A new generation of Oakland-raised Maya are working to give their communities a voice in their native tongues.
Over 6 million people across Mexico and Central America — including diaspora communities here in the United States — speak one of 30 different Mayan languages. Today, East Oakland is home to several thousand speakers of Mam — a Mayan language indigenous to Guatemala.
For migrants who don’t speak Spanish, there’s a language barrier when trying to access social services in the Bay Area. So, many rely on interpreters to communicate with teachers, doctors, and lawyers.
22-year-old Oswaldo Martín is one of those interpreters. He’s part of a new generation of home-grown Oaklanders working to give their communities a voice in their native tongue.
Every day Oswaldo alternates between English, Spanish, and Mam — one of more than 22 officially recognized Mayan languages spoken in Guatemala.
For the last three years, he’s been working as an interpreter to help pay his way through community college. Oswaldo helps attorneys communicate with Mam speakers, including asylum seekers.
Bridging two languages
Since he left his hometown in Todos Santos Cuchumatan, Guatemala, at the age of four, and was raised by his parents in East Oakland, Oswaldo didn’t know the harsh realities that his community faced back home.
But that changed when he got hired by a Berkeley law firm to help attorneys work with asylum seekers.
“Before I got into [interpreting], I didn’t really think much about it. I just thought, they’re going to talk to a lawyer and then they’re going to sign some paperwork,” he says. “Listening to their stories, I started to realize all of the things happening to our community, from gang violence, domestic violence, and discrimination.”
What started off as just a job became much more personal for him. Oswaldo wants to help Mam speakers tell their story in their own language, so that they have a fair chance in the court system. He says it’s important that Mam is given respect in the courts and at large.
That’s why he makes it a point to tell people that Mam is not a dialect. It’s a Mayan language — and it’s completely separate from Spanish.
Before local courts understood the distinction between Mayan languages and Spanish, courts would sometimes assign Spanish-language interpreters for Mam speakers.
But awareness has grown.
In 2016, the Department of Justice reported that Mam was one of the top 10 languages used in immigration court.
Over the past three years the Alameda County Superior Court — which deals with civil, criminal, and traffic law — has also been getting increasingly frequent requests for Mam interpreters.
Finding people with those skills hasn’t been so easy.
“We need more indigenous interpreters and not just interpreters who can do Mam in Spanish,” Oswaldo says.
To make do with the shortage of trained interpreters, courts often hire a Mam speaker to translate to Spanish — and then a second person to relay Spanish into English.
But doing it this way — with two different people, and three different languages — is a game of telephone where words can get lost in translation.
“The most valuable [interpreters] at the moment are the ones who can do Mam straight to English,” says Oswaldo.
But until recently, there weren’t many trained Mam-to-English interpreters available.
But he, and other English-speaking Mam millennials who migrated to the U.S. as children, have now come of age. They’re bridging this language gap.
Court interpreting — in real time
On a Tuesday afternoon, Oswaldo is working a job for the Superior Court of Richmond. He’s dressed up in a button-down shirt and a sleek black tie. Over that, he wears a striped camisa, a shirt traditional to his hometown of Todos Santos. It has a large collar and cuffs which are colorfully embroidered with blue, yellow, and green flowers, making him stand out. That’s his goal. He says he wants his indigenous culture to be seen.
When he showed up today, Oswaldo had no idea what kind of hearing this would be or who he would be interpreting for. That’s usually the case, and it means he has to be prepared for everything.
Today, he’s interpreting for a man charged with murder.
Since his client is in custody, Oswaldo can only communicate through the small openings in the wall between the courtroom and its holding cell. Think the space between prison bars, but smaller.
This makes it very hard for both of them to hear each other on top of the required multitasking. Oswaldo has to listen to what the judges says in English, remember it, and relay it back in Mam. All in real time.
The trial ends and Oswaldo looks tired. But his work isn’t done.
Outside the courthouse he finds the other Mam interpreter on the trial to ask how she said the phrase “waive your rights” in Mam. He’s doing research for a manual he’s creating to standardize the language Mam interpreters are using in the courts.
The manual is a big undertaking since there are no direct translations in Mam for legal terminology. He says it’s challenging since Mam is a language full of idioms, many of which are based on agriculture or anatomy.
“Sometimes it means bringing back old words,” Oswaldo says. “Words that our grandparents may have used and giving them a new context.”
So on Saturdays, he and a small group of interpreters gather at the offices of a local nonprofit called Asociacion Mayab, to come up with Mam equivalencies for legal jargon such as bond.
Training to be a court interpreter
Many of these bilingual Mayan speakers also come to Mayab for a 12-week class in how to become legal and medical interpreters.
Although Oswaldo is already trained to work in the courts, he attends the weekly class to practice his skills and meet other Mayan language interpreters who speak K’iche, Tzeltal, and Yucateco.
Since every Mayan language is so distinct from one another, the class is taught in Spanish — a common tongue among the class. It’s taught by Naomi Adelson, who is a certified interpreter for the Superior Court of California.
Besides teaching her students how to ethically and responsibly interpret in the courts and medical offices, she gives them a crash course on legal terminology. She breaks down jargon that her students will encounter in the courts, such as what an arraignment is.
It takes years to really master interpreting skills, so many of Naomi’s students return to her class even after completing the training. They also come back because they feel it’s a safe space to discuss the emotional struggles they experience on the job.
Some re-live their own trauma during interpreting jobs. In addition to coping with the emotional intensity, Oswaldo has had to learn how to swallow his feelings of frustration when his clients don’t win their requests for asylum
“Sometimes cases just come down to a single word or a signal phrase,’ says Oswaldo. Sometimes I just want to yell out like what the officer wants to hear to help the person out.”
But he doesn’t. If his client’s testimony of why they are fleeing their home doesn’t fit what the law considers as ‘credible fear’ and thus worthy of protection, Oswaldo says he can’t do anything about it. He is simply the bridge between two languages.
Livin’ in aldea Fruitvale
Oswaldo is determined to pursue civil or environmental engineering so, working as an interpreter will not be his profession forever.
In the meantime, he’s taking on the ambitious project of creating a Mam legal glossary and court interpreter handbook to empower other bilingual Mam people to become interpreters.
He hopes the project can also inform government agencies how to better serve Mam refugees.
In addition to this job and attending college, he’s also helping his family’s construction business, and working on his own creative projects. Oswaldo says all these endeavors are about uplifting his growing community right here in Oakland.
“There’s so many Mam people here. You see them walking all down Fruitvale. You can’t take a step without seeing one,” he says.
Back in Guatemala, people call different neighborhoods “aldeas,” he says. So Oswaldo affectionately calls his adoptive home in Fruitvale, “aldea Fruitvale.”
A tight-knit community where Mam Maya migrants are each others’ greatest advocates.
This post was modified from the original to clarify that Oswaldo Martín was referring to federal courts, not Oakland courts, where people are waiting years for their cases to be settled.