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Mayan Languages on the Move

Building Indigenous Language Activism and cross-community support for using Mayan languages in a predominantly white Midwestern town.

Photo of korinta maldonado

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What problem does the idea help to solve and how does your solution work? (2,000 characters maximum)

Maya have been arriving in large numbers to the United States. In Champaign-Urbana, a vibrant community has developed since the 1980s. Nevertheless, the Maya experience is not well understood. They are often taken as typical Latinos or Hispanics. This leads to cultural and linguistic barriers. These barriers can lead to misunderstandings, disempowerment, and even medical errors or violations of privacy. Trained Maya interpreters can alleviate this situation. The community of Champaign Urbana is eager to welcome Maya immigrants but, with a few exceptions, is aware of the cultural and linguistic differences between speakers of Mayan languages and Guatemalan who do not speak these languages. Further, many members of the Q'anjob'al community are monolingual. Many have limited literacy skills in Q'anjob'al; there are few full-time interpreters, and the host community has limited resources for bolstering communication with their Q'anjob'al friends and clients. We understand that Indigenous languages constitute critical vehicles of knowledge, cultures, values, among other aspects that bind people and communities together. We also understand Indigenous languages and their promotion, preservation, and revitalization or vitalization as a crucial right that should be protected by nation-states and societies as a whole. First, we want to foster strong Maya language activism that can provide infrastructure to develop and strengthen Maya intellectuals, interpreters, and artists key in the promotion of Indigenous languages. Second, we will develop instruction of the Q'anjob'al language and in general of Indigenous languages for the non-Indigenous community at large. These language courses and language activism will help the host community to appreciate Indigenous languages rather than viewing them as deficits.

Geography of focus (500 characters)

Maya migration to Champaign County, Illinois is largely from the Department of Huehuetenango, Guatemala. Maya (Chuj, Q’anjob’al, Akateco, K'iche) people living there are negatively affected by food insecurity and violence, as well as environmental and political pressures. Maya movement between Champaign and Huehuetenango has been occurring since the 1980s. Rough estimates of this population in Central Illinois are 8,000 and rapidly growing. We consider this project to be transnational nature.

Building Bridges: What bridge does your idea build between people on the move and neighbors towards a shared future of stability and promise? (500 characters)

It has traditionally been the task of Maya to learn English or Spanish to communicate with the host community. Little demand has been placed on the host community’s opportunity to learn Q’anjob’al. Our activities will lead to mutual understanding between distinct communities. Our project builds bridges between school staff, local service providers, as well as non-Indigenous, and Maya communities. We have established support networks through the Maya Interpreter's collective and school districts.

What human need is your idea solving for? (1,000 characters)

Language is ultimately about relationships. People have the right to communicate in their own language in both public and private spaces. Many local Maya interact with educational, legal, and health care services, without being able to fully express their opinions, wishes, or ideas. This not only excludes but denies Indigenous peoples right to self-determination as many resources are controlled by non-Maya-speaking host community members. Promoting the circulation and ongoing vitalization and growth of Mayan languages in the area provides this Indigenous community with a sense of identity and continuity. The proposed project promotes respect for cultural diversity and complies with the requirements of mutual respect among communities, and of sustainable development as knowledge are transmitted generation by generation via language. Joy, hope and dignity are intrinsically articulated with culture and ways of relating to the world including verbal arts and poetry.

What will be different within the community of focus as a result of implementing your idea? (1,000 characters)

We will help Maya on the move feel greater dignity by empowering them to use their language(s) in public spaces of the English-dominant host community. This will allow them to obtain resources for their community. Local Maya will affect change consistent with their wishes and aspirations, for example, by lobbying for Q’anjob’al-language signage in public spaces and the translation of important everyday services provided by local government, like the driver’s licensing test. We have already seen positive impacts of Mayan language promotion, including in local public schools and other situations where interpreter services are required. We have seen joy among Maya and host community members when they share simple greetings in Q’anjob’al. We will recruit more host community allies to partner with local Maya to achieve the wishes and aspirations emanating from the Maya community. We will foster a network of host community activists linked to local Mayan-language interpreters and scholars.

What is the inspiration behind your idea? (1,000 characters)

Local Maya and non-Maya have for some years now sought our advice on how Maya on the move can successfully obtain resources within the English-language-dominant host community. The inspiration for our collaboration with the Maya comes from our Maya friends and neighbors. We are moved when we see members of the Maya community acknowledge and use their language in English-language-dominant public spaces, since this manifestly increases their sense of dignity and the possibility for self-determination as members of an integrated, Indigenous and non-Indigenous community. We are also inspired by the significant number of host-community activists who are actively seeking opportunities to learn more about their Maya neighbors, friends, and clients. Seven members of the local Maya community are already participating in interpreter training and 17 members of the host community have made attempts to formally learn Q'anjob'al.

