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Oklenj te qyol toj tkyaqil tnam: A conversation about language rights with a Maya interpreter

Katherine Becker interviews Ana Victoria Gómez Lucas, Mam interpreter from Guatemala, about what language rights mean to her, hoping to emphasize the importance of celebrating and protecting Indigenous languages and communities.

Katie: Good morning, Ana. Thank you for taking the time to speak with me about language rights, looking particularly at the context of the Mam language in Guatemala and in migration. To begin, can you share a little bit about yourself?

Ana: My name is Ana Victoria Gómez Lucas. I’m from the town of San Juan Ostuncalco in the department of Quetzaltenango in Guatemala. I speak Mam, my mother tongue. Mam is the first language that we learn here in San Juan Ostuncalco. Our Mam language is understandable to speakers of Mam from Cajolá, San Miguel, San Juan, Concepción Chiquirichapa, and San Martín Sacatepéquez. We can partially understand the Mam spoken in San Marcos, Huehuetenango, and the rest of Quetzaltenango.

Katie: Thank you for that explanation. What do you do for work, Ana?

Ana: Right now, I am working as a teacher with students from universities in the United States studying the Indigenous languages of Guatemala. I teach them Mam. We start with vowels, the alphabet, and then learn how to make sentences and have conversations.

I also volunteer here in the community helping children when they begin going to school. I help reinforce what they’re learning in class and through their homework, explaining the content to them in Mam because some children don’t completely understand Spanish. I also help a group of between ten and fifteen local women. I have enjoyed helping them in Mam and sometimes in Spanish. I feel happy. I help the community, especially mothers and their children. I will help anyone nearby who needs help.

Katie: And are you also studying?

Ana: Yes. Right now, I’m in my fourth semester at the University of San Carlos. I am working on a bilingual teaching degree in Spanish and English. I hope to graduate with my bachelor’s degree in education.

Katie: As you mentioned, you speak the Mam language. It is possible that people who are reading this article may have never heard your language before. Can you teach us some basic greetings?

Ana: I would be happy to. I am going to share some phrases and I will translate them into Spanish. They are commonly used phrases that you might hear in any market, commercial center, plaza, or other location.

B’a’ntz q’ij (Good morning)

B’a’ntz q’ij se’n taya? (Good morning, how are you?).

Awe nb’i Ana Victoria Gómez Lucas (My name is Ana Victoria Gómez Lucas)

In chin aq’unane te xnaq’tzb’il te toj qyol (I am a Mam teacher)

Je’k tzun s’en taya ma b’an taya ma qa nya? (Hello, how are you? Are you doing well, or not well?)

Je’k tzun titzun tb’iya ex titzun in tb’inchana? (Hello, what is your name and what are you doing?)

To hear Ana say these phrases in Mam, click here.

Katie: Thank you, Ana. That’s beautiful.

You also informally teach children in your community. You help them learn to speak, write, and read in Mam, and you help translate their homework between Spanish and Mam. Can you tell us a little about this experience as a community leader?

Ana: Children here in the community trust me, so they come to ask for help or support. I feel happy because the children trust me, and that’s the most important point, right? They show me trust when they come to me with their homework and tell me, for example, about their math homework, “the teacher said that it’s multiplied by five but I don’t understand.” I start telling them in Mam that “multiplied by five” is jwe’ maj. I tell them the numbers in Mam and explain the errors they made in Spanish. Maybe in school, they tell them this in Spanish, but the children don’t understand. So I tell them in Mam, “nya, nya b’a’n, juntl maj” (“no, that’s not correct, try again”).

And I help them learn to read in Mam. Their schools do offer courses in Mam, but unfortunately, the schools simply implemented the course without training the teachers. So the teachers do what they can to teach it, but then I reinforce it for the students here in my house, because I have that ability.

Katie: Does it often happen that a student might speak Mam at home and, when the student goes to school, the teacher speaks to them in Spanish but they don’t understand?

