Mayan translators and interpreters are needed in the U.S. right now as those caught trying to cross the border between Mexico and the United States speak not only Spanish but also other Native American languages.
One case in point that illustrates this is the story related by Sheba Velasco, who works as a nanny in Arlington, Virginia. One time she received a phone call, requesting for her assistance as a young man was caught trying to cross the border. The young man was from Nebaj, Guatemala and only speaks Ixil, a Mayan language that Velasco speaks. Aside from being a nanny, Velasco is also an interpreter for the National Museum of the American Indian of the Smithsonian Institute and is one of the very few interpreters in the U.S. for the Ixil language. Velasco said that calls for her services used to be rare but it is increasing now, adding that she normally gets 6 to 10 calls a week. Her help is usually sought to talk with children who crossed the water and got sick or suffering from an illness that required medical attention or were caught by immigration authorities.
University of Texas professor Sergio Romero said that even if the Mayan empire had disappeared, there are many Mayan descendants who are still living. Romero teaches three Mayan languages at the university. He said that there are about six million people of Mayan descent who speak about 30 languages.
Romero added that the largest group of immigrants coming to the U.S. today come from Central America, and while Spanish is still dominant, more Mayan speakers are coming and the lack of interpreters is now brought into focus. Romero himself has been called many times to act as interpreter in the courts and detention centers. According to him, although these people also speak Spanish and could manage to purchase items from a store in the language, the situation is different when they are communicating with a lawyer, a judge or the police where they need to fully explain their circumstances.
Supply versus demand
The demand is increasing while the supply of Mayan language interpreters is stagnant. For one thing, there are only a few universities that offer Mayan language instructions. Yucatec Maya is offered at University of North Carolina while Kaqchikel and K’iche’ are offered at Tulane University. While there may be fluent speakers of Mayan languages in the U.S. Romero explained that immigrants do not want to speak their native language.
He added that in Guatemala, speaking an indigenous language correlates to being poor. In 1990, the country created the Guatemalan Mayan Languages Academy and while there was an indigenous pride movement as well, the reality is that discrimination against indigenous people was rampant and they were subjected to verbal and physical abuse. When they manage to reach the United States, they opt to only speak Spanish and forget their mother tongue.