Sourced from: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2020/01/06/a-translation-crisis-at-the-border
Oswaldo Vidal Martín always wears the same thing to court: a striped overshirt, its wide collar and cuffs woven with geometric patterns and flowers. His pants are cherry red, with white stripes. Martín is Guatemalan and works as a court interpreter, so clerks generally assume that he is there to translate for Spanish speakers. But any Guatemalan who sees his clothing, which is called traje típico, knows that Martín is indigenous. “My Spanish is more conversational,” Martín told me. “I still have some difficulties with it.” He interprets English for migrants who speak his mother tongue, a Mayan language called Mam.
Martín, who came to the United States with his parents in 1999, when he was four, was studying to be an engineer when the trickle of Mam speakers migrating to the Oakland area, where he lives, turned into a flood. In 2014, some sixty thousand unaccompanied minors crossed into the United States, in what President Barack Obama called “an actual humanitarian crisis on the border.” A local immigration lawyer told me that at least forty per cent of the children and teen-agers arriving in the Bay Area were Mam. Martín trained with a nonprofit in San Francisco called Asociación Mayab—which offers workshops in translation for indigenous-language speakers—and then began interpreting. There is bottomless demand. “I could do it three, four, five days a week,” Martín, who also works for his father’s construction company, told me. “Every day.”
One morning in early December, Martín was interpreting for a criminal case in Dublin, east of Oakland. A clerk signed him in—“Buenos días,” she greeted him—and then he met the people he’d be translating for, a Mam husband and wife who had been the victims of an attempted home burglary. Through Martín, the couple sought reassurance from the judge that their immigration status wouldn’t be questioned.
Martín accompanied the husband to the witness box, while the wife waited in a nearby room. Watching a skilled simultaneous interpreter is a bit like watching someone speaking in tongues. As soon as the judge starts talking, the interpreter mutters along, not waiting for the sentence to be over before beginning to translate. Martín relayed the witness’s answers in a low, steady voice, in American-accented English.
The testimony turned on the layout of the kitchen. There are twenty-two officially recognized Mayan languages in Guatemala; all of them use relational nouns instead of prepositions—Mam uses “head” to say “on top of”—and they have complex grammatical rules to describe bodies in space. The witness pinched his fingers and dropped them down to imitate his wife putting cash in her purse. He worked his eyebrows. He didn’t look up when the prosecutor asked a question. He was telling his story to Martín, the only person in the room who understood.
When his wife emerged and was asked to spell her name, she looked at the ground and whispered in Mam, “I will not be able to spell my name. I did not go to school to learn how.” But she warmed to Martín, glancing over at him as she became more comfortable.
The prosecutor asked, “What is your primary language?”
“The same language I’m using now,” she said. “I only know a little bit of Spanish.” She does not speak English at all.
During the lunch break, Martín and I went out for burritos. In line, a man in a baseball cap approached. “You are doing a great job in there,” he said. Martín looked at him, confused. The man lifted his cap. “I’m the judge!”
Guatemala has a population of fifteen million people, forty per cent of them indigenous, according to the most recent census. In the past year, two hundred and fifty thousand Guatemalan migrants have been apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border. At least half of them are Mayans, and many speak little or no Spanish. According to the Department of Justice, Mam was the ninth most common language used in immigration courts last year, more common than French. Three Guatemalan Mayan languages made the top twenty-five: Mam, K’iche’, and Q’anjob’al.
The Bay Area is unusual in that Mam-speaking asylum seekers may be able to access in-person court interpretation. The vast majority of indigenous-language interpretation in the U.S. is done over the phone, by for-profit companies such as Lionbridge and S.O.S. International. Credibility is an official factor in a judge’s assessment of an asylum claim, and much can be lost on the phone. The quality of telephone interpretation also varies wildly. Martín says that he took the exam to become a Lionbridge translator, and, to test the company, invented extra material, a cardinal sin for translators. He passed anyway. (Lionbridge declined to comment.)
