Bilingual Teen Torn Between Family Duties, Youth Teenager Sara Martinez has to look after her autistic younger brother, and serves as a translator for her parents, who speak limited English. In a story produced for member station WNYC's Radio Rookies program, Martinez talks about her daily life and the frustrations of growing up too soon.
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Bilingual Teen Torn Between Family Duties, Youth

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Bilingual Teen Torn Between Family Duties, Youth

Bilingual Teen Torn Between Family Duties, Youth

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

Now, a story from a 17-year-old who has shouldered a lot more responsibility than most teens. Sara Martinez has been like a second mother to her three younger siblings, including her younger brother, Diego, who's autistic. Sara produced this piece as a part of Radio Rookies, a program that trains New York City teenagers to create radio documentaries.

Ms. SARA MARTINEZ (Bilingual Teenager): I used to sing a lot. I used to jump up and down on the bed with the hairbrush for a mic and the stereo on loud. But this annoyed my parents. So I started to write songs in my notebooks at school. I keep my notebooks in different parts of my room like hidden treasures. The songs are a part of me I don't want anyone to see. I sometimes don't look back at the songs I write. I don't have time to dwell on my feelings. I have a lot of responsibilities. One of them is helping my little brother, Diego(ph), with his homework. He's autistic.

DIEGO: Homework.

Ms. SARA MARTINEZ: I'm tired and sleepy, but this little guy has to do his homework.


DIEGO: People with under (unintelligible).

Ms. SARA MARTINEZ: Umbrellas.

DIEGO: Umbrellas.

Ms. SARA MARTINEZ: Umbrellas.

We found out that my brother had autism when I was 12-years-old. That's when I began to grow up faster. Starting in 7th grade, I was in charge of all three of my siblings if my parents were working. And taking care of Diego is hard.

What? What? What are you talking about?

He couldn't find the lid off the cheese. He always sets things up the way he likes them. If there is a change, he freaks out.

Oh, daddy took it out. Daddy took it out.

I am also my parent's personal translator.

Unidentified Woman #1: (Spanish spoken)

Ms. SARA MARTINEZ: My family is from Mexico so I translate letters. (Spanish spoken). Go to doctor's appointments and I even go with my mom to Diego's school events.

Unidentified Woman #2: …how to do that.

Ms. MARTINEZ: Is there a way that you can translate that what you said from the beginning because there are some parents here that might not understand.

Unidentified Woman #2: Oh, I'm sorry. (Spanish spoken).

Ms. MARTINEZ: I'm just a teenager, but I still worry about everything to do with Diego. And my mom tells me all her worries, too.

Unidentified Woman #1: (Spanish spoken)

Ms. SARA MARTINEZ: My mom is short and on the chubby side. She can't run very fast and Diego slips right through her fingers.

Unidentified Woman #1: (Through translator) I'm very scared something will happen on the street. (Spanish spoken)

Ms. SARA MARTINEZ: All through high school, when my mom was telling me her worries about Diego, inside I was like, "why are you telling me this? I'm just a kid. Why should I have to worry, too?" But instead, I just let my mom talk. Later, when I was finally alone, I would listen to my Avril Lavigne CD…

(Soundbite of song "Complicated")

Ms. AVRIL LAVIGNE (Singer): (Singing) Somebody else 'round everyone else. Watchin' your back. I see the way you're actin' like you're somebody else gets me frustrated.

Ms. SARA MARTINEZ: And then, I would go back to helping out my parents with Diego. I called Eden II, which deals with children who have autism.

Hi, my name is Sara and…

I almost never complain about helping my parents. But this past year, I have started to notice how much anger, frustration and confusion is trapped in my mind. And it's starting to break out at the weirdest times. Like when I went to meet with Donna Long of the Grace Foundation.

Ms. DONNA LONG (Executive Director, Grace Foundation): Hi. My name is Donna Long.

Ms. SARA MARTINEZ: She told me they offer family support services, and I was happy. But then I told her about the language barrier.

That's one of the reasons why my parents haven't gone to counseling, because they don't know - they don't understand English.

Ms. D. LONG: I would think, for now, and that's - I hope not putting a burden on you, but maybe that's where you would come in to, kind of, help out. Obviously, you speak English. So, I mean, you may have to be that bridge.

Ms. MARTINEZ: Hearing people say that is the story of my life. I was so upset. And she could tell. The more we talked, the more we were talking about me. Not about Diego or even my parents, which is a first.

Ms. D. LONG: You keep call here or come here anytime you want to talk. You could talk to my daughter who's 19 now.

Ms. SARA MARTINEZ: Donna told me she has two daughters, Janine(ph) who's autistic and Kristen(ph), who isn't.

Ms. KRISTEN LONG: I had to grow up very fast. To be honest with you, I had times when I was, like, very upset about it and resented it so much, hated it. Hated it.

Ms. SARA MARTINEZ: Yeah. For me…

I started to cry about two minutes into my conversation with Kristen.

Ms. K. LONG: Oh, I'm sorry.

Ms. SARA MARTINEZ: Even though, like, my brother's 14-years-old and my sister's 12, and I don't want to talk to them because I don't want to burden them. They might not be feeling the same thing that I do.

Ms. K. LONG: But they might be.

Ms. MARTINEZ: And I don't want them to be, like, feel what I have felt. Like, if they have too much responsibility, then I'd take some of it. I'd rather be home, like, helping my mom out than, like, enjoying myself.

Ms. K. LONG: I don't know. You shouldn't give up, you know, having fun. It's important to go out. I'll take you out.

Ms. SARA MARTINEZ: That would be fun, yeah.

But it's not, like, after talking to Kristen, the sky was bluer and the birds were chirping and everything was finally okay. I haven't called her, but I have started doing more things for myself. This is a song that I wrote.

(Singing) Around you, the world spins…

And I've slowly been finding it easier to express my feelings, even about Diego.

(Singing) How easy it would be to float away. But there's something that holds you in your place and that's him.

I know that I'll never have it easy. When Diego grows up, he's not going to be like other grown-ups. And maybe, I'll end up caring for him then, too. I know some people who are always having fun. But fun is not everything. With all the responsibilities and all the worries, I've become understanding, patient and so much more.

But what do you think of me?

Ms. SONIA MARTINEZ: Oh, I think…

Ms. SARA MARTINEZ: That's my sister Sonia. She's 12-years-old.

Ms. SONIA MARTINEZ: Can you just leave me here alone with the microphone?

Ms. SARA MARTINEZ: Okay, I'm going. I'm going to go and check on Diego.

Ms. SONIA MARTINEZ: Mm-hmm. I think Sara is a hero. I look up to her. Don't tell her.

Ms. SARA MARTINEZ: I don't think I'm a hero. I think you have to do something close to a miracle to be one. I'm just a big sister, trying to set a good example.

For NPR News, I'm Sara Martinez in New York.

SIEGEL: Sara's story was produced by Sanda Htyte with Kaari Pitkin and Melissa Robbins, and edited by Marianne McCune of Radio Rookies, a project at WNYC Radio.

This is NPR, National Public Radio.

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