Lost in Translation at the Border

Oswaldo Vidal Martín always wears the same thing to court: a striped overshirt, its wide collar and cuffs woven with geometric patterns and flowers. His pants are cherry red, with white stripes. Martín is Guatemalan and works as a court interpreter, so clerks generally assume that he is there to translate for Spanish speakers. But any Guatemalan who sees his clothing, which is called traje típico, knows that Martín is indigenous. “My Spanish is more conversational,” Martín told me. “I still have some difficulties with it.” He interprets English for migrants who speak his mother tongue, a Mayan language called Mam.

Martín, who came to the United States with his parents in 1999, when he was four, was studying to be an engineer when the trickle of Mam speakers migrating to the Oakland area, where he lives, turned into a flood. In 2014, some sixty thousand unaccompanied minors crossed into the United States, in what President Barack Obama called “an actual humanitarian crisis on the border.” A local immigration lawyer told me that at least forty per cent of the children and teen-agers arriving in the Bay Area were Mam. Martín trained with a nonprofit in San Francisco called Asociación Mayab—which offers workshops in translation for indigenous-language speakers—and then began interpreting. There is bottomless demand. “I could do it three, four, five days a week,” Martín, who also works for his father's construction company, told me. “Every day.”

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