The U.S. government claims to provide proper translation at all points in the immigration process, but, in practice, it rarely offers Mayan-language translation at the border or in holding cells. (A spokesperson from Customs and Border Protection said, “We use a third-party translation service via telephone when we are unable to communicate due to language barriers. We do our best to make sure we can communicate accurately, with everyone, throughout their time in our custody.”) Until just a few years ago, there was a tendency to treat Mayan languages as “dialects.” A former immigration judge told me that all her Mayan-language cases, when they came from Customs and Border Protection, were “listed on the court docket as Spanish.” When Mayan-language asylum seekers can manage some Spanish, it is often not enough to navigate credible-fear interviews—in which migrants must explain why they are afraid of returning to their home countries.
Between April and June, 2018, the Trump Administration adopted a “zero-tolerance” policy, intended to deter migration at the southern border. As part of the policy, parents were forcibly separated from their children. That July, Martín got a call from Asociación Mayab. Lawyers at the border were looking for Mam speakers to translate for detained migrant families. Martín travelled to the U.S. Border Patrol Central Processing Center, in McAllen, Texas, which became notorious for holding children in cages made of chain-link fencing. He ended up translating for a migrant named Mario Perez Domingo, who spoke “barely any Spanish,” according to his lawyer, Efrén Olivares, of the Texas Civil Rights Project.
Domingo and his two-year-old daughter had been picked up by a Border Patrol agent who asked for their papers and then accused Domingo of forging his daughter’s birth certificate. The agent asked in Spanish if he had “paid for the certificate,” and Domingo said yes, because Guatemalans pay a small fee to the civil registry for birth certificates. The Border Patrol argued that Domingo had bought it on the black market and that the child was not his daughter, and took her away. (BuzzFeed reported on this separation.)
Domingo didn’t have the language skills to explain. Not even Olivares, his lawyer, could fully understand what had happened. During Domingo’s criminal hearing, he was given only a Spanish-language translator. On the stand, he kept talking about a son who had been taken away. “But he didn’t have a son, he had a daughter,” Olivares said.
By the time Martín got involved, Domingo had been transferred from McAllen, so they talked on the phone. In fewer than five minutes, Martín had the facts of the case. I asked if Domingo spoke Spanish. “Not to the point where he could really explain himself or be able to understand what was going on,” Martín said.
I asked if language was a factor in the separation, and Martín said, “Definitely.” Martín is generally unflappable, but an edge of anger came through. “They know that they can get away with it.” The father was reunited with his daughter only after taking a DNA test, a month later, and then both were released.
Extended detentions or deportations caused by mistranslation or lack of translation are not rare. A former volunteer at the South Texas Family Residential Center, in Dilley, Texas, the nation’s largest immigrant-detention center, told me that cases can turn on the difference between competent and incompetent translation. A mother held there told non-Guatemalan interpreters that she had had “trouble” in Guatemala because of her “blouses,” which sounds innocuous in English. She meant her huipil, a handwoven blouse worn by Mayans. She was saying that she was persecuted for being indigenous, but the interpreter didn’t understand or explain. The woman’s claim was rejected, and she was deported.
According to a filing by the A.C.L.U. last August, a father accused of a crime was separated from his son without a Q’eqchi’ translator present. During the six-month separation, the child “began to forget his family’s native language, and he suffered extreme isolation because of his inability to speak Spanish, English, or any language common in the shelter,” according to the filing. Another boy was separated “due to father’s alleged mental health problems; child advocates later determined father’s indigenous language may led [sic] to wrong mental health concern.” By the time U.S. authorities acknowledged that there was no mental-health problem, they had deported the father.
Lee Gelernt, a lawyer for the A.C.L.U., which brought a lawsuit to stop the child separations, told me that, of more than five thousand parents separated from their children, at least eight hundred were deported without them. “A significant number of those were indigenous,” Gelernt said. His team found that half were Guatemalan, and that “ten to twenty per cent” were from indigenous-majority departments, such as San Marcos, Huehuetenango, and Quiché. (Children were taken from their parents before the zero-tolerance policy took effect, and about eleven hundred have been taken since it was ruled unlawful.) “The indigenous population was likely the least able to understand their rights, and may therefore have been more susceptible to losing their children and waiving away their own asylum rights,” Gelernt said.
