Meet the Self-Taught Salvi ASL Interpreter…the Real MVP in the City’s Daily Press Conferences

American Sign Language interpreters in public service have never been as busy as they are right now. They stand alongside local and national political leaders as they break some of the toughest news and grim numbers around the coronavirus crisis. 

Through engaging facial expressions and real-time translations into American Sign Language HandSpeak in front of many cameras, interpreters at both the state and national level have been working hard to ensure that the Deaf community receives information as quickly and accurately as everyone else. 

In Los Angeles, there has been one foo in particular who stands out for his deeply animated facial expressions and generally cool style while interpreting the L.A. Department of Public Health daily press conferences: Neil Cordova.

If you’ve tuned in to any of the daily televised sessions, chances are that you’ve found yourself admiring his signing if you are hearing impaired or not because his form is that striking. Tag teaming with his equally talented colleague Rorri Burton, the two have formed a black and brown foundation for the Department of Public Health’s interpreters for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing community.

L.A. Taco tracked him down via Instagram and interviewed him over the phone to find out how he went from a vato born and raised in the City of Commerce to be the self-taught, Latino trilingual interpreting phenom on TV every day. 

L.A. Taco: First things first, where is your favorite taco in L.A.? 

Neil Cordova: I just moved to a new apartment and Curly from Buzzfeed told me about it. They’re called Taqueria Los Anaya. I get their chicken ones. They’re pretty great.

How old are you? 

I’m 33.

Where did you grow up?

I grew up in the City of Commerce. My parents still live there and now I live in Jefferson Park. I grew up on the border of Commerce and Bell Gardens. 

What high school did you go to? 

I went to Schurr High School in Montebello and then I went to Montebello High School. I grew up playing water polo for the City of Commerce. I grew up playing with Brenda Villa and all those people. 

Where are your parents from? 

El Salvador!

What do they think of you interpreting on TV?

My parents are enormously proud! Concerned of course because of how crazy things are they want me to be safe. But they never miss a press conference!

How long have you been signing? 

I have been doing this for 12 years. I got into it after seeing other interpreters before and I just thought it was cool. I taught myself with a kid’s book first. After that, I made two really good deaf friends while living in New York and they taught me most of what I know. After two years of being really good friends with these guys, I picked it up. When I came back to L.A., I thought, What can I do with this? I went into the field since then. That was 12 years ago and here we are.

Is being self-taught common in your industry?

It’s pretty uncommon. I did some community college but didn’t graduate because I started interpreting. Most of the time, people go to school to learn it there and then they go to an Interpreter Training Program. Then they get tested to become certified. I didn’t go that route. For the longest time in California, it was not required to become certified to provide services. I had the skills so I was doing it without certification but about two years ago, I went to get my certification and passed. So now I am a certified interpreter, even though I’ve been doing this officially for a long time.  

We both learned to sign language from the deaf. Neither of us went to an actual school to learn sign language interpreting.

How did you land the opportunity to sign during the pandemic? 

Actually that’s a really good story. The Black girl that is interpreting with me is a really good friend of mine and we were coworkers at a previous job. She really likes me and really respects my skills, and they were in need of a trilingual interpreter. She reached out to me and asked, “Did you see me at that press conference?” I said yes I did! You did awesome! She said, “OK, they need someone who is trilingual, can you come tomorrow?” I was like oh shhhhhit! OK! They literally booked me and did all my paperwork that night. The next day, you saw me there on TV.

At first, I was like, I don’t know! That’s big! People are going to judge my skills on TV! She had my back and told me, “Nah! You got this! You’re good. You can do this” And so I did. Thanks to her. 

How did you feel that night before the first time you interpreted live on television?

The night before the first press conference I was nervous. I knew I had the skills to do it but it’s also quite a lot pressure because everyone will be watching and not only that but I think most importantly I need to make sure I put out clear information. The information being broadcasted is important safety information for all Angelinos.

What would you say is the secret to great signing?

It’s immersion in the deaf community. Learning from the deaf or from the source. Get yourself a foundation. Online, there are plenty of events hosted by the deaf community where they just go and hang out. A lot of times, it can be intimidating. Do you know how many times I got told to eff off? I get it. But it really is the best way to learn. Take criticisms to learn. 

We’ve been getting a lot of compliments from the deaf community. We both learned to sign language from the deaf. Neither of us went to an actual school to learn sign language interpreting. We both learned from hanging out with deaf people. So when we go up there and sign, the reason why so many people understand and recognize us is because of the faces that we make. This is also the reason why the deaf community loves us. 

We sign more like how deaf people do versus someone who just learned American Sign Language. It’s kind of like when a white person hangs out with a bunch of Latinos. It doesn’t matter if the Latinos are from El Salvador, Mexico, or the Dominican Republic, that white person is going to start picking up how each Latino speaks Spanish, and each kind of Spanish is different.

That’s how me and my colleague sign, we sign the way deaf people sign.  

Thank you for speaking with us. 

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