Wanted: Speakers Of Mayan Languages, Many Of Them : Code Switch As immigration to the U.S. shifts from Mexico to Central America, more Mayan speakers find themselves stuck without translators in the court system.

Wanted: Speakers Of Mayan Languages, Many Of Them

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/456217917/456395517" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

(Speaking K'iche'). That means how are you in the Mayan language of K'iche'. Mayan languages are still spoken by millions in Central America and a growing number in the U.S. But there is a shortage of interpreters and the few who are available are in constant demand. NPR's Jasmine Garsd reports.

JASMINE GARSD, BYLINE: On a weekday morning in an upscale part of Arlington, Va., the suburban silence is as thick as the foliage - a leaf blower here and there, an occasional car. In one of the homes, a tiny, stocky woman named Sheba Velasco is thinking of snacks for the children. She's their nanny. It's another day in suburbia and then the phone rings.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE RINGING)

SHEBA VELASCO: Hello?

GARSD: Thousands of miles to the west, it's very early in the morning and a young man has been caught trying to cross the U.S.-Mexico border.

VELASCO: First of all, may I ask if he's from Nebaj? He does speak Ixil.

GARSD: The young man is from her hometown, Nebaj, Guatemala. And he does speak Ixil, the same Mayan language she does. Sheba already works as an interpreter for the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian, but also for immigration courts. She's one of the few Ixil interpreters in the U.S.

VELASCO: (Foreign language spoken).

GARSD: Sheba asks if he's allergic. He's not. She later tells me he sounded like a boy and he was scared. She told him to calm down. Calls like this didn't used to happen that often. These days...

VELASCO: Like, six to 10 calls a week. Mostly are young kids that cross in the water; some of them are ill, sick or the immigration have them.

GARSD: In school, you might have learned that the Mayan Empire collapsed mysteriously around the ninth century and that's true. Archaeologists believe it might have been a drought or a plague.

SERGIO ROMERO: But there are still descendants of those people alive today.

GARSD: And around six million of them speak the languages in Guatemala, Belize and southern Mexico, says professor Sergio Romero. He teaches Mayan languages at the University of Texas. He specializes in three languages, but there are over 30. That's one of the reasons for the shortage in interpreters. Romero tells me when he's not grading papers or planning lessons, he's taking calls from detention centers and courts.

ROMERO: A lot of these people will be perfectly capable of, you know, purchasing, you know, beans or tortillas or beer at a store in Spanish, but then engaging the police or working with a lawyer or declaring before a judge is not something they will be able to do.

GARSD: There are other reasons for the shortage in interpreters. Not a lot of universities teach Mayan languages. Tulane offers K'iche' and Kaqchikel. North Carolina University offers Yucatec Maya. But what about Mayan speakers already in the US. Can't they help? These are languages that immigrants are not always proud to speak. There is so much racism against indigenous people in Latin America. Sometimes these languages get dropped at the border, or even before that.

HILDA VELAZQUEZ: (Foreign language spoken).

GARSD: It's a sunny day in Austin, Texas, and in the dark living room of shelter, Hilda Velazquez is wrapping up a conversation with her sister in a Mayan language called Mam. Her son, Jayro Velazquez, is 9. He tells me speaking that language got him in a lot of trouble back when he started grade school in Guatemala.

JAYRO VELAZQUEZ: (Foreign language spoken).

GARSD: "They said that language is made up. Your mother speaks an ugly language. And I would listen to her and I would think I don't think it's an ugly language."

JAYRO: (Foreign language spoken).

GARSD: But Hilda still refused to speak it. And now he says he doesn't remember. He and his mom have been in Texas for about a year. After some prodding, he tells me there is one phrase in Man, an inside joke of sorts, between him and his mother.

JAYRO: (Foreign language spoken).

GARSD: It's a very important phrase to know if you're a cuddly 9-year-old boy.

JAYRO: (Foreign language spoken).

GARSD: It means scratch my back.

VELAZQUEZ: (Laughter, speaking Spanish).

GARSD: And I scratch his back, Hilda tells me in Spanish. Jasmine Garsd, NPR News, Austin, Texas.

Copyright © 2015 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.