Ancient Mayan languages are creating problems for today’s immigration courts

A Mayan language interpreter, meets with Vinicio Nicolas, 15, outside the federal immigration court in Anaheim before Vinicio's asylum hearing. Vinicio speaks Kanjobal, the language used in his village in the highlands of Guatemala

A Mayan language interpreter, meets with Vinicio Nicolas, 15, outside the federal immigration court in Anaheim before Vinicio’s asylum hearing. Vinicio ONLY speaks Kanjobal, the language used in his village in the highlands of Guatemala

With the stakes so high, he wanted someone who spoke his native tongue. He had arrived in the U.S. just eight months before, and his English wasn’t good. But neither was his Spanish.

The language the 15-year-old needed an interpreter to wrestle with — for the sake of his future — was an ancient Mayan one called Q’anjob’al, or Kanjobal.

Before entering an asylum office in Anaheim, interpreter Aldo Waykam asked Vinicio how he was feeling: “Tzet x’i a kul?”

Watx,” the teenager replied. Good.

Spoken by almost 80,000 people in mostly rural municipalities in Huehuetenango, Guatemala, Kanjobal is common in places like Santa Eulalia — where Vinicio grew up — but rare everywhere else.

Mam, a Mayan language spoken by more than 500,000 people in Guatemala, ranked ninth in the top 10 languages spoken in U.S. immigration court last fiscal year. Quiché ranked 11th. Both surpassed French, according to the Department of Justice Executive Office for Immigration Review.

Five years ago, Quiché and Mam didn’t even break the top 25 languages spoken in immigration court.

Like most Mayan language interpreters, Matias does what’s called “relay interpreting.” That means another interpreter provides the English-to-Spanish translation while Matias translates from Spanish to Mam.

Although he speaks English reasonably well, he said he doesn’t feel comfortable enough to provide direct English-to-Mam interpretation.

“It has to be a perfect translation, and we’re talking about someone’s life on the line, including that person’s family,” he said.

Matias is a naturalized U.S. citizen (yet can barely speak English himself), but others who could do translation are in the country illegally and don’t want to get near immigration court. At times, the interpreter is working from a remote spot in Guatemala with spotty phone service.

L.A. Times Story

Read the comments

  • I thought the Mayans were all dead? Or is that Incas?

    • A lot of languages one thinks are dead are not.

    • Alain

      No, only their empires and civilisations are dead.

    • Ancient Mayan language and culture are dead — contrary to popular belief they died out some 600 years before Columbus and the Europeans landed (Mel Gibson’s movie “Apocalypto” is an excellent dramatic depiction but Gibson was wrong on that critical historical point. The writer of the L.A. Times article is likewise wrong as is Wikipedia). No one today speaks ancient/classic Maya or practices the culture — the surviving languages and cultures are all modern Mayan. Archaeologists and linguists have only recently begun to decode the codices and hieroglyphs of the ancient Maya.

      When Columbus landed, the ancient temples and the cities of the Maya were covered with jungle and for the most part were mounds of dirt until Archaeologists started excavating. The local modern Maya didn’t have a clue what the ruins signified. Six centuries is a long time. Mam, Quiché, etc. are all modern Mayan languages — the written form of the language was actually developed by Catholic missionaries.

  • tom_billesley

    How about an asylum seeker that insists on speaking Klingon? Would they be silly enough to seek to hire an interpreter?

    • Dana Garcia

      Assimilation prospects (e.g. eventually learning English) look dim when you consider the Spanish arrived in Mexico 500 years ago yet many of the indigenous don’t speak Spanish at all.

      • I think it’s fascinating that people latch onto rare languages.

        They still have to pay for their own interpreters, though.

        • Alain

          Not in Canada where we the tax payers pay for the interpreters.

          • This is why there should be a time limit on hearings.

            One can find a French translator in a flash.

            A Mayan one?

            That can take some time.

          • Kathy Prendergast

            Can’t they learn some rudimentary English while they’re waiting?

          • Oh, heaven forbid!

            Leftists want a serf class, hence the multi-lingual services that we pay for.

          • I dated a pure-blood Maya-Mam lady for a summer when I was in U. Since my major was anthro we had plenty of interesting discussion. She told me that most of the Guatemalan refugees in Canada were not refugees — they were gaming the system. After all, the civil wars in that region were already long gone.

          • Interesting.

          • Dana Garcia

            Immigration is such a scam — admit backward tribes and then pay for their special services.

            In California, interpreters for the Superior Court get $6K/month.


      • Kathy Prendergast

        Some Canadian aboriginals still don’t speak English or French, but they are mostly older and live in very remote places.

        • Same thing with Central American Indigenous peoples — there are only a handful of the elderly living in remote villages who don’t speak Spanish.

    • I found that dubious too — modern Maya all speak Spanish as well as their modern dialects. The ancient Maya and their languages died out c.900 a.d.

    • Kathy Prendergast

      He probably speaks and understands more Spanish and/or English than he claims to. Like criminals, illegals know that can give them advantage. Just another way of playing the system so they eventaully get what they want.

  • Liberal Progressive

    This only proves that we need much more immigration to provide translators for all the world’s languages… for all those coming here claiming refugee status!

    And those translators are also needed to be hired to work in all government, welfare and public housing offices as well as hospitals so we can accomodate the language needs of those who get to our shores without imposing on them the hegemonic colonialist English language!