Both Olivares and Gelernt believe that the system denies basic rights to Spanish-speaking asylum seekers as well, but that difficulties are exacerbated for Mayan-language speakers. “The language barrier contributed, at least in part, to a lot of those separations,” Olivares said.
Then there are the deaths. “Kids dying on the border are Mayan,” Naomi Adelson, the interpreter who trained Martín at Asociación Mayab, told me. Six children have died in the custody of the Department of Homeland Security since Donald Trump took office. Five were indigenous. Jakelin Caal Maquín, a seven-year-old Q’eqchi’ girl, had a fever that spiked on a long bus ride from the New Mexico desert, where she was picked up with her father, to a Border Patrol detention center. She died from a bacterial infection that led to multiple-organ failure after she received no medical care for ninety minutes. Felipe Gómez Alonzo, an eight-year-old Chuj boy, died of the flu as he and his father were shuttled between holding centers. President Trump placed blame for the deaths on the children’s fathers, who had signed intake waivers stating that their children did not need medical care. The waivers were in English, and officials provided a verbal Spanish translation—two languages that the fathers did not speak fluently or at all.
Mayan Guatemalans have a persistent problem: explaining to people that they still exist. The ancient Mayan cities collapsed in the eighth or ninth century, but the Mayan people remained, farming corn in small towns. One archeologist compared it to the fall of the Soviet Union: the structure of life has changed, but the people are still there. All the Mayan languages share a common root, but most of them are mutually unintelligible. Yucatec Mayan is tonal, like Cantonese. K’iche’, the language of the “Popol Vuh,” has six or ten vowels, depending on the dialect. Mam is produced far back in the mouth and comes out softly raspy. The variations are not a mark of being cut off from external influences, the linguist William Hanks told me, but, rather, a sign of development. Mayan languages have had four thousand years to ramify. “Mayans have never been isolated,” Hanks said. In 1990, the Academy of Mayan Languages of Guatemala was formed, and a branching linguistics tree, showing the common origin of all Mayan languages, became a symbol of the Pan-Mayan movement. (Mam emerged from the trunk about two thousand years ago.) There is still debate about which subdivisions should be counted as dialects. (A chestnut in the field of linguistics: “A language is a dialect with an army.”) The introduction to the Academy’s official Mam-Spanish dictionary reads, “Language is the backbone of the culture and cosmovision of a people.”
Last summer, I visited Martín’s home town, Todos Santos Cuchumatán, in the lofty pine mountains near the border with Mexico, one of the coldest parts of the highlands. To get there, I drove through seven distinct language groups in two days. On the mountaintop just before the descent into the valley of Todos Santos, there is no running water—women fetch it from wells with plastic jugs. Suddenly, you start seeing men in cherry-red striped pants watering their vegetable patches.
Nearly everyone in Guatemala has some Mayan heritage, but the indigenous are considered a separate group, identified by language, place of origin, and, for women, colorful clothing woven on backstrap looms. (In Todos Santos, the men, too, wear traje.) Mayan people tend to be much poorer than non-indigenous Guatemalans, the result of a long history of oppression and land theft.
Some Central American migrants to the U.S. have adopted the slogan of the post-colonial immigrants’-rights campaigns in Europe, from the nineteen-eighties: “We are here because you were there.” In 1954, the C.I.A. backed a coup that overthrew a President who was overseeing land-reform measures that included expropriating United Fruit’s holdings. The coup led to a civil war that lasted from 1960 to 1996, during which Marxist-Leninist guerrilla groups tried to topple a series of U.S.-backed governments and dictatorships. In the early eighties, the Guatemalan Army believed—often wrongly—that Mayans were susceptible to guerrilla ideology. Soldiers pillaged indigenous communities, raped women and girls, and stole children who survived massacres, putting hundreds up for adoption. (Guerrilla fighters also attacked Mayans whom they believed were informing for the Army.) The Army burned houses and churches as well as cornfields—sacred sources of sustenance for Mayans. Two hundred thousand people died during the war, the Western Hemisphere’s bloodiest conflict of the twentieth century; eighty-three per cent of them were indigenous.