Describe the dynamics of the community in which the idea is to be implemented. (1,000 characters)

The patterns of migration within the Maya varies across time and space. There are Maya that migrated in the 1980’s to escape the violence of the Civil War. Further, in the late 1990’s environmental disasters also triggered migration to the North—Hurricane Mitch, Stan, Agatha, and a powerful earthquake affecting the Pacific southern coast in 2012. In contrast to other Central American countries, Guatemalans have never been granted the relief of Temporary Protected Status in the United States. From 2014 onwards, there has been an influx of young Maya seeking asylum due to environmental devastation as well as gang violence. That is to say, the Q’anjob’al community is extremely diverse in terms of the contexts and reasons for migrating. Many aspire to return to their home countries, some community members have strong ties to their families back home. The Q’anjob’al community is a vibrant one. Many important community events are celebrated throughout the year.

How does your idea leverage and empower community strengths and assets to help create an environment for success? (1,000 characters)

Champaign-Urbana already has a strong foundation of Maya community activism and host-community interest in supporting the self-determination of local Maya on the move. The City of Champaign has declared itself a Welcoming Community and counts with a few strong organizations serving immigrants and refugees (University YMCA Welcoming Center, the CU-Immigration Forum, Friends and Allies of Immigrants and Refugees, Champaign Refugee Center. Different institutions including UIUC are asking for support and looking for a better way to support the Mayan speaking communities. As a team, we are either members of some of these organizations or work closely with them. Further, we are a team that is internally diverse allowing us to connect with distinct publics and communities. We have professors, Maya interpreters and school educators involved. These are all assets that provide a strong foundation for our proposed project and in many ways will be providing support through out.

What other partners or stakeholders will work alongside you in implementing the idea, if any? (1,000 characters)

Partners that will work alongside are the Maya Interpreters Collective, Champaign Unit 4 School District, and professors of UIUC for now but we seek to expand to incorporate other local and regional Indigenous and migrant serving organizations. The Maya Interpreters Collective emerged in February after they gathered for a forty hour interpretation training workshop facilitated by the Los Angeles-based Indigenous Front of Binational Organizations. This collective is composed of seven Maya men and women, speakers of Q’anjob’al. Cristobal Bartolo Gonzales, Q’anjob’al from Santa Eulalia leads the collective as we find resources to grow. Cristobal works full time as an Indigenous interpreter. The ESL/Bilingual Programs of the Champaign Unit 4 School District. This district holds the largest Maya student population in the area. UIUC: Dr. Shostes and Dr. Maldonado

What part of the displacement journey is your solution addressing

  • Arriving and settling at a destination community

Tell us how you'd describe the type of innovation you are proposing

  • Platform: Creating a community or market that facilitates interaction between users and resources

Idea Proposal Stage

  • Prototype: We have done some small tests or experiments with prospective users to continue developing the idea.

Group or Organization Name

UIUC, Champaign-Urbana Maya Interpreters Collective, Champaign School District Bilingual program.

Tell us more about your group or organization [or lived experience as a displaced person?] (1000 characters)

We are a loosely structured group of activists and educators with varied origins, ethnicities, experiences and set of skills interested in bridging and building strong and healthy multi-ethnic communities. Some of us are faculty members of the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, others are members of the newly formed Maya Interpreters collective, and others, are teachers and educators from the Champaign area school districts, and all reside in Champaign County.

Type of submitter

  • We are a formal part of a University or Research Institution

Organization Headquarters: Country


Organization Headquarters: City / State

Champaign IL

In preparation for expert feedback: What are three unanswered questions or challenges that you could use support on in these categories? These questions will be answered directly by experts matched specifically to your idea. (600 characters)

1) A principal goal is to set up the infrastructure for the Maya Interpreters Collective/Association/Coop in the making. Would it be advisable to have distinct designated accounts in distinct organizations/institutions so we can best make use of the flexibility that larger and smaller entities offer? 2) What are some innovative ways to measure effectiveness? Meaning, how do we create a meaningful evaluation and follow-up structure/protocols that are visible and tangible for evaluators and stakeholders? 3) Suggestions on project management software for keeping the team organized as we scale up?

