Mayan Interpreters Serve Language and Cultural Needs in Omaha's Guatemalan Community

Aug. 23, 2013, 6:30 a.m. ·

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Nebraska’s Latino population continues to grow, but not all of that diverse group can benefit from services offered in Spanish. In Omaha, one group has started to train interpreters for a small community of Guatemalans who speak a unique and uncommon language.

In a classroom at Bellevue University, Professor Daniel Caño Domingo holds forth in front his small, but rapt, audience. He’s explaining different forms of address between Spanish and Mayan languages spoken by indigenous people in northern Central America.

But this is no college class. A Mayan himself, the Guatemalan professor has traveled to Nebraska to deliver a few sessions on interpreting between the languages at the Nebraska Association for Translators and Interpreters (NATI) conference.

Guatemala is one of the most culturally and linguistically diverse countries in Latin America. Many Guatemalans predominately speak one of 23 officially recognized centuries-old Mayan languages. Guatemala’s three decade-long internal armed conflict and genocide of thousands of indigenous Mayans resulted in a large-scale out migration in the 1980s and 90s, including to the U.S. Many of those Mayans immigrants—most of whom are undocumented--don’t speak Spanish, or not much.

Professor Daniel Cano Domingo explains some Mayan spiritual beliefs to conference attendees before the Maya prayer ceremony begins. (Photo by Ariana Brocious, NET News)

Professor Caño says given that legal status, they might need legal or health services. If both sides don’t speak a common language, the role of the interpreter is fundamental. And an interpreter who knows a Mayan language is very rare.

NATI conference organizer Janet Bonet says Nebraska—particularly Lincoln and Omaha—actually has broad linguistic diversity because of immigrant and refugee populations, despite the fact “people don’t often think of Nebraska as a place where what we might call exotic cultures might come.”

A professional translator and interpreter, Bonet became aware of the need for Mayan language interpretation about 15 years ago when the court assumed one client spoke Spanish.

“He looked at me, was very polite, nodded his head continually, everybody thought he was understanding, and he was silent when the end of the question came, and he was to respond,” Bonet said.

In subsequent years, she’s seen the need for Mayan interpretation slowly grow. Bonet said this year’s conference offered training specifically on interpreting Mayan languages to help professionalize Mayan interpreters, who may be doing informal translation for people in the community.

“Part of our job is to help them learn that when they’re interpreting in court, they’re role is to be an interpreter, not someone’s advisor, advocate, counselor,” Bonet said.

The Mayan interpreters in training are part of Comunidad Maya Pixan Ixim—an Omaha nonprofit founded by Mayans in 2007 with the goal of strengthening the local Maya community through education, faith, health, arts and culture.

The need for Mayan translators in Nebraska’s courts isn’t great, and is less than other immigrant languages like Burmese or Vietnamese. According to Nebraska State Interpreter Coordinator Adriana Hinojosa, there’s a request for a Mayan interpreter less than once a month in Douglas County. Even still, two Mayan interpreters are going through the court certification process now, and she hopes to recruit a few more in September.

Data from the 2010 Census compiled by the Pew Hispanic Center on the distribution of Guatemalans living in Nebraska. Not all Guatemalans are Mayan, but Pixan Ixim estimates that about three-quarters of those living in Omaha are Mayan. (see full interactive map here)

There’s also demand in the medical field. Pixan Ixim Board president Franco Gaspar says that’s what they’ve been focusing on lately, “because a lot of people don’t speak Spanish, they don’t even read and write in Spanish, so they have very hard time to express theirself, especially when they go to the clinic.”

Less than one percent of patients at Omaha’s One World Clinic, which serves minority communities, identify themselves as primarily speaking a Mayan language. But last year, 25 sessions required the use of a Mayan interpreter.

Pixan Ixim focuses on the Mayan language Q’anjob’al because they estimate about three-quarters of the roughly 2,000 Mayans in Omaha speak it. Much of the group is from the same region of Guatemala, and those connections can be an important draw for newcomers. There are similar sized Guatemalan populations in Grand Island and Lexington. Pixan Ixim member Luis Marcos said he thinks one reason so many Mayans live in Omaha is because it’s welcoming.

“As a Maya community we’ve been received with open arms here in the Omaha area. From the religious institutions to educational institutions to hospitals,” Marcos said.

Lucia Francisco is one of Pixan Ixim’s interpreters. She also teaches written Q’anjob’al to children, and said she wants her students to be able to interpret in three languages—Spanish, English and Q’anjob’al. A Guatemala native, she said it’s not just about the need in courts or clinics, though.

Francisco said she doesn’t want the young kids to lose their culture even though they’re no longer in their home country. Other Mayans, like Juanatano Caño agree, and said remembering their cultural roots is especially important for the younger generations, who have started to lose their native language as they acculturate. Caño has been in the U.S. since 1988 and lives in LA.

“The Mayan language is unique, it’s our own, it’s our first one. Speaking my own language is just another way to connect with myself, to connect with the world,” Caño said.

Mayan elders pray in Q'anjob'al, a Mayan language, in a ceremony at Creighton University. (Photo by Ariana Brocious, NET News)

Cicadas buzz loudly overhead as four Mayan leaders carefully prepare a sacred fire, laying elements like sugar, wood chips, alcohol, and incense in a large metal basin to be burned as offerings to God. They’re conducting a Mayan prayer ceremony, organized by Pixan Ixim as part of a

weekend conference

in Omaha celebrating indigenous cultures and discussing issues like immigration and human rights.

Maya elders in brightly-colored traditional dress conducted the ceremony largely in Q’anjob’al, praying aloud in the four cardinal directions. Pixan Ixim conference organizer Luis Marcos says speaking Q’anjob’al is an important way to honor their culture and share it with others.

“The language of our ancestors embeds the philosophical understanding of our people. I don’t want to look at it as a need, I want to look at it as a gift that we bring to contemporary society,” Marcos said.

By training translators, Marcos hopes the larger Omaha community will be able to learn from and appreciate their culture too.

Hear more of the Mayan prayer ceremony in q'anjob'al: