Beyond Words: Translating Indigenous Communities

Francisco Guachiac's identity papers (Photo by Zaira Cortés for Voices of NY)

Francisco Guachiac’s identity papers (Photo by Zaira Cortés for Voices of NY)

Francisco Guachiac Ambrocio disappeared in April 2015 and he wasn’t found until the end of the year.

For eight months, the only thing that his family knew about the 54-year-old Guatemalan immigrant was that the police had arrested him on a street in the Bensonhurst neighborhood of Brooklyn. Besides that, all they heard were rumors. Some of his fellow day laborers said that the police had taken him away after a brawl at a bodega. Others asserted that he was detained at “La Parada,” the name he and other day laborers searching for work give the location in front of the 7-Eleven on 6501 New Utrecht Ave.

Translating NYCHis niece’s husband, Leobardo, 26, went to Precinct 62, but officials informed him that they had no record of arrests of someone with that name. Visits to nearby precincts and hospitals, as well as the Guatemala Consulate, failed to yield any information.

“The consul’s office assured me that they would search for my uncle, but weeks went by without news,” he said. “Each time that I called the consulate only increased my hopelessness and distress.”

Leobardo believed that his wife’s uncle gave a false name to the police, because he was not carrying identification when he was arrested.

“[He’s] an alcoholic and sometimes does not come home. He spends days in ‘El Cantón,’” he said, referring to a homeless community of mostly indigenous Guatemalans, in Bensonhurst. “He gave me his identification card because he didn’t want to lose his only identity document.”

Leobardo also suspected that his lack of English and Spanish skills had a lot to do with his disappearance.

“His native language is K’iche’ and we always talk in our language. He can express himself in Spanish, but has trouble understanding it. He does not know how to read or write,” said Leobardo, a community organizer and a teacher of K’iche’, a Mayan language spoken mostly in the southern Guatemalan Highlands. “My uncle may feel ashamed of our indigenous origin, that is why we think that he did not ask for an interpreter in K’iche’.”

Linguist Charlie Uruchima, co-founder of the community initiative Kichwa Hatari, which seeks to affirm the identity of the South American Quichua people in New York, said that it is common for indigenous peoples from Central and South America to deny their identity and their native language.

“It is the result of the historical persecution, displacement, injustice and discrimination still existing in their home countries. Not identifying as indigenous is a way to protect themselves even in the United States,” Uruchima said. “But it is counterproductive. An invisible community does not have the power to get the city’s attention in order to resolve their problems and have their needs met.”

Uruchima, who wrote an immigrants’ rights guide in Quechua when working on his master’s degree at NYU, said that the problems of indigenous communities, such as the Guachiac case, are much greater than the need for interpretation and translation services.

“Our indigenous persons in city jails may be submissive and reserved. They do not demand their rights because they do not know them. They are also more likely to violate laws because they do not understand the United States criminal justice system,” he said. “The city may not be considering these socio-cultural factors.”

Finding Francisco

Following rumors of Francisco Guachiac’s arrest, this reporter consulted the police department last December. Sergeant Carlos Nieves reported that in April of 2015 a Guatemalan immigrant was arrested, but provided an address in Bensonhurst that wasn’t Guachiac’s. A search of the Department of Correction’s public records did not shed any clues either.

However, a press request to the Department of Correction offered some hope.

“There is an inmate from Guatemala named Francisco Wichiak-Ambrozio, born in 1961, in Rikers Island. He was arrested for assault in April 2015 and his next court date is Dec. 8,” wrote Jack Ryan from the press office of the Department of Correction in an email. “Hope this helps.”

Charlie Uruchima (Photo by Zaira Cortés for Voice of NY)

Charlie Uruchima (Photo by Zaira Cortés for Voice of NY)

On Sunday, Dec. 6, this reporter visited the Rikers Island jail to learn whether Francisco Wichiak was, in fact, Francisco Guachiac.

After passing several security points, this reporter waited for 15 minutes in a cold visiting room. Then a corrections office brought in a dark-complexioned man with a thick graying mustache. Suspicious of an unfamiliar face, the man turned to leave, but when he heard his nephew’s name, he turned back, smiling.

“I have not received visits in eight months, here there is no one to talk to,” he said moved to tears. “My fellow prisoners told me that undocumented immigrants cannot come to visit, so I did nothing to find my family.”

Asked about the misspelled name, Guachiac explained that he knew about it but was too fearful to ask that his name be corrected.