In Todos Santos, which was then a small cluster of adobe houses, the Army openly massacred Mam families, intending to terrorize the population. American Green Berets helped train a special-forces unit called the kaibiles, named for a Mam leader who had evaded capture by Spanish conquistadors. This unit committed the worst atrocities of the war. A Mam man told an anthropologist that, in 1982, soldiers captured an accused guerrilla fighter and summoned the people of Todos Santos to the town square. A soldier cut the man open from his neck to his belly. “Then he took out the liver of the poor man,” the witness said. “He grabbed the liver out, and he ate it just like that, in front of the soldiers, in front of the people. We did not understand.” After the war, a U.N.-backed truth commission found that the Guatemalan government had committed “genocidal acts” against Mayan communities.
Interpreters a generation older than Martín told me that, when they work on asylum cases, they must confront their own traumatic memories. One man translated for a woman who had been separated from her son at the border. He said that it was “living my experience all over again.” The woman described how her son had been pulled from her arms. At first, he was screaming. Then he began hyperventilating, and couldn’t get a sound out. Then the guards took him away.
When the interpreter was ten years old, his mother was kidnapped by the Army. “It was Sunday. I had climbed up into a tree to play with kites. My aunt came out. She’s one of those people with a strong personality, who doesn’t tell you things calmly,” he recalled. “And she said, ‘Come down out of there. They have taken your mom.’ ”
Despite the genocide, asylum status was hard to come by in the U.S., because Guatemalans were fleeing a regime that was supported by millions of dollars of U.S. military aid each year. In 1982, during the height of state terror, President Ronald Reagan met with the Guatemalan dictator Efraín Ríos Montt, who was later convicted of genocide and crimes against humanity. (The sentence was overturned shortly afterward, under political pressure.) Reagan praised Ríos Montt’s “progressive efforts” and said that he was “getting a bum rap on human rights.”
Indigenous people fared little better after the signing of peace agreements, in 1996. The country was opened to international mining and to palm-oil corporations, which have steadily encroached on indigenous land, forcing families to move to Guatemala City. Irma Alicia Velásquez Nimatuj, a K’iche’ anthropologist and a public intellectual, wrote in the Guatemalan newspaper El Periódico, “The urban children, cornered into selling on street corners, were left choosing between an education for the poor that could only provide them with a survival-level job, or joining the gangs.” Interpreters told me that racism and even violent discrimination are such ingrained features of Guatemalan life that some Mayan asylum seekers don’t think to mention them in credible-fear interviews. They have plenty of other reasons to flee: gangs, death squads, domestic violence and femicide, disillusionment with a series of corrupt Presidents, and climate change, which is drying out cornfields—a spiritual as well as an environmental crisis. Guatemalans confound the distinction between “economic migrants” and the types of persecution that the U.S. requires to grant asylum.
Today, Todos Santos is a tangle of “remittance houses,” several stories tall, built of concrete block, with columns and fanciful towers, blue reflective windows, American and Guatemalan flags painted along the trim, and ears of corn strung out to dry on balconies. Most of the houses remain unfinished, with fingers of rebar reaching up from the top floor. Migrants send back money in installments and build floor by floor, until they decide to come home or are deported. The town runs on remittances: a store selling pens and paper is called Librería California, and coyote services are available for Spanish and Mam speakers. In the cemetery just outside town, on the day I was there, a large family was visiting. The son—the only family member who spoke Spanish—pointed to the raised graves, which are painted red, white, and blue, and told me, “Those are the ones who died up there.” The graves were decorated with plastic flowers and offerings of bottles of water with the caps unscrewed.
