Found in Translation

The University of Illinois and the local Q’anjob’al-speaking Mayan community are discovering ways to communicate.

By Abigail Bobrow

Guadalupe Abreu sits cross-legged and sorts through a mound of papers on her lap at The Refugee Center in Champaign-Urbana. Each packet documents an interaction with an immigrant who came to the center. Her bright blue nails briskly flip through one page after another.

Soon, a young woman from Guatemala approaches her desk and sits down with her son, not yet old enough to walk. Her husband had been deported, and she is raising four children, three of whom were born in the United States. She doesn’t understand why she hasn’t received her income tax refund.

Shortly after, a formerly unaccompanied minor from Guatemala who came to Champaign-Urbana several years ago and is now an adult, arrives at the center with his older sister. A small child in a pink dress and silver sandals clings to their side. Without a credit card or checking account, they don’t understand how to pay the fine they received for not paying a toll on the way to Chicago.

“All of our clients are from Guatemala right now,” Abreu says, “and many of them are unaccompanied minors.”

Map courtesy of Ryan Shosted.

While she and one other colleague serve the Spanish-speaking clientele, many of those recent arrivals from Guatemala don’t speak Spanish. Instead, they are from a region of the country near the border with Mexico, where about 77,000 people speak the Mayan language Q’anjob’al or Kanjobal.

It’s that indigenous culture and language of the new arrivals that the Illinois Maya Initiative at the University of Illinois is striving to sustain.

The Initiative was born out of recognition of the continuously growing Q’anjob’al-speaking community in Champaign-Urbana—one that had its start in 1987 with the arrival of the Diego and Ana Menendez and their three children from Santa Eulalia, Huehuetenango, a Mayan region in Guatemala.

In a recent conversation, Rev. Thomas Royer (MEDIA ’72, ’78), a member of the committee of churches who sponsored the Menendez family, recalls feeling compelled to do something for people facing dire circumstances in Central America.

The committee was frustrated over the lack of legal paths for asylum seekers from Central America’s “Northern Triangle,” a term used to describe three countries: El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.

The government regimes in those countries were rocked by civil wars in the 1980s, which led to violence and poverty and ultimately a destabilized society from which asylum seekers were seeking refuge. Thousands of sanctuaries began about the same time across the United States for refugees from those countries.

There are now approximately seven hundred Q’anjob’al-speaking people who live, work, and attend schools in the Champaign-Urbana area. In 2006, the Q’anjob’al-speaking community named St. Mary Catholic Church in Champaign as their parish. Worshippers attend services delivered in their native language. Women and girls arrive wearing traditional Mayan-Guatemalan dress: flowing sequin scarves, ornately embroidered skirts and fringed tops. Mothers carry babies strapped to their backs as they file into the sanctuary. A welcoming house of worship thousands of miles from home.

Image of Santa Eulalia, Huehuetenango, a Mayan region in Guatemala where Q’anjob’al is spoken. Photo courtesy of Google Maps


Yet life outside the Q’anjob’al-speaking pockets can still be challenging.

“We saw the need to facilitate education and outreach with this community,” says Margarita Teran-Garcia, assistant dean and program leader for Integrated Health Disparities, and one of the Maya Illinois Initiative team members. “And because nothing was done in their language, we needed to be sure that what we offer is making sense to them, culturally.”

The goal from the start of the Initiative has been for Mayan residents and the university to work together, to move forward symbiotically, to ensure that a historically marginalized community in Guatemala wouldn’t receive the same treatment here. To achieve that, the team made up of professors from a variety of disciplines reached out to members of the community and did a great deal of listening.

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Mateo Sebastian, the Q’anjob’al-language engagement liaison, hunches over a laptop in a cubical in Champaign School District No. 4 Administration Center. He helps children and their families navigate the school system, which often places children in dual-language Spanish classrooms.

Mateo Sebastian stands outside his office building in Champaign.

In addition to helping families through the school system, Sebastian works with the university’s Initiative to reach even more people in the area by translating English documents into Q’anjob’al.

“Where I’m from is not like here,” Sebastian explains. “There, the elementary school is free. After that if you want to go to high school, you have to pay a lot of money. I know here, everybody has two or three kids. In our culture, families have ten or twelve or fifteen kids.”

Sebastian is the third in a family of eight brothers and sisters. His father died of tuberculosis a few years ago, and his mother harvests cardamom and coffee. Yet, the money she earns isn’t enough to pay for her children’s schooling.

After ninth grade, Sebastian headed north and spent a few years in California with a sponsor. In 2019, he joined his sister and her son, who were already here.

He vividly recalls feeling lost and overwhelmed as he simultaneously learned Spanish and English. He also grew frustrated with some other Q’anjob’al-speakers who charged him exorbitant fees for rides to the store or basic translations.

“One time I just wanted to cry. I was just asking for help.”

That experience motivates Sebastian, now 24, to want to spare others the pain of navigating an unfamiliar country.

In the spirit of paying it forward, Sebastian hopes that the residents he helps will help others as well. “I just want to help everyone,” he said. “Let’s communicate and let’s get this done together.”

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“The Mayan community has become a strong presence in the Champaign-Urbana area,” Ryan Shosted, professor of linguistics and also a member of the Initiative. “Twenty-five, thirty years is a long time for these families to be here. They’ve raised kids. Their kids are fully fluent in English; they’re running businesses. They’re going to be political leaders someday. It’s the American story, right?”

Yet, Shosted, as he co-authored in a recently published article, and the Initiative don’t want that to be at the expense of preserving the Mayan culture. Starting in 2009, Shosted and his students began accompanying the local Q’anjob’al-speaking community as they sought greater recognition of their language in public spaces. His graduate student, Jill Hallett (now a faculty member in linguistics at Northeastern Illinois University) worked with Luis Esteban, Mateo Diego, and the children at St. Mary’s to transcribe, illustrate, and translate to English a Q’anjob’al folk tale, similar to “The Boy Who Cried Wolf.”

Pages from the Q’anjob’al folk tale, similar to “The Boy Who Cried Wolf,” created by children at St. Mary’s.

“If they can show that their language is written and, and we can create art inspired by the language and culture, I think that does increase the sense of self-confidence and pride that’s beneficial in the long run.”

To live in the Urbana-Champaign area is to encounter people from any one of 116 nationalities and dozens of languages. In 2019, the New York Times shared Census Bureau data that ranked Champaign-Urbana in the top ten “U.S. Metros with Highest Rate of International Migration.”

Of course, the University of Illinois, which ranks second among public institutions in the United States for foreign-born student body, plays a large part in the attraction. Yet, 56 percent of all of Champaign County immigrants are not students at the university.

Champaign County as a destination for immigrants is no longer in question. Immigrants don’t just arrive here without a reason, and many people—including fellow immigrants—are making it possible for them to come and even thrive.

“So why am I here,” Sebastian asks himself. “I want to help, to share my experience with the community to make it better so we can grow together.”

This story was published .