When it began in 2003, Asociación Mayabwas founded as an organization promoting events around Mayan culture. But once the San Francisco-based group established itself, it began receiving first requests for interpretation services.
Founder and director Alberto Perez says that it didn’t take long to realize that the community was in need of highly skilled interpreters, primarily for Indigenous people caught in the tangled web of immigration law or other legal matters.
Although it is assumed that people from Latin American countries, including Mexico, communicate in Spanish, there is a wide range of Indigenous languages used in addition to Portuguese and French. About 6 million people in these countries speak one of 30 different Mayan languages, for instance.
For those who speak Indigenous languages in the U.S., health care, navigating social-care services, and responding to law enforcement are just a few challenges in places where Spanish-to-English is one of only a few translation options available.
In 2008, Asociación Mayab invested funds to offer 10-week intensive training courses, and by 2011 was receiving grants to support the mission of its formalized program. The services are offered for free to clients about 95 percent of the time. The rest of the time, costs are very low, Perez said. The nonprofit’s trained interpreters are compensated for their time, which often takes them away from their full-time jobs.
Perez says that often, clients are walking into a courtroom with their life in the balance. “It can be a rather intimidating situation,” he said. Although some clients also speak Spanish, their first language is typically Mayan or another Indigenous language. The level of stress involved causes people to default to their native language. Having someone in the room fluent in their language “provides a level of comfort to this client I can’t even explain,” he said, “they are treated more fairly and not run over by the system.”
In some cases, translators wear traditional clothing when they do their work so that they are more easily recognized.
Dominic Pablo, a translator of Mam, a language spoken by about half a million people in Guatemala, said that a single word or phrase misinterpreted can affect a client’s entire life, as it did in an immigration case he worked on. After Pablo found an error while reviewing audio from court proceedings, a family was allowed to stay in the U.S., he said.
“I know there’s a lot of people who need an interpreter,” Pablo said. “It feels kind of like a superpower you have in the right circumstances. It’s like you have this ability that nobody else in the whole room has.”
Courts make up about 80 percent of the work Asociación Mayab does, but it also helps clients in hospitals, schools, and mental health facilities, where its services are also needed. “Even in those cases,” Perez said, “people need to have an ally, they need to have an advocate.”
Mayan Interpreters: In Their Own Words
Francisco Icala Tiriquiz
Francisco Icala Tiriquizis a K’iche interpreter based in San Francisco, CA.
Oswaldo Martín is a Mam interpreter based in Oakland, CA.
Angela Ramirez is a Mam interpreter based in Alameda, CA.
Dominic Pablo is a Mam interpreter based in Oakland, CA.
Karen Novelo is a Yucatec Maya interpreter based in San Francisco, CA.
“When I was a kid in Mexico, most people where I lived spoke Spanish and only older people spoke Yucatec Maya. My grandpa could speak broken Spanish, but my grandma only ever spoke Maya.