Ana: Yes. Because here, in families and in our community, we learn Mam, and we go to school to learn Spanish. That’s the process of Hispanicization, that’s how it is referred to in Guatemala. But now they want to eliminate the word Hispanicization and instead use bilingualism. That refers to a bilingual person who speaks Spanish and Mam or another language.

But there’s a serious error here in Guatemala because the government simply implemented the Mam course without training the teachers to teach it. There are books, and there are all sorts of materials, but there’s not a good mastery of the content. Each teacher does what they can but not what should be done. So what I do is teach the students the pronunciation of each letter, each vowel, so that they are able to learn little by little.

Katie: And you don’t just teach children from your community but you also teach people, like me, from other countries. What is it like teaching your language to people from other places?

Ana: For me, it has been a beautiful experience because previously I had this mentality that I should get a job in government, have a stable salary, and be able to meet my needs. But sadly, that’s not how things work in Guatemala. So, I had to look for other employment and I started to work with students from the United States since I had a bilingual degree and had the possibility and capacity to teach.

I feel happy because I have made major progress with my students. I see that I have been able to develop, and I have enjoyed sharing my language with others. I have enjoyed that very much. And I have many former students who were able to learn basic greetings.

Katie: Why do your students decide to learn Mam?

Ana: For half of the students I’ve had, it’s assigned by their university. They focus on literature and things like that.

In the other half of cases, they are more focused on health or migration, because of what we are experiencing here in Guatemala. I have had many immigration lawyers who are most interested, as far as I’ve seen, in learning to ask questions. They want to know how to ask, for instance, What’s your name? Where are you from? How old are you? What country are you from? What town? What language do you speak?

I also had a U.S. student who was a doctor who always had trouble in the emergency room. He needed to know how to ask, What’s your name? How do you feel? What hurts? Sometimes his patients told him, nch’on nq’ob’e or nch’on nk’uje, which means “my hand hurts” or “my stomach hurts,” but the patients didn’t know how to say it in Spanish or English. So, I helped him understand.

Katie: In addition to being a teacher, you have also worked as an interpreter and translator between Mam and Spanish. What are some of the challenges in that work?

Ana: Yes, I have worked remotely as a Mam court interpreter. It’s always a bit complicated because during the hearing, when the judge starts laying out the rules and all the instructions that the migrant person has to follow, the judge tells it to the Spanish interpreter and the Spanish interpreter tells me, and then I tell it to the Mam migrant person.

And there are words in Mam that we cannot translate literally into Spanish. So that’s where I come in with my interpretation work. I start to analyze the word and interpret it by explaining it to the person.

Also, sometimes people are very traumatized, and it can be difficult to get information out of them. But when there are people who feel more comfortable in Mam, sometimes things start to go faster.

Katie: And how do people react? Because I would imagine that they have already gone through a process in which there are very few people who speak their language and they haven’t had access to a translator like you. So, when they see you and hear you, how do they react?

Ana: They feel happy. You can see a smile like, “she is going to help me, she is going to support me.” They feel happiness that is reflected in their faces. They feel freer to express themselves.

Katie: With that in mind, Ana, what do “language rights” mean to you?

Ana: I feel that “language rights” are about the right to express oneself. To express our opinions, use our voices, to be taken seriously, to be accepted in whatever environment—education, social, cultural, or sport. It’s the freedom that allows us to express our ideas and share experiences, without any rejection. “Language rights” means that our language is acceptable and that we can feel happy in any activity, speaking our language and laughing in our language.

Katie: Is there a way to say “language rights” in Mam?

Ana: It would be “oklenj te qyol toj tkyaqil tnam” (click here to listen). It means recognizing the importance of the language of each municipality.

Katie: Thank you, Ana.

If someone reading this interview wants to contact you to learn more about Mam, how can they do that?

Ana: They can use my email, If there are people who wish to learn Mam, I would be thrilled to help and share the language because the Mam language is very important.

The Mam language is very interesting and must be preserved. Sadly, it is already being lost and many children do not speak it, but if someone wants to learn it, I would be happy and delighted to teach them. That’s how we are going to make more speakers of Mam.

Katie: Gracias, Ana. Chjonte.

Ana: Chjonte, Katie.

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