we did not like living in the middle of it.”
After two years of working in America, they decided to return to El Salvador.
“We hated to go back to our country because we both had great opportunities for advancement in America,” he said, “but we felt that we had to.”
Upon returning, Zepeda took advantage of his increased knowledge of teaching the English and Spanish languages. He began working for U.S. companies that had outposts in Latin America. This is how he gained his first interpreting experiences.
Things were going well for the Zepedas until the late 1970s, when sporadic danger and violence would push Jose, Carmen and their four children out of El Salvador and into Tennessee.
“In the 1970s, there were many internal political problems in my country,” said Zepeda. “It was the beginning of a violent civil war. It was unsafe for me, my wife and our children, and I was determined to return to America.”
“The six of us came to America with nothing but our clothes and a little suitcase. We brought only the hope that we wanted to safely educate our children. There was no other reason.”
– José Zepeda
Zepeda said that the Salvadoran government made it extremely difficult for citizens to leave the country by illegalizing the exchange of the colón (El Salvador’s former currency) into dollars and placing up to 30 percent tariffs on plane tickets into America. Regardless of these difficulties, he had a mission to get his family into the United States.
“The six of us came to America with nothing but our clothes and a little suitcase,” Zepeda said. “We brought only the hope that we wanted to safely educate our children. There was no other reason.”
They left El Salvador in July of 1980. Because of Zepeda’s acquaintances in the South from his time in Mississippi, he and his family chose to settle in Memphis, Tennessee. A few years later, he founded the first Hispanic Baptist church in the state of Tennessee, through which he and his wife Carmen became well known as contributing members to the community.
“I did most of my community work through our church—which included a lot of interpreting,” said Zepeda. “I would take the [non-English speaking] Hispanics to the immigration office, health centers and hospitals like St. Jude’s.”
Along with their work for the church, Carmen Zepeda started working as an interpreter in the Memphis school system. She served as a liaison between parents, students and administration. The most critical part of her job included advocating for at-risk youth in juvenile courts.
“One time, a Hispanic student brought a gun to school. She denied it, and said that someone put it in her backpack unknowingly. The office called and talked to the parents, who had no idea,” Mrs. Zepeda said. “I interpreted on her behalf during the trial.”
“I mostly wanted to help the parents,” she said. “When your child is in trouble, you are very hurt. I was trying to calm the pain.”
“When these families came from Mexico, some of the kids were already a part of gangs and violence. By the time we left Memphis, these same kids were graduating high school. It was amazing to see how far they’d come.”
“When these families came from Mexico, some of the kids were already a part of gangs and violence,” Zepeda said. “And by the time we left Memphis, these same kids were graduating high school. It was amazing to see how far they’d come.”
After 25 years of serving their Memphis community, the Zepedas retired to Johnson City, Tennessee, where they live today.
“One of our sons chose to go to medical school at ETSU, which is funny, because we had no idea that the area would become our future home,” Zepeda said.
Shortly after moving, he noticed a need in the health care system for Spanish interpreters. This was certainly different from the interpreting work that he had done in Memphis, but felt that it was the next step to serve his new community.
“I saw a sign in the hospital that said they needed a Spanish-speaking interpreter and a chaplain,” Zepeda said. “I wanted to do both.” And needless to say, he seamlessly fit that bill.
A few years later, Zepeda was approached to teach medical Spanish at ETSU via his connections at Mountain States Health alliance. He quickly found that teaching in a modern, technology-driven university setting was not his calling, and decided to continue interpreting.
Finally, Zepeda found his way to the ETSU Pediatric Clinic, where he interprets for patients who need help understanding English. Gayatri Jaishankar, clinical director of the ETSU Pediatric Clinic, says that Zepeda is vital to the doctors’ ability to care for their many Hispanic patients.
“This not only enhances the experience for the patients, but also ensures that everything is being translated precisely so they can receive the proper care,” said Jaishankar.
She explained that patients often offer to bring their own interpreter, such as a friend or family member. This is something that physicians have to be wary of because, if the interpreter is not a professional or is in relation with the family, it could change the way they interpret what the doctor is saying.
“José is a vital communication tool,” she said. “Otherwise, we honestly could not adequately communicate with these families without the interference of translation technologies.”
Back at the ETSU clinic, the doctor completes the physical examination and the child is finished with her checkup. She is in her mother’s arms as the doctor is scheduling their next appointment.
“See you a year from today for your next checkup!” said the doctor.
“La veré dentro de un año para su próximo chequeo,” Zepeda said.
“Gracias!” said the mother.
The little girl looks over her mother’s shoulder and smiles at Zepeda as they leave the room. He laughs and makes a silly face back at her.
“I became a bilingual interpreter not for money, but to help these people, who did not have the same opportunities as me and my family,” Zepeda said.
“I would be telling another story if I had not had been given my vision,” he said. “A biblical proverb says, ‘Where there is no vision, people perish.’ I am thankful that God gave me the vision to marry Carmen, to commit to educate our four children, to leave our country and to come live our lives in America.”
Above right: José Zepeda, a medical interpreter at ETSU Pediatrics and active member of the Hispanic community in Northeast Tennessee. Left: Dr. Gayatri Jaishankar and Zepeda reading with the family during the little girl's checkup. Photos: Heath Owens