Obama-que?: Security Questions That Mami Can’t Answer

By Cindy Tovar

As second generation Latinos, we are skilled in the art of translation.  We’ve been doing it since we were kids. For many of us whose parents never learned English, it’s a life-long position, especially as our parents get older and need more help.  So when it came time to help my mother sign up for Obamacare, trying to explain it to her left both of us asking, “Obama-que?”

The task of explaining the terms out of pocket expenses, deductions, and co-insurance was daunting. I had heard of these terms, even seen them in my own health insurance plans offered by my employers, but I’d never really paid attention to what they actually meant.

This is how it usually went:

“Here’s the insurance we offer.”

“Okay, I’ll take it.”

I didn’t really have a choice. It was either their insurance or nothing. But now here we are, able to shop in the supermercado of health insurance, and we’re faced with all these choices! Which one is the best one? It’s not always so easy to tell.

The correct translation of insurance terms wasn’t the only hurdle we faced. In fact, just trying to create an account was an obstacle in itself because of the security questions. As I scanned the list, I sighed in frustration.

“Que pasa?” my mother asked.

“It’s these questions, mami,” I said. “You can’t answer them.”

I started reading them off the list. “What is the name of your favorite pet?”

“Yo no tengo ningun pet.”

“What was your favorite toy as a child?”

She shrugged.  She didn’t really get to play much as a child.

“What is the nickname of your grandmother?”

She looked bewildered.

“What was the name of your manager at your first job? What is your parents’ wedding anniversary date? What is your favorite cuisine?”

Shrug, shrug, and shrug. She never worked, she can’t remember, and she doesn’t have a favorite cuisine. She eats what she cooks, or whatever she is given.

So what could we do? We made up the answers and wrote them down, thus defeating the whole purpose of security questions.

A person should know the answers to these questions immediately, but what Obama-que didn’t take into account, as well as other secure websites for that matter, was that many of our Latino parents didn’t come from a privileged background. Whereas other parents had leisure time to play in childhood, many of ours had to help their parents with chores or with work. They had no time to develop favorites.  Some websites ask about third-grade teachers, but many of our parents didn’t even get that far in school, if they went to school at all. And then there’s the fact that these questions ask about events that happened years ago, too long ago for them to remember.

In my opinion, these websites are going about this all wrong. If I were to create security questions for my mother, they’d be based on factual information that only she would know, and not stuff that happened in the 1950’s. They’d look something like this:

  • “What television show do you watch on Saturday nights?” (Sabado Gigante)

  • “What church do you attend on Sundays?” (La San Augustine)

  • “What song do you play at midnight on New Year’s Eve?” (Faltan 5 para las doce)

Fortunately, some websites offer the opportunity to create your own questions.  However, in all my efforts to nudge my parents towards the new technology, I’ve never come across that option. Until that day, we’ll keep writing the answers down, hiding the information, and hoping they’ll remember where they hid it.

Cindy Tovar is a writer and a teacher based in New Jersey.  She is a former Associate Editor at Being Latino, and is the founder of Hispanecdotes, a blog dedicated to the true stories and opinions that reflect the Latino experience.

 [Photo: Flickr/Misha Dontsov]

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