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As the Guatemalan community in Georgia grows, so does the need for interpreters of indigenous languages.
“There’s a huge need,” says Elias Alonzo, one of the few court certified interpreters of two Mayan indigenous languages in Georgia
The Guatemalan population in Georgia has almost doubled to over 68,000 in the last decade, and yet, finding language support for its growing indigenenous language speaking communities remains a challenge in the state.
“There’s definitely a huge need…especially in areas with large Guatemalan populations, like Chamblee, Doraville, and Canton in Cherokee County…whenever they go to court for something that they have to resolve - the Mayan population does not have access to interpreters,” said Elias Alonzo, an interpreter of the Chuj and Q’anjob’al Mayan languages, co-founder of Fundacion Adelante Guatemala, and Director of Development of the Ixtantan Foundation.
Forty percent of Guatemala’s population is indigenous, the majority of them Mayan. Many Guatemalans who end up migrating to the Georgia, and other states in the U.S., to escape the difficult and discriminatory conditions they often face back home, are also Mayan. And Spanish isn’t their native tongue. Over 20 different languages are represented in Guatemalan indigenous communities, and even within one of those languages, there are different dialects spoken by different communities that are not mutually intelligible to each other, according to Dr. Alan LeBaron, co-founder of the Mayan Heritage Project at Kennesaw University.
“I’ve had cases where people send us a note and say, do you have a Mayan interpreter? I’ve had to explain there is no such thing as a Mayan speaker, per se. If they want a Mam [widely spoken Mayan language] speaker, we would say, where are they from? What town?” said Dr. Lebaron.
And beyond the sheer language diversity, there are other obstacles.
As a teenager, Elias would often interpret for his family and close friends living in the Atlanta area. But it’s when community members came up against the legal system that the need for official interpreters became clear. Young people who grew up speaking a Mayan languages at home, and who often act as interpreters for their parents, can’t do that in court if they don’t have legal residency here.
“I know people who speak English well…but they don’t have papers to be able to travel and go to court and get the clearances they need…for legal interpretation, especially with the court, there’s no way we can work through that,” he said.
A spokesperson from the Dekalb County Courthouse said that they didn’t receive requests for interpretation in indigneous languages often, and if they did, they reached out to one of several language service companies to identify one.
Translation Station, based in Atlanta, is one of those companies. Since 2015, the company has received 102 interpretation requests for indigenous languages, most of which have been for courts in Georgia, but some of which have been for other states like Arizona and Kentucky, according to the company's CEO Lindsey Cambardella.
But Elias thinks the true needs aren’t being reflected in official data. Many people of indigenous heritage are ashamed of their identity, carrying over the stigma their communities faced back home, and they don’t always admit to authorities that they're not proficient in Spanish and need an interpreter.
Elias can relate to that feeling of shame. He’s from the Chuj community - an indigenous Mayan group from the highlands of Northern Guatemala. When he crossed the border into the U.S. and moved to Georgia as a 16-year old, he didn’t tell anyone about his Mayan heritage. Instead, he did what his parents had always taught him was essential to his survival - he spoke Spanish, quickly learned English, and did his best to integrate with the Latino and larger American community in his new home.
His parents never championed learning Mayan languages, he said. “They didn’t want us to go through the same hardships they went through of being excluded and discriminated against. I remember my parents telling me you have to learn Spanish, you have to go to school, so that you can have a better future.”
People take part in a Mayan ceremony commemorating the International Day of the World's Indigenous Peoples, at the archaeological site of Kaminal Juyu, in Guatemala City on August 9, 2022. Photo Credit: Johan ORDONEZ / AFP via Getty Images
Today, Elias is one of the few official interpreters who can translate between Chuj, Q’anjob’al, English, and Spanish for the courts. But his career as an interpreter didn’t begin until he was deported back to Guatemala, and directly engaged with his Mayan heritage. “I went back to school to learn to write and read the Mayan languages and learn about the Mayan history… I realized that this is nothing to be ashamed of. That this is something that actually makes me and my community so much richer.”
In 2014, he had been working for a local nonprofit in Guatemala, when he said he received an email from the state of Oregon. An attorney needed Elias’s help on a case. He hadn’t realized that his clients spoke Chuj, not Spanish, and they had mistakenly pleaded guilty to a crime that had led to a 25 year prison sentence. Elias interpreted for the clients over videoconference - and the case was retried.
Since that first case, his work as an interpreter took off. In 2018, Elias managed to secure a visa to the U.S., and once here, began to travel around the country, to provide interpretation in Chuj and Q'anjob'al in legal proceedings. And when there’s a need for another indigeneous language - he’s able to tap into his network in Guatemala to find the person for the job.
Most of Elias’s interpretation jobs are outside of the state, despite Georgia’s large and growing Guatemalan community. "There's a huge population, in part of Gainesville...hundreds of people there. And some of them have been deported because they've gotten two or three DUIs, things like that," he said.
He thinks the local courts are partly to blame. “They don't work hard to find out if there's an interpreter available, like in the state of Oregon, where they will fly in those interpreters when they know they're not local. But Georgia doesn't….here there’s no effort. If people say they’re indigenous and that they understand some Spanish or basic Spanish, they'll just default to that.”
“This is a right that people have, it's not an inconvenience,” said Elias.