She beaded her hair and wrote rap songs in the seventh grade about the gang violence that befell her friends. (“I ask my moms why everybody gotz to die/she says some in heaven just getz to fly, but every damn day there’s another drive-by/People killing people on the drop of the dime!”).
She stole trashcans from a rich neighborhood called Alamo Heights to replace the junky ones on her block. “I dated gang members, I affiliated with them.” She says that her childhood means of social survival are why she connects with a diverse array of musical audiences. “All of these different paths that I’ve been on made me a good interpreter because I’ve been a part of so many cultures.” Originally on track to practice physical therapy, Galloway Gallego did not get in to the college she wanted. Her friend Candi Sexton-Ruiz, then an educational skills specialist for the deaf and hard-of-hearing students at St. Philip’s College in San Antonio who had noticed her skills, gave her lessons one-on-one and encouraged her to enroll into the interpreter training program at San Antonio College. Any ASL certified instructor can translate song lyrics, but Sexton-Ruiz witnessed Galloway Gallego’s gift for interpreting music beyond that.
While hosting a barbecue for her deaf friends, Galloway Gallego turned on a boombox and wanted to teach everyone a song: Sir Mix-a-Lot’s booty-worship anthem “Baby Got Back.” The catchy early-90s rap classic usually gets listeners—even children— chanting the humorous lyrics (“I like big butts and I cannot lie”). But when Galloway Gallego began her interpretation, the deaf people at the barbecue looked baffled.
Some closed their eyes, too embarrassed to watch. They had discovered for the first time the lurid truth behind America’s popular music.
“When I read the English word, I didn't know it was dirty,” says Sexton-Ruiz, 44, who is deaf and had seen the song title written out. “When Amber interpreted it, I was like, ‘Oh! That is what they were talking about!’ I just never knew that there were songs like that. I thought they were illegal or something.” Galloway Gallego’s interpretations are not always so salacious but at times sentimental. Jeremiah Sammons, 38, lost his hearing seven years ago from the medications he needed to overcome his leukemia. “After losing my hearing, I also lost my love for music,” he says. “Sure, I could ‘feel’ the vibrations from the sound, but it wasn't the same. A lot of interpreting students try to ‘interpret’ music, much like when small children sing ‘Jesus Loves Me’ or ‘The Star-Spangled Banner.’ Yeah, it’s cute, but there isn’t a lot of meaning or feeling attached.” He gained a new appreciation of ASL under Galloway Gallego’s tutelage. “One day in class, Amber interpreted Melissa Etheridge’s song about cancer ‘I Run For Life,’ a song about surviving, about living. Sitting in my seat and watching her, I felt the struggle, the desperation and, finally, the joy of living.”
Sammons broke down in tears and ran out of the room. “Her interpretation had petrified me! I didn't realize how much fear I had about my cancer or that a song could still move me like that.” Galloway Gallego began her entertainment career coordinating interpreters for rodeo events in San Antonio and eventually got enough exposure to earn her first musical gig, signing for Destiny’s Child. For preparation, Galloway Gallego reads recent articles or message board postings about the act, looks up videos of interviews, learns artist bios and typically takes 12 to 18 hours to memorize the song lyrics for an entire show—if she gets a set list. It is work that she says should be worth $500 a show and $1,500 for a festival, but she usually gets between $150 and $200, making concerts her passion rather than her livelihood. She makes most of her money teaching sign language at colleges. Despite all of her training and expertise, she is frequently challenged to interpret words that are not in the ASL vocabulary, like slang and original terms conceived by artists. “We don’t create new signs,” she explains of an interpreter’s ethical obligation to render the message accurately and faithfully. “If there’s going to be a new word it comes directly from them or the deaf community.” Part of her mastery is also leaving a little room for deaf people to interpret the meaning of a song for themselves, much like they would with any art.
At Lollapalooza, for example, Galloway Gallego interpreted Kendrick Lamar’s “P & P,” an ode to the stress-relieving properties of “pussy and Patrón.” “Your hand is almost like an L, and so you would put the two Ls together,” as if forming the shape of a diamond, “and that forms the actual sign for ‘pussy,’” she explains. She combines that sign with one for a tequila shot: pantomiming licking salt off of her hand and then downing the invisible shot. This nails the imagery, yet leaves the song’s concept about escapism open to interpretation. “It can mean, ‘I want to lick the pussy,’ ‘I want to insert my penis in your pussy,’ or, ‘I just want to look at the pussy.’” For anyone thinking Lamar drove Galloway Gallego to the furthest depths of vulgarity, she offers the interpretation she did for The Vagina Monologues in 2004. She had to figure out how to sign a “coochie snorcher.” This, naturally, raised a question few interpreters have ever had to answer: “What does your vagina sound like?”
As the world has caught on to Galloway Gallego, a smaller population within the deaf community has fractured over her sudden fame. This year Galloway Gallego severed ties with LotuSIGN, a Texas-based company of interpreters that serves the country’s biggest music festivals and was responsible for bringing her to Lollapalooza.
In 2005, Galloway Gallego paired up with Barbie Parker, another well-known interpreter who used to head LotuSIGN, and now the two battled for gigs in a feud of egos, like teens in a high school popularity contest. The role of an interpreter is to obediently be a conduit for the musical artist. Although Galloway Gallego complicates this duty with her surge in stardom, Parker has indulged in her own bit of attention, once breaking her obligation to the deaf audience by turning around to kiss Billie Joe Armstrong of Green Day. “She basically cut off our communication access and engaged in unprofessional behavior with the singer,” remembers Sexton-Ruiz, who witnessed it.
This, according to Sexton-Ruiz, technically violated the code of conduct set forth by the Texas Department of Assistive and Rehabilitative Services. When asked, Parker would not comment about her relationship with Galloway Gallego or kissing Armstrong. Galloway Gallego said she was prepping a month before the Flaming Lips appearance at SXSW in March, where LotuSIGN is a local institution, when Parker informed her that she would not be brought along to interpret. Galloway Gallego fired back with a cease-and-desist order to have an advertisement for her services, which include her photo and biography, removed from Parker’s website. Galloway Gallego was similarly deprived of her chance to return this summer to Lollapalooza, which used LotuSIGN. In September, Parker sold her interest in LotuSIGN and is no longer leading the company. With plenty of clout now, Galloway Gallego formed her own company of uninhibited interpreters. As an individual, she got contracted to work Austin City Limits earlier this month, where she interpreted for Iggy Azealea at the festival.
Whereas some interpreters are uncomfortable with even touching their bodies, Galloway Gallego says, “My body type, my body shape, everything— I’m so okay with who I am as a human.” Which is why she’s also fine with her newfound celebrity. She fondly remembers once breaking down Khia’s raunchy full-body-foreplay-inspired hit “My Neck, My Back” at a bar event held for a deaf softball tournament. “When I saw them at this softball tournament, they’re all like, ‘Hey! You’re the licking-the-butt-crack girl!’”