Local Maya immigrants seek services — and visibility — in their indigenous languages More than 20,000 Maya immigrants from Central America call the D.C. region home, according to the International Mayan League.
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Local Maya immigrants seek services — and visibility — in their indigenous languages

El (her Ixil name) shakes hands with Antonio, left, as Geronimo, right, looks on. All were providing translation services (Mayan Ixil to Spanish) at a recent vaccination event in Centreville, Virginia. Tyrone Turner/WAMU/DCist hide caption

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Tyrone Turner/WAMU/DCist

El, an indigenous Maya Ixil immigrant originally from Guatemala, stands with one of her daughters, Gabriela, 7, outside the Labor Resource Center in Centreville, Virginia one Sunday in October. The center had been converted into a temporary COVID vaccination clinic.

El is dressed in traditional clothing, including a bright red skirt with black, white, and yellow vertical stripes, and a multicolored embroidered, short-sleeve huipil, or blouse, with small tassels on the sleeves (We are using only her Ixil name so she can freely discuss her own and her family's immigration status).

Over the past few months, El has been using her language skills to help Maya immigrants in her community get vaccinated. It's a critical service for the estimated 5,000 - 6,000 members of the Maya Ixil Nation who live in Centreville. The Maya Ixil are a group of indigenous people whose ancestral lands are in what is now Guatemala. Many speak Ixil, one of six Mayan languages spoken in the D.C. region.

Geronimo and his fellow interpreters wear a patch representing the Maya Ixil Nation, including the image of a jaguar, which symbolizes strength. Tyrone Turner/WAMU/DCist hide caption

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Tyrone Turner/WAMU/DCist

Young Gabriela looks like a miniature version of her mother.

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"She's only a girl, but she says she wants to be a translator when she's older," El tells DCist/WAMU, beaming with pride.

El has been working as an Ixil-to-Spanish translator in her community for the past two years. Her passion for languages started in Guatemala, where she studied and volunteered to be a bilingual education teacher in Ixil and Spanish.

There are an estimated 25,000 Maya immigrants from Guatemala, southeastern Mexico, and other parts of Central America who call the D.C. region home, according to the International Mayan League, a D.C.-based organization which advocates for the Maya people in the U.S. and internationally. The Maya immigrants in our region are among 21 Maya Nations, or peoples, each with distinct languages and cultures.

One of the Maya Ixil interpreters, Geronimo, talks with people who have just received a COVID vaccination. Tyrone Turner/WAMU/DCist hide caption

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Tyrone Turner/WAMU/DCist

Because of their relatively small numbers and the range of indigenous languages they speak, Maya immigrants in our region are often overlooked or misidentified. They are frequently grouped with local Latino populations and assumed to be Spanish speakers, even though many of the recent arrivals speak only their indigenous language. This can make local Maya an invisible population within an already marginalized group.

Local Maya immigrants who lack Spanish or English language skills face a number of challenges. Many lack access to basic services, including health care and food assistance. Local governments provide translation services in a wide range of languages, including Spanish and Chinese, but the sheer number of distinct indigenous languages and the relatively small number of people who speak them presents a challenge for local jurisdictions. And Fairfax County, like other localities in the region, has seen its language-diverse immigrant communities grow.

The D.C. region's Maya communities were among the first to be counted by the Mayan League, along with indigenous immigrants living in the greater Los Angeles area. Juanita Cabrera Lopez, the league's executive director and a member of the Maya Mam Nation, explains why the League began a community mapping project of local Maya during the pandemic. She says that early on, there was a need for "life-saving information," including health and safety updates. Later on, the Mayan League saw the need to help bridge the language barrier to help the community access vaccines.

"There was a lot of fear and confusion in the community that we work with because there were so many rumors of what was this COVID-19, and what was happening, and what was true and what was false, because we didn't have information in our language," Lopez says.

Juanita Lopez, executive director of the International Mayan League, talks with some of the Maya Ixil translators the League trained and coordinated for the vaccination event. Tyrone Turner/WAMU/DCist hide caption

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Tyrone Turner/WAMU/DCist

Since the early 1990s, the Mayan League has worked with communities of Maya immigrants across the U.S. and internationally to spread awareness of the Maya Nation and combat violations against indigenous peoples' rights. During the pandemic, the League began creating and distributing materials about COVID-19 in six different indigenous languages to Maya peoples in the D.C. region, including to around 15,000 members of the Maya Mam Nation in Arlington and roughly 5,000 members of the Mam Nation in Langley Park, MD.

"The larger problem of erasure and being invisible has been ongoing, but I think what the pandemic has shown across the board in terms of racial disparities and inequalities for communities of color, it has really exacerbated the situation," Lopez says. "So it's really been us...knowing that in some shape we can address the inequalities by our languages, by our culture, by doing culturally informed outreach, by working with trusted community leaders to be the messengers."

Maya life in Centreville

Maya immigrants began coming to the U.S. in the late 1970s and early 1980s during Guatemala's 36-year civil war, which killed an estimated 140,000-200,000 people. About 83% of those killed were Maya, according to a United Nations-backed report by the Commission for Historical Clarification titled, "Guatemala: Memory of Silence."

The majority of those who fled during Guatemala's civil war were of the Maya Mam Nation. More recently, a decade of development-induced displacement from indigenous lands in Guatemala has caused thousands of Maya Ixil immigrants to flee to the U.S. Ernesto Castaneda, a sociology professor at American University (American University holds the license to DCist/WAMU), explains that climate change and poverty are also driving factors for Maya emigrating from Central America to the U.S.

Lopez says she'd like to see local governments hire some of the interpreters the International Mayan League has been training. Tyrone Turner/WAMU/DCist hide caption

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Tyrone Turner/WAMU/DCist

Many of the Maya immigrants who spoke to DCist/WAMU said they came to the D.C. region because they already knew someone living here. As for why they left, several said they wanted to better educate their children and to find better paying jobs. Some also cited gang violence as one of the reasons for leaving.

Education and work opportunities were the driving factors for El, who fled Guatemala in 2016. She says she left so her daughters could get a better education, and she also wanted to be able to send money to her daughters back in Guatemala and to her ex-husband, who lost both his arms in a work accident.

"It's sad my family is separated. My son and daughter live with me, and two of my children are still in Guatemala living with their grandmother." El explains that she has a son and daughter in the U.S., two daughters in Guatemala, and a fourth daughter who is traveling to the U.S.

"I work long hours at the store because I want to make more money. I need to be able to provide for my family in Guatemala and here as well," she says.

El works 11 hours a day at a local grocery store deli counter in Centreville. She arrives home around 7 p.m. to care for her kids. She also sells traditional Maya clothes to the community via Facebook. Her living room has been converted into a sales floor, including racks displaying vibrantly colored Maya Ixil huipiles, women's blouses, skirts, and men's shirts. One day, she'd like to open her own shop to sell the colorful traditional clothing to both her community as well as non-indigenous locals. She already has a name picked out: Shalom, meaning "peace" in Hebrew.

But El shares that her real passion is teaching. She says she might like to work at a local high school helping non-Spanish speaking Maya students learn Spanish and feel more confident in school.

"I see a lot of [Ixil high school] students walking around Centreville playing hooky. I ask them why they aren't in school, and they say it's boring and they don't understand anything that's going on," El says. "It would be great if I could learn English and help those kids who don't speak Spanish or English, and be able to supplement their education."

Some Maya Ixil students drop out of school because of the challenges they face in a system where they can't communicate. Parents, too, often find it difficult to navigate the school system. Because local schools don't currently provide information in indigenous languages like Mayan Ixil, families must rely on the informal translation services of friends or family to help them enroll their children in school and participate in things like parent-teacher conferences.

The challenges extend beyond schools. Recently arrived Maya Ixil immigrants who speak neither English nor Spanish often have a hard time finding work, leaving many to navigate government or community services for things like food assistance and health care. And even those free services can be difficult to find and access because of the language barrier.