“I did not finish elementary school. I do not know how to speak to officers; it scares me to approach them because I cannot defend myself. My name is not important to them,” he said in rudimentary Spanish.

“I did not know that I had the right to make calls, I do not know the laws of this country,” he added.

Guachiac said his problems with the law began in 2007, when he stabbed a relative in the leg during an alcohol-fueled fight.

“I was very drunk. I remember that I was bleeding and all became clouded,” he said. “[My relatives] told me that the police arrived, but I don’t know what happened then. I know that I did wrong and I regret everything,” he said, crying. “God knows that I repent and I am here to pay for what I did.”

After the incident, Guachiac attended a couple of court hearings at Kings County Criminal Court.

“I was afraid to talk to the court officers. I didn’t understand what they were saying although they spoke Spanish,” he said. “My friends advised me to stop going to court and that it was better to hide due to the risk of deportation.”

But Guachiac did not know that he was breaking laws by not going to court. After many years, that decision caught up with him. In April 2015 a couple of detectives dressed in civilian clothes got out of an official car and approached Francisco at La Parada on New Utrecht Avenue.

“They had my photograph. They asked me to accompany them and I got into the car with them,” he said. “They explained to me that I had an arrest order because I did not go to court and that I would go to jail.”

Guachiac was sentenced to one year in jail on Dec. 8. By that time, his daughter Juana had arrived in New York – but she refused to visit her father in jail. She communicates only in K’iche’ and is afraid to be identified by immigration authorities. She also declined to speak with Voices of NY.

Francisco learned that his daughter was in New York when his niece’s husband Leobardo informed him when he first visited him at Rikers, on Dec. 20.

“My cousins suffered for not knowing about you. Every weekend they called to ask if we had found you,” Leobardo told Francisco in K’iche’ – later translated to Spanish. “It was impossible to find you because they wrote your last name wrong. You are not Wichiak-Ambrozio.”

Francisco laughed incredulously when Leobardo informed him that he had the right to ask for an interpreter in K’iche’.

“No one here knows our language, I think that it doesn’t matter to them,” Guachiac said. “The court gave me an interpreter in Spanish. They do not know anything about the indigenous.”

Leonardo searched for his wife's uncle for months. (Photo by Zaira Cortés for Voices of NY)

Leobardo searched for his wife’s uncle for months. (Photo by Zaira Cortés for Voices of NY)

However, improvements made by the NYPD in the past few months might prevent a case like this from occurring in the future. As many as 35,000 smartphones have been distributed among cops, equipped with a language translation app to help officers deal instantly with people who don’t speak English.

The new service, which is provided by Language Line, is part of the modernization plan announced by William Bratton on March 2015. Language Line offers interpretation in K’iche’, as well as other indigenous languages like Mixtec, Zapoteco, Tzotzil or Mam from Mexico and Central America, or Quichua and Quechua from South America. And when the system does not feature one particular language or variant, it seeks an external interpreter.

“New Yorkers don’t need to wait for a bilingual officer to get immediate access to translation. The smartphone eliminates that barrier and brings NYPD and the community closer,” said inspector Máximo Tolentino, from Precinct 83. “If a police officer cannot identify a specific language, they only need to call the service so a translator can talk with the resident who needs help.”

Indigenous languages in the courts

Guachiac immigrated to New York a decade ago from the La Ceiba region of Guatemala because of poverty and hunger. He left his six children with his wife and crossed to Mexico clinging to the roof of La Bestia, the name migrants give to the freight trains in which Central American immigrants travel to the United States.

Three years ago his wife was shot to death and the perpetrator remains unknown. Since then, Guachiac’s alcoholism deepened. Worried about his health, his children begged him to return to Guatemala. But he preferred to remain in New York.

“I sent my children the little money that I made. Four of them are adults, but I have two teenagers. My older children have cared for them since their mother was killed,” he said.

The case of Guachiac is just one in a community that has grown considerably in recent years, creating new needs in the city courts, schools and public offices, which by law require that translation and interpretation services be provided to individuals who have limited proficiency in English.

“The city courts are noticing an increase in the need for translation and interpretation in these new languages,” said Charlie Uruchima. “But there are not enough translators. The court system has to find them outside of the state.”

Uruchima said that interpreters and translators of the most widely spoken languages in the city must be certified to provide their services in courts. To be certified they must receive special training that includes knowledge of legal terms – but translating such terms can be a challenge.