Did you use the resources offered during the Improve Phase (mentorship, expert feedback, community research)? (2000 characters)

In the process of gathering information, we tested the solidity of the bridges we have build with our allies, partners and Maya community over the past decade for some of our teams members. We talked to immigrant serving organizations partnering with us such as the YMCA-Welcome Center, the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies at UIUC, teachers and parent liaisons at the school districts, immigration lawyers but principally to the community on the move at the heart of this project: the distinct Maya communities. Some important insights that emerged are the deep desire of Q'anjob'al speakers to read and write in their language so they can teach their young kids and thus, keep families together across transnational borders versus the assumption was there wasn't a desire to learn it or sufficient time to study. Based on that feedback, we incorporated Q’anjob’al literacy to our overall language activism perspective. We learned from the mentorship of Cristina and the expertise of Swatee that in order to scale up and make strategic use of 1) technologies available like Pizarra Animada and others, so 2) other communities, stakeholders and organizations widely share the experiences of people on the move so other community members can relate to them 2) 

In what ways would potential BridgeBuilder funds allow you to pursue your idea that other funding opportunities have not? (1000 characters)

The funding will formalize and amplify Mayan Languages on the Move, an already operating loose cohort of indigenous migrants, with preliminary training in formal interpretation protocols, invested in language justice. It will intervene in legal proceedings, hospitals, and elsewhere. Today, the vast majority of such interpretation involves call centers, where interpretations occur in Spanish, and furthering Mayan marginality. 

 $200,000 will generate these deliverables:

 85,000             Mayan youth training and stipends

40,000             Institution workshops and materials development

40,000             Interns and staffing

20,000             Online interpretation webinars

15,000             Interpreter Gathering

What aspects or proportion of the overall idea would potential BridgeBuilder funds primarily support? (1000 characters)

Resources already in place are provided by school districts, UIUC in-kind contributions that include digital media support, recording facilities, software and faculty and teachers experts on many of the issues at play, departmental internships from Computer Science and Anthropology/Linguistics, and CLACS), NAILL Native America Indigenous Language Lab provides webspace for interpreters organization and online-curricula. BridgeBuilders will primarily fund 1) a project manager 2) Maya community members/students internships developed for Language Activism and Indigenous Interpretation. 3) Experts like linguists and anthropologists working within the field of interpretation and Dr. Pedro Mateo Pedro, Q’anjob’al linguist working on issues of language acquisition in Guatemala. These experts perspectives will allow us to critically engages in issues of replicability across national spaces and distinct Indigenous and minoritized languages globally.

What are the key steps or activities for your idea for implementation in the next 1-3 years? (1000 characters)

What will community-level impact look like over the timeframe of your idea? How will you determine whether or not you have achieved that impact? And what outstanding questions do you still have? (1000 characters)

IMPACT: By 2021 we plan to 1) establish grassroots Multilingual Capacity through the Nail Q'anej Maya Interpreters CBO, Maya Working Group, and schools language activist impacting institutions (5,000 workers trained) and increasing language access for 6,000 Mayan speakers in the area and 10,000 online service and training, and 2) create a job niche for the youth and women within the Maya community on the move (60 Q'anjob'al Interpreters). MEASUREMENT: We will elaborate a yearly needs assessments; make use of digital tools to track: trainees and people served; Language Activists trained; and teachers trained and students served. We will interview key service providers in terms of services provided. We will observe and apply interview-based evaluations of interpreters decreasing in time as they train.

Describe the individual or team that will implement this idea (if a partnership, please explain breakdown of roles and responsibilities for each entity). (1000 characters)

Lastly, how did you apply new learnings to your idea? (1000 characters)

1. Swatee expertise helped us think about allies and collaborative practices to succeed as we scale up and also methods by which to successfully assess our project.The need to share Mayan migrant experiences through media, web platforms, and other technologies. And in terms of impact, collecting testimonies of our services provided.

2. Cristina was wonderful and helped us think about scalability through media and asked many questions to make us think about replicability. This was extremely useful and we did modified our project to reflect this.

3. Yes, we did. We learned about the importance of music for the community as a whole, structural challenges that will need to be addressed as we move forwards with the interpreters collective, and lastly, about the desire to connect with their community in Guatemala and thus, the need to keep the language thriving within the younger generations. 


Join the conversation:

Photo of Isaac Jumba

Hello korinta maldonado 

Great to read through your final submission for the challenge. I'm excited to see that you found the feedback from the mentor and expert useful, and that it guided your team in refining your project.

Photo of korinta maldonado

Thank you Isaac,
This was a challenge as it is called. A good challenge in which my teammates and I learned a lot of how to frame or better said reframe the project in a way that it will be sustainable across time and space and replicable. The learning curve of how to reframe I think took most of out time. Thank you so much! Isaac Jumba Team 

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