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Local Champaign Guatemalan collective aims to break down language barriers

B’alam Mateo Toledo teaches Q’anjob’al grammar to community members at a workshop.

URBANA  – In 2018 Kora Maldonado was in the delivery room at one of the local hospitals. She was translating Qʼanjobʼal for a friend prior to giving birth to her first child.

Spanish-speaking interpreters were available through a monitor screen, but they couldn’t understand her Maya Spanish.

“I was kind of thinking through that experience and just wanting to have a more, less inaccurate I guess exchange. Because it was hard, for this person,” Maldonado said.

Maldonado is an anthropology and Indigenous Studies professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

That experience helped her recognize the need for an Indigenous Maya interpreters collective named Pixan Konob’ which means “the heart of the village” in Q’anjob’al.

“Part of the idea was to just be able to do some community-based type of training that can meet not only language barriers but also its language and culture,” said Maldonado. “And language and a lot of other barriers that the community itself knows how to navigate and how to solve them better than anybody else.”

The group – which includes Mayan Q’anjob’al community members and U of I scholars – was formed a year later. Instructional workshops began in 2019.

The first three-day workshop was held at the end of February 2023 in the village of Savoy in Champaign County.  Eighteen people attended the last day to learn proper Q’anjob’al grammar from linguist and instructor B’alam Mateo Toledo.

“It’s very different levels and teaching grammar to this group is really complex in terms of how you do it in how you teach it because they don’t have the same level of former education,” said Toledo.

Toledo said he has carefully adapted his teaching style so everyone can fully understand the material. He said it’s an extension of what he also teaches when he travels back to Guatemala.

25-year-old Daniel was an elementary school teacher in Guatemala before moving to Illinois to be with family. He said wants to stay connected to his heritage.

“It’s important to maintain the language because if you don’t, not only do you lose the language but you also lose the traditions, food, dances and traditional clothing,” said Daniel. “Basically if the language dies, everything dies too.”

Engracia is a mother of three and is also from Guatemala. When she arrived seven years ago, her main focus was learning English.

She said this training helps her as a volunteer at the University YMCA’s New American Welcoming Center.

“There are many people in need or many people who speak the Qʼanjobʼal language who are in great need and many immigrants who need support but no one was supporting them,” said Engracia.”So I became a volunteer and I started to work, so I liked it.”

Efrain is the coordinator of the collective. He said he helps the organization book appointments to help with interpretation services. That includes interpreting official documents and hospital visits. 

Pixan Konob’ is still taking its first steps toward becoming a fixture in the community.

Maldonado said they could always use more resources, but added that it’s hard for members to stay consistent because of work and providing for their own families.

“There are structural barriers, and most of the members, you know, have two or three jobs and have a hard time sometimes committing to, to a lot of time for them for the organization,” said Maldonado.

She said there are a few members who work until three in the morning and still attend the workshops.

That means the interest is there, and as long as it is, Maldonado said she and the others will do as much as they can to help grow the organization.

Luis Velazquez-Perez

Luis Velazquez-Perez

Luis Velazquez- Perez recently earned a B.S. in Journalism with a minor in Latina/Latino studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He is now pursuing his Master's in Journalism. Aside as an intern at Illinois Newsroom, Velazquez-Perez has written for The Daily Illini, Cicero Independiente and C-U CitizenAccess. He aspires to be a bilingual public radio journalist

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