“Many terms, words and concepts in Spanish or English do not exist in indigenous languages,” he said, saying that the term “domestic violence,” for instance, does not exist in Quechua. “Most of the time it’s merely an interpretation of what these people stated, and not a direct translation.”

Uruchima said that the ideal would be to translate the indigenous language directly into English, but most translators interpret their native language into Spanish and another person translates it from Spanish into English.

“A process like this is subject to error and imprecision,” he said. “The information that the judge receives might not be correct. It is very rare that an indigenous speaker can translate directly into English.”

Doris Loayza, a Peruvian immigrant who has been interpreting since 2009 from Quechua into English for the Queens County Family Court, explained that although there is a significant number of Quichua (a variant of the Quechua) and Quechua speakers, most are undocumented, which prevents them from serving as interpreters.

In addition, most speakers of indigenous languages do not want to interpret in cases involving jailed members of their communities.

“They don’t want to be subjected to courts’ policies because their culture requires loyalty and protection of their communities,” she said.

Another issue affecting Quechua speakers in the courts is that they tend to be long-winded. “In the first case that I served as interpreter, the victim could not answer yes or no when the judge asked if she called the police. She needed to tell her history, but this can be exasperating for the courts. The judges want specific answers,” said Loayza.

However, she does not think that the problem is that judges do not respect indigenous cultures. “Many judges have heard indigenous languages for the first time, and while it may not seem so, they are very interested in our culture,” she said.

Loayza added that, as in the case of Guachiac, some indigenous persons commonly claim that they speak Spanish although they may have difficulty understanding it.

“Most Spanish interpreters are Caribbean, but speakers of indigenous languages have difficulty understanding their accents and the courts end up looking for interpreters in their native languages. It is the law,” she said. “But even so, many indigenous individuals insist on speaking Spanish and they have that right. It is a very complex situation.”

Loayza, who moved to New York City eight years ago and is currently making a documentary about the Quichua community in the Bronx, has served as an interpreter in at least five cases in Queens County Family Court and one in Boston. The Queens Court contacted her through a community organization, precisely because of their lack of interpreters. Although she was able to do her job, the city’s special interpreter’s office asked her to list her name in a national database but she could not because certification is required.

Doris Loayza (Photo by Zaira Cortés)

Doris Loayza (Photo by Zaira Cortés)

“There is no institution or university that certifies my skills. I cannot prove that I am qualified to serve in the courts,” she said. “There are no training programs that teach legal terms in Quechua or other indigenous languages.”

Another problem is that the city court systems are not aware that indigenous languages vary depending on the geographic location of their communities.

“The court calls me if they suspect that someone is from the Andean countries, but in most cases they speak Quichua from Ecuador,” said Loayza, whose native language is Quechua from the north of Peru. She later studied the Southern variant at NYU.

“The Southern Quechua language is the lingua franca. I can understand the Bolivians and Ecuadoreans because of history, culture and region,” she said. “I grew up bilingual in Ancash, in northern Peru. But the variants can be as different as Spanish is from French.”

Something similar happens with Mixteco, an indigenous Mexican language that differs depending on the region the speaker comes from, be it Guerrero on the country’s west coast, Puebla in the central region, or Oaxaca in the south.

“In Mexico there are 68 groups of indigenous languages which have 364 variants,” explained Juan Carlos Aguirre, executive director of Mano a Mano, an organization that celebrates Mexican culture. “Mixteco and Nahuatl are the languages in which translators are most in need in New York. We need translators of different variants, but they are hard to find.”

According to reports, in 2011 there were 70,000 indigenous individuals living in New York City, 40,000 of them from Latin America — up 70 percent from a decade before. But those figures, which are based on the U.S. census, may well be an undercount. A study published in 2013 by the Mexican Consulate in New York estimates that of approximately one million Mexicans living in the tri-state area, 17.3 percent speak at least one indigenous language – that would be 173,000 people.

People interviewed for this article said that the lack of appropriate statistics showing the growth of the indigenous communities is another obstacle in getting interpretation and translation services. “We need statistics of indigenous people telling what language they speak and where they live,” said Aguirre, noting the invisibility of many indigenous communities.

“When you put the indigenous inside the Latin American mantle, you dilute the diversity of our communities: The U.S. system infers that if you are Hispanic then you speak Spanish,” he added. “The city agencies do not completely understand the existence of Latin American indigenous [people].”

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