Local governments respond

It's estimated there are just over 300,000 immigrants from Central America living in the D.C. region, according to the Migration Policy Institute, based on data drawn from the most recent U.S. Census. But those numbers don't include breakdowns of specific indigenous groups. Since 2010, U.S. Census officials have encouraged indigenous peoples from Central and South America to mark the category of Native American/Alaska Native, which doesn't capture the range of indigenous immigrants from outside the U.S.

"[Lack of data] is a problem because then you don't know how people are doing," Castaneda says.

Fairfax County's community outreach manager Grelia Steele agrees, and says census data on smaller communities "does not get to that granular level that we need. And if I've learned anything from my 10 years in public office it's that we need to have community connection, community insight, and community input to be able to really get to the heart of our community."

Steele's office is in charge of providing translation and other language services to county agencies. Currently, the county translates official government information into Spanish, Korean, Chinese, Vietnamese, Arabic, Farsi and Urdu. The county spends around $2 million for translation services annually.

"The county continues to provide services in multiple languages with support of county contractors, county staff and community partners. Anyone who needs translation and interpretation support in the various dialects and languages will receive the service countywide," Steele said in a statement.

Steele's office is working on expanding the county's translation services, including developing a plan to be presented to the county's board of supervisors at the end of the year. The county will use population and qualitative data from organizations like the Mayan League and from community leaders to determine what other languages are spoken in the county, and what resources are needed.

This makes the Mayan League's recent estimate of the Maya population especially critical in helping local governments assess the needs of local indigenous communities. Fairfax County's health department recently partnered with the Mayan League at the vaccine event in Centreville. The League provided the Mayan Ixil translation services, paying the interpreters a stipend through a grant the League received.

Lopez (4th from left), stands with the Maya Ixil community members who helped translate at the vaccine event. Tyrone Turner/WAMU/DCist hide caption

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Tyrone Turner/WAMU/DCist

"We're currently working on adding additional data tools that tell us about other languages that are spoken in the county that perhaps are not captured on our census data," Steele says. "We understand that our community has different needs. And in order to understand those needs and to be able to accommodate those needs...it is very important for the services that we have to be coupled with cultural competency to respect cultures."

Most local governments limit language services to those that are more widely spoken. In Prince George's County, Spanish is the only official language recognized other than English is Spanish, the only population that meets the 5% threshold in the county. Last year the county council amended a previous law and now requires county agencies to provide other language translation services when requested.

Training local interpreters

For now, the International Mayan League is stepping up to fill in some of the gaps. The organization is training interpreters from the local Maya communities and providing translation services to Maya immigrants across the region. El is one of those interpreters, helping Ixil people in her community enroll students in school, attend court hearings, and access COVID vaccines at local clinics.

"I decided to be an interpreter because I saw the need in my community for those that don't speak English and who have lost opportunities because Spanish is difficult for them," El says.

For her part, Lopez says she'd like to see local governments hire the Mayan interpreters the Mayan League has been training. Lopez says she's looking to meet with county officials to help them understand where the needs and gaps are in county services, including how to make up for the lack of data. She'd also like to educate them on culturally appropriate ways to reach out to the indigenous community.

"All of this has been an ongoing educational process in the middle of a pandemic, in the middle of communities experiencing multiple crises," Lopez says.

The Mayan League is also meeting with Fairfax County public school officials to educate them on the needs of Maya Ixil students.

Lopez says Montgomery County has done the most planning in terms of welcoming unaccompanied Maya immigrant minors.

"A lot of it is because we've been educating the [Montgomery County] councilmembers, and they've been listening," Lopez says. "But there isn't a region wide strategy [to welcome unaccompanied minors] in terms of the different counties working together."

Lopez adds that when counties develop plans to accommodate Maya and other indigenous immigrants, they often don't incorporate those communities in the planning from the beginning of the process.

"If you want structural change to really address the needs of the community, the community should also be part of your staff," she says.

For now, El's language skills are being put to use in her community on a part-time basis. In the next year or so, she's hoping to become a U.S. citizen and bring the rest of her family to the U.S.

"It's going to take a minimum of a year, and it's $500 for each of our applications," El says, but she's willing to work for it.

"We are fighters, and we come here ready to work and take whatever is given to us."

This story is from DCist.com, the local news site of WAMU.

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