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  • Writer's pictureJace Norton

The Power of a Voice: Perspectives on the Crucial Need for Interpreters of Indigenous Languages

One of the things that for which we at Maya Bridge are working diligently to advocate and raise awareness is that speakers of indigenous languages are all too often mis-categorized and lumped in with speakers of other languages. This can happen due to several factors, including:


-       A general lack of awareness about indigenous languages

-       The (incorrect) belief that if a major vendor for language services cannot provide services for that language that no resources will be available for that language, or the lack of awareness on where to find resources for that language

-       Unethical practices of utilizing a child or other family member

-       Limited fluency in a second language, like Spanish, that leads providers to try and get through in that language, even when this is clearly not the native language of the LEP (an industry term meaning “Limited English Proficient”)

-       Hesitancy by indigenous individuals to ask for resources in their native language due to negative past experiences of discrimination or racism


Whatever the reason, when indigenous language interpreters are not provided to those individuals, the consequences can often be dire. In this series, we seek to shed light on just how important it is to correctly identify and offer resources for speakers of indigenous languages. We will be collecting stories from our interpreters who have seen these consequences and experienced the critical nature of interpretation, especially for indigenous populations. We hope that these stories highlight just how important it is not to try and muddle through appointments or interviews in a language that isn’t an individual’s native language just because they seemingly speak some Spanish (or Portuguese, or French, etc.).


“A Q’eqchi’ interpreter could have saved this man from wrongful detention and possible deportation” – Jace Norton, Q’eqchi’ interpreter, founder of Maya Bridge


When I was working as a Q’eqchi’ interpreter for immigration hearings, I witnessed a harrowing misunderstanding that led to the wrongful accusation and detention of an innocent man. This “man” (if I remember correctly, he was only 21 or 22) was in a detention center in Harlingen, TX and was set to be deported after having felony charges brought against him. Throughout the proceedings of the trial, thankfully, the judge asked questions about these convictions that made it abundantly clear that if this individual had had the ability to express himself in his own language, he would not have been in this situation.


This individual, let’s call him Juan for the sake of simplicity, was in a relationship his 17-year-old partner, and the two of them had come to the United States and were living with her father. Since his partner was under the age of 18, she was required to attend school by law. When she became pregnant while attending high school, teachers and staff, without taking the time to ensure appropriate understanding of the situation through the use of Q’eqchi’ interpreters, called the police and brought charges of statutory rape against Juan. The fact that the legal age for consent in the state of Texas is 17 seemed to not prevent authorities from pressing charges, likely because of the three individuals involved in the incident, Juan, his partner, and his partner’s father, none of them spoke Spanish. The police, who also did not use Q’eqchi’ interpreters, questioned Juan in Spanish about his relationship with his partner. Juan, who did not speak Spanish very well at all, tried to explain that she was his “wife”, although technically speaking she was legally only his “partner.” It is very common in indigenous Guatemalan cultures for young couples to enter a “union” in which they don’t legally get married–in fact the word “spouse” in Q’eqchi’ sum-aatin (literally “(their/our) word is agreed upon”, or in other words, they have given each other “their word”) doesn’t distinguish whether someone is legally married, only on if a person is committed to another.


Juan explained that they lived together that they lived with “their father.” When Police asked for Juan to elaborate on his relationship with his partner’s father, Juan told police that the man was their “papa,” the Spanish word that literally means “father”, but Juan was using the word in a more “cultural” and less literal sense. Unfortunately, the police didn’t catch the cultural nuance, and interpreted that to mean that both of them were children to the man and that Juan was committing incest.


As the judge asked questions, I also took the liberty of asking the judge to allow me to clarify with the respondent to ensure that I was interpreting accurately. I asked specific questions to make sure I was understanding the situation. I was able to understand quite clearly that Juan was not, in fact, committing incest. It also seemed clear to me that, according to my understanding of the law, Juan was also not committing any crime being in a relationship with his partner, as she was of the age of consent for the state, and they had her father’s permission.


I’m not sure what ended up happening to Juan, whether he was deported or was able to be reunited with his pregnant partner. I don’t how long he ended up being in detention for crimes that he didn’t actually commit. I can imagine that his partner suffered greatly not having him there to support her, and that Juan himself must have felt confused and isolated. It was clear that Juan didn’t understand what had happened to him or why he had been detained, and must have been fearful and worried about what would happen to him.

I wish so much that Juan had had a resource to interpret for him as all of this happened in the first place. If only there had been someone who could help Juan have a voice to explain things the way they really were, someone who could also provide insight on the cultural nuances of the situation. I wish that the school or police would have taken the time and effort to find an appropriate interpreter to make sure they could get all of the necessary information before simply shipping him off to a detention center. And I hope that the work we do will continue to shed a light on these issues, as well as to be a much needed resource upon which anyone—anywhere, anytime—can rely to get an interpreter for indigenous languages.




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