María Martín (no relation to Oswaldo) is the single staff member in Todos Santos of conamigua, a Guatemalan government agency that works with migrants and retornados, a local euphemism for the deported. Her office is in the town hall, where posters warning against migration are captioned “This message was sponsored by the U.S. Embassy.” Martín told me that conamigua’s recent efforts to dissuade migrants included a radio spot in Mam with marimba music. She translated the ad: “Here in Todos Santos Cuchumatán you can excel if you stay and start studying. The trip to the North is very risky and you could encounter death, and then your family would have to suffer and cry.”
Martín admitted that her job is nearly impossible. In her spare time, she volunteers with a group that provides free translation via phone for Mam-speaking migrants in the U.S.
Other people in town work for the for-profit phone-translation services. The wife of a pharmacist who moonlights as an interpreter says that her husband is constantly getting calls from the border in the middle of the night. Oswaldo Martín said that the services “lowball” translators—they offered him forty-five cents a minute for highly skilled work—but pay that is low in Oakland is high in Todos Santos.
Most people from town who leave for the U.S. try to make it to Fruitvale, the part of Oakland where Martín lives. Pedro Pablo Solares, a specialist in migration and a columnist for the Guatemalan newspaper Prensa Libre, travelled throughout the U.S. between 2010 and 2014, providing legal services to migrants. He found that the “immense majority” of Mayans were living in what he called ciudades espejo—mirror cities—where migrants from the same small towns in Guatemala have reconstituted communities in the U.S. “If you are a member of the Chuj community and that is your language, there are only fifty thousand people who speak that in the world. There’s only so many places you can go to find people who speak your language,” Solares told me. He described the migration patterns like flight routes: Q’anjob’al speakers from San Pedro Solomá go to Indiantown, Florida; Mam speakers from Tacaná go to Lynn, Massachusetts; Jakalteco speakers from Jacaltenango go to Jupiter, Florida.
“I grew up my entire life speaking Mam, and there is no word for asylum,” Henry Sales, a twenty-seven-year-old immigrant from San Juan Atitán, told me. Sales and Oswaldo Martín were at the César E. Chávez branch of the public library, in downtown Fruitvale, where they met with other Mam speakers to work on a Mam-English legal dictionary. Sales, who came to the U.S. a decade ago, has jobs at several libraries, translates in immigration court, assists a linguistics Ph.D. student at the University of California, Berkeley, and gives Mam classes. He has a radiant smile and tends to dress formally, down to his shined shoes.
Martín had the idea for the legal dictionary when he came across a Mayan health handbook, which listed ailments in English, Spanish, K’iche’, and Mam. Translation isn’t just words to words; it’s about expressing whole ways of experiencing the world. There has been a long-running debate in Guatemala about whether non-indigenous doctors should be trained to diagnose and treat “xib’rikil ”—“el susto,” in Spanish—“fright” or “spirit attack,” a common illness among Mayans that can involve symptoms ranging from depression to diarrhea and anemia. According to Mayan cosmology, the malady can be caused by violent events, or by the appearance of a “restless soul” who has died in a traumatic way and is unable to find peace.
Sales and Martín speak different dialects of Mam. Though they understand each other, Martín said that Sales’s Mam sounds more like French—airy, with swallowed consonants—while his is more like Portuguese—choppy and guttural. Even I can hear the difference. In addition to the legal dictionary, Sales and Martín want to provide workshops in various dialects for Mam translators. The U.S. government does not offer certification tests for Mam interpreters—Martín said that he had once been challenged by an opposing lawyer for not being certified—and Sales and Martín believe that learning more dialects could further “professionalize” Mam interpreters.
They take notes during asylum interviews and court cases, in order to include important terms in the dictionary: “credible fear,” “release,” “gangs,” “stipulate,” “persecution.” “What we’ve been doing is try to come up with a definition of ‘asylum’ and translate that to Mam,” Sales said.
Their shorthand translation is “To be held and looked after by the law.” “Qlet tun ley.”
