published Monday, March 22nd, 2010

Language barrier greater for some immigrants

Adriana Pascual, who works at La Paz de Dios, inputs client data into the computer system. Pascual, who speaks Spanish, English and the Guatemalan dialect of Kanjobal, works with women as an interpreter.
Adriana Pascual, who works at La Paz de Dios, inputs client data into the computer system. Pascual, who speaks Spanish, English and the Guatemalan dialect of Kanjobal, works with women as an interpreter.
Photo by Jake Daniels.


If you speak an indigenous language and would like to serve as an interpreter for the Mexican Consulate in Atlanta, call 404-266-2233 ext. 228, or 404-320-8804 for the Guatemalan Consulate.



• Zapoteco

• Xochil

• Tlapaneco

• Nahuatl

• Mixteco

• Mazateco

• Huaxteco


• Quiche

• Cakchiquel

• Kekchi

• Mam

• Garifuna

• Xinca

Source: Mexican and Guatemalan consulates, CIA World Factbook

Adriana Pascual was born in Florida but raised in Guatemala, giving her an advantage that is now invaluable.

Mrs. Pascual, 19, is one of the few local residents who speaks English, Spanish and her native language, Kanjobal, a Mayan dialect spoken primarily in Guatemala and part of Mexico.

As more immigrants move into the area from regional communities — primarily in Mexico and Guatemala — many speak unfamiliar languages and dialects, so the need for special interpreters increases.

“A lot of them try to explain themselves, but no one understands them,” said Mrs. Pascual, who came back to the United States at age 5. “Many get frustrated because they can’t communicate with anyone.”

Mrs. Pascual works for La Paz de Dios, a local organization that works with the Hispanic community and, among her other duties, she serves as an interpreter both for Spanish and Kanjobal speakers.

Mayan dialects such as Kanjobal, Quiche and Mam, for instance, are not related to Spanish and may require a completely different interpreter.

To solve part of the language barrier, the consulates of Mexico and Guatemala in Atlanta are asking all immigrants who speak an indigenous language to contact the consulates to form a directory.

“(The Mexican government) asked all the consulates in the United States to form this directory so we can provide better assistance to those who don’t speak Spanish,” Mexican consulate spokesman Armando Bello said.

Through the directory, consulate officials will track data on where the immigrants are located and the contact information of potential interpreters.

Where are they from?

Mr. Bello said he doesn’t have the percentage of people in this region who speak an indigenous language, but most who migrate here come from the southern Mexican states of Chiapas, Oaxaca and Guerrero, where they speak languages such as Nahuatl, Zapoteco and Mixteco.

There are more than 364 linguistic variants in Mexico, according to Mr. Bello.

Beatriz Ilescas, the Guatemalan consul in Atlanta, said they don’t have a formal network of interpreters, but do have several people throughout the area, including in Tennessee and South Carolina, who are contacted in case of an emergency.

The problem, she said, is that many of the immigrants are here illegally and fearful of collaborating with the consulates.

“Right now, we have a young girl in the hospital who only speaks Mam and is trying to find an interpreter,” she said. “So far we haven’t been able to.”

Variations of Mam are spoken in the Guatemalan regions of Quetzaltenango, Huehuetenango and San Marcos and, while there are similarities in the languages, complete understanding is not always possible between people who speak the different dialects, experts say.

And that’s just one dialect.

“In Guatemala, we have 23 different Mayan dialects ... depending on the region,” Ms. Ilescas said.

Translating demand

Dalton resident Maria Salazar arrived in Florida 10 years ago from Oaxaca not speaking any Spanish, only Mixteco.

“I learned Spanish due to necessity. I couldn’t talk to anyone,” she said. “I started reading books and learned little by little.”

Now Ms. Salazar is one of 25 people available to help the Mexican consulate when it needs an interpreter for Mixteco.

Not having an interpreter who speaks one of the indigenous languages can lead to frightening results, consulate officials said.

“In Tennessee several years ago, we had a case where the judge had removed a lady’s children from her custody because she didn’t speak English,” Mr. Bello said.

“We had to call the local government in her hometown to find someone who could interpret (via telephone), and she regained the custody of her children,” he said.

Maria Pascual, who is not related to Adriana Pascual, once almost left a doctor’s office without seeing the doctor because no one could understand what she needed. She arrived in Chattanooga from Guatemala five years ago and, though she speaks some Spanish and understands English, she can’t communicate fluently in any language other than Kanjobal.

The doctor’s office called Adriana Pascual so she could interpret.

about Perla Trevizo...

Perla Trevizo joined the Chattanooga Times Free Press in 2007 and covers immigration/diversity issues and higher education. She holds a master’s degree in newswire journalism from Universidad Rey Juan Carlos in Madrid, Spain, and a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Texas. In 2011 she participated in the Bringing Home the World international reporting fellowship program sponsored by the International Center for Journalists, producing a series on Guatemalan immigrants for which she ...

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Wilder said...

I have a win-win solution for ALL of Perla's never ending "immigrant" issues. They can just make their way on back to their respective countries of origin. No need to separate the families - take the kids too. Trust me, no one will object.

March 23, 2010 at 12:36 a.m.
Nashmusic said...

Immigrants must make an effort EARNEST "effort" to learn English regardless of how tough it is to learn.

I wasn't born in the US, but my parents knew that learning English is the only way for ANY immigrant to achieve any chance of success in our country.

There is no room for excuses that the language is tough to learn.

Eddie Garcia

April 6, 2010 at 8:04 p.m.
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