‘We are seen': Giving life to Indigenous languages in rural Nebraska

June 11, 2024, 6 a.m. ·

Wakefield Community Schools, where a community of people speak Mayan languages such as K'iche' or Q'anjob'al. (Photo by Wakefield Community Schools).

When Hector Palala Martinez graduated high school in his home country of Guatemala, he also received his teaching certification. Moving to the highlands of Guatemala to teach at rural schools made him realize he was missing a key part of his curriculum.

His students didn’t speak Spanish, or at least not as fluently as he had expected from students at an elementary age. They spoke Kaqchikel, a dialect of Mayan, an Indigenous language in Central America that survived for thousands of years.

“During my high school, I learned Kaqchikel like a second language, but the purpose was for me to help them to learn Spanish — not to teach them in Kaqchikel,” Palala Martinez said. “They were so smart, they were such good students, but I didn’t have any material in Kaqchikel for them.”

Because of the language disparity, not many of Palala Martinez’s students could pass his class by the standards of the curriculum he was sent out to teach with, he said.

That stuck with him. He felt guilt about the students who wanted to learn but left the classroom with failing grades. When he came to study as a Fulbright scholar at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, he wanted to do right by the students who spoke a marginalized language.

“How can I use what I’m studying to go back and help?” he asked himself.

Hector Palala Martinez
Hector Palala Martinez (Photo courtesy of UNL College of Education and Human Sciences)

it was a personal journey for Palala Martinez, too. He has Mayan heritage but had lost the connection to that part of his background. But through work with an advisor, and after learning more about educational opportunities for students in rural parts of the state, he found Wakefield.

It’s a town of about 1,500 people where Palala Martinez found a concentrated community of Guatemalans who spoke Mayan languages there. Two years ago, he began working with high school students in Wakefield.

His first step was weaving Guatemalan culture into the school, being a face and a voice that students could connect to. In Nebraska, Guatemala is the second-most common country of origin for immigrants to the state, according to the American Immigration Council.

“These languages that are spoken in Wakefield, Mayan languages, are minority languages spoken in Guatemala,” Palala Martinez said. “The students were happy to see someone from their background, their heritage to be with them, to speak Spanish with them.”

But most importantly, Palala Martinez’s presence meant he could advocate for the students who didn't speak English or Spanish. In the school itself, Palala Martinez said there are nearly 50 Mayan language speakers. This year, the school is home to over 500 students.

“I asked (the students) how to let the teachers know that Guatemalans don’t have just one Spanish language,” Palala Martinez said. “And they said, ‘Just let them know.’”

It was important to him that students’ voices would be valued in the future, another driving reason for developing this curriculum.

He began working with a handful of students immediately, asking them to approach their language and culture from a more artistic point of view.

At his suggestion, the students drew what their language looked like to them, how it felt to speak their language and what it meant to be a part of that culture. Some didn’t know how to write the language, so they performed spoken word poetry instead.

“They love the way the poem can be flexible, not have the rules,” Palala Martinez said. “They found freedom in writing two or three words, and then finding the connection to something else.”

He’s using the work of the students this summer to develop a curriculum to be distributed to schools with Mayan populations similar to Wakefield. Somewhere like Fremont, less than 100 miles south of Wakefield.

Palala Martinez is a Ph.D. candidate at UNL’s College of Education and Human Sciences and will be working as a Digital Humanities Summer Fellow at the university. He’s using the students’ stories alongside two other resources: digital material and the Bible.

The Bible won’t be used in a religious context, Palala Martinez said, but in an educational context as a spoken and written resource.

“I want to motivate to learn (the language) because this will take too long,” Palala Martinez said. “But in the meantime, the kids are there. We have the kids right now, in this moment, sitting down in the school, listening to you and they don’t understand what you’re talking about.”

At a meeting of speakers from Omaha and Wakefield, someone began speaking Mayan and everyone understood, a special moment for everyone in the room.

“They felt like, ‘Oh, we are seen. Finally,’” Palala Martinez recalled. “They know we don’t only speak Spanish. That was the breaking point for them to understand how important the Mayan language is.”

Palala Martinez compared the program to revitalization programs for Indigenous languages for Native tribes in the state.

It’s not just keeping these languages preserved, which to Palala Martinez means archiving the language and putting it up on the shelf as a part of history. While that’s important to his project, it’s also important for the language to continue living on.

“The Mayan languages have been surviving for thousands of years,” Palala Martinez said. “It’s important if we can keep one language alive, and we can use technology to make it happen.”