A longer, more complete definition that Sales teaches in Mam class is “Jun u’j tun tkleti tij qa xjal aj kyaj tun tkub’ tb’yon ay bix qa tk’awali tu’x txuli / tchmili.”
“A paper that saves / protects you from people who are harming / attempting to kill you and your children, your wife / husband.”
I asked Sales and Martín if Mam speakers generally understood their explanation of asylum, and Martín said yes, but he mentioned another problem cited by nearly everyone I interviewed. “A tendency for a lot of indigenous people is to agree to everything being asked of them in Spanish,” he said, even if it’s incorrect and self-incriminating. “A lot of times they get deported,” Sales said. Marianne Richardson, a graduate student at the University of Texas, studies access to indigenous languages at the border in Arizona, where many Mayan migrants cross. She told me that, often, when the Border Patrol asks a migrant if he or she speaks Spanish, “the person will just say ‘Sí.’ And they’ll be, like, ‘O.K., can I continue in Spanish?’ And the person says, ‘Sí.’ But there’s not really a comprehension check.” She added, “Some of them are really intimidated by an authority figure with a gun and just want to do what they’re told.”
Sales said, “We have been taught that, if we don’t speak Spanish, we are stupid.” He said that, when he first went to school in Guatemala and didn’t speak any Spanish, “I couldn’t defend myself.” The other kids would say he was dumb, and he just answered, “Yes, yes,” without understanding. “It happened five hundred years ago,” he said. “They came and told us, ‘You are savages.’ ”
San Francisco’s immigration court convenes in an unmarked skyscraper in the financial district. On an August morning, a list of the names for the day’s cases was tacked onto the wall of a waiting room: Manzares, Martínez, Mendoza, Misa. Eleni Wolfe-Roubatis, the director of Immigrant Legal Defense, a nonprofit, told me that about thirty per cent of the court’s cases involve Mam speakers, but they are hard to pick out. Unlike other Mayan groups, which have distinctive last names, Mam speakers were named after Spanish people whom they worked for as semi-enslaved peons. A common last name among Mam people is Pablo, for former peons of a certain Don Pablo.
In a courtroom handling family cases, children were scrambling over the furniture and crying. Some migrants didn’t have a lawyer, but every case involved an interpreter. The judge, Scott Gambill, told the room, “All these family units have to be heard in a given time. This is a high priority for the Attorney General.” In 2018, then Attorney General Jeff Sessions imposed strict quotas and performance metrics to speed up immigration reviews. Sessions announced that family-unit cases were to be heard within a year. Critics saw the move as a way of deporting more people, faster. The change meant that judges were required to rule on at least seven hundred cases per year, which the National Association of Immigration Judges has said impinges on due process.
Judge Gambill repeatedly told asylum seekers and lawyers that he was sorry their court dates were so soon. The speed gave the proceedings a feeling of hitting a language barrier even when there wasn’t one. The judge mentioned “riders” several times before I understood that he meant children.
The day’s session was intended to set future court dates and check if asylum seekers had changed their address. Migrants tend to move frequently, and if they miss a notice to appear they are ordered deported. One of the asylum seekers was a woman in an elaborately flowered traje, with a hot-pink smartphone tucked into the sash. Did she speak Spanish? the judge asked. Her lawyer, Alexandra Bachan, said, “She’s going to identify herself, but beyond that . . . ” She made the gesture for “so-so.”
Leonel Pablo, a young man with gelled hair, ripped jeans, and spotless white sneakers, was in court without a lawyer. The judge asked, through a Spanish-language interpreter, “Do you want a Mam translator?” Pablo looked confused. Then he said, “Sí,” and was quiet.
During a break, Bachan stepped outside with Pablo. When they returned, Bachan told Gambill, “I’m probably crazy, but I’m taking the case.”
“Delightfully crazy,” the judge answered. “You are stepping into the gap.” The whole asylum request would have to be assembled and argued in three months. Pablo was alone in court that day, but his “rider”—his eight-year-old son, Hugo—was part of his family unit.
Pablo told me in broken Spanish that he had tried to secure a lawyer: “I call, but they are all busy.” On finding Bachan, he said, “Estoy muy agradecido con mi Diosito lindo,” a very Guatemalan way of saying that he was thankful to his sweet God. He had come to court that day planning to represent himself in a language he could barely speak.
From court, I walked to the office of Ilyce Shugall, at the Bar Association of San Francisco, where she runs the Immigrant Legal Defense Program. Shugall was sworn in as an immigration judge in 2017 but stepped down last March. She wrote an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times explaining that, under Sessions’s immigration rules, she could no longer guarantee that asylum seekers had the opportunity to fully present their cases. (In January, 2019, access to asylum was further restricted, when the Trump Administration began to require that many asylum seekers remain in Mexico while waiting for the disposition of their cases.)
I asked Shugall whether indigenous asylum seekers got due process. She let out a big sigh. “Sometimes,” she said, and paused. “They were definitely the most challenging for me as an immigration judge.” She explained that the accelerated schedule has disproportionately affected “rare-language speakers.”
“I wasn’t going to give short shrift to people who clearly weren’t understanding things,” Shugall said. “It was just really time-consuming, and I know not all judges do that.”
Shugall worried less about Mam speakers—since groups such as Asociación Mayab can sometimes provide interpreters—than about the K’iche’ and Q’anjob’al speakers who work as day laborers in the Central Valley. “If you speed up their case, it just doesn’t give them as much time to find various resources, like people who can help them with language, and then find counsel, and get the documentation they need from their village,” she said.
“I found it incredible that people who come from remote villages in Guatemala, do not read or write Spanish or English, do not speak Spanish, and are living in rural Central Valley, California, with no transportation, make it to San Francisco for their hearings,” Shugall said. “As long as you have the proper language interpreter at their final hearing, that is the culmination of everything, and they have an opportunity to speak in their language and tell their story, which I’m sure is very gratifying for them in many ways, to finally be able to explain to someone in great detail why they are where they are right now.”
One Saturday, I attended a Mam class that Henry Sales teaches at Laney College, in downtown Oakland. It was Labor Day weekend, but thirty people showed up, a mixture of social workers and public-school teachers. Dave Rose, a teacher at Fremont High School, said that he has a total of a hundred and forty students. “Sixty of them speak Mam,” he said. The other teachers gasped.
Soon Sales was running us through the alphabet. The letters were familiar but the sounds were not. There were glottal stops (as in “uh-oh”), and apostrophes that made a little popping noise out of the preceding consonant. We could barely get out chjonte, “thank you.”
Sales showed us how to pronounce “tz’,” a hard buzz. “It’s not in the books, but our elders say the sounds are from the sounds of forests and animals,” he said.
Rose wanted to know how to say “You’re late.” Yaj matzuli. “I’m going to use that a lot,” he said.
During a break from pronunciation drills, Sales gave some background on Mayan culture. “I don’t call myself Latino or Hispanic,” he said. “No offense to them. But the Spanish have been the enemy.” Sales told us about the biggest event of the year in Todos Santos Cuchumatán, a horse-riding festival that commemorates an anti-colonial rebellion. “The ancestors saw horses for the first time when they were enslaved by the Spanish,” Sales said. They danced, as an offering, before stealing the horses and escaping into the Cuchumatán Mountains.
The festival is a major holiday for the Mam. Men wear hats with feathers, to represent roosters and a masculine spirit, and gallop through town, past onlookers and marimba bands. Martín told me that he rode in it for the first time in November. It was his first trip to Guatemala in twelve years. He visited family in Todos Santos, and began to set up partnerships to teach Bay Area interpreters various Mam dialects via Skype.
The trip turned out to be an education in what Martín called “Mam modalities and etiquette,” a way of being that is subtly different from that of Californians. “I would describe Mam etiquette as addressing everyone in the room and not taking up space,” he said. “I’m here, but I’m not here for me—it’s for you.”