ATA CONFERENCE: Indigenous Languages

American Translators Association annual conference 2018

ATA CONFERENCE: Indigenous Languages

This year I had the opportunity to attend the American Translation Association Conference in New Orleans. I was amazed by the magnitude of the event which gathered over 1800 attendees from throughout the U.S. and around the world. This was an eye-opening experience that gave me the chance to appreciate the size and global characteristics of our language industry.

One of the subjects discussed during the opening session was the proclamation of the UNESCO’s 2019 Year of Indigenous Languages, and the importance of linguistic diversity as an opportunity to construct more inclusive societies.

With so many great sessions to choose from, this was a great lead to get me interested in writing about a particular one: “Speakers of Latin American Indigenous Languages: What Every Spanish Interpreter Should Know” presented by Lorena Pike.
Lorena is a state-certified court interpreter (California and Nevada), and she works as the interpreter coordinator at the Santa Barbara Superior Court, Santa Marta Division in California. She also does law, accounting, finance, and business translations. She has an MA in Spanish from the University of Nevada as well as a BS in accounting and postgraduate certificates in translation and interpreting.

One of the characteristics of the Santa Maria (Santa Barbara County, CA) area where the speaker resides is that it is part of the strawberry production zone which goes from Oxnard to Monterrey Bay. This attracts a lot of immigrant workers to the area, most of them coming from countries like Mexico and Guatemala; this migration is very diverse and includes people whose primary language is not Spanish. There has been an indigenization of the Latin American migration, most of it located in California, New York, New Mexico and Oregon, making the access to linguistic services more challenging. Lorena’s presentation is directed to those interpreters who have been confronted with a situation where they have to interpret for a client whose primary language is not Spanish. It is important for us as Spanish interpreters to realize that there are many people in our countries of origin who speak an indigenous language.

Lorena started by introducing us to the different indigenous cultures that migrate to this particular area in California. One of the biggest ones is the Mixteco culture, from the States of Oaxaca, Puebla, and Guerrero in Mexico; the indigenous population in Oaxaca and Guerrero is very large, with more than 100,000 indigenous language speakers including Chinateca, Masagua, Mazateco, Mixteco, Nahuatl, Otomi, Tzotzil, and Zapoteco, among many others. They migrate according to the different harvest seasons, moving from Oxnard to Monterrey and Fresno. The migratory movement is significant because they look for the agricultural work moving even to Oregon which makes it very difficult to keep track of the number of people of indigenous descent working in the area. In 2008/2009, the calculation was about 120,000 immigrants working in the agricultural sector in California.

These migrants face multiple challenges:

  • Racism and bias, which is also present in their countries of origin.
  • Exploitation: the agricultural work they do is usually the worst paid, and usually the type no one else will do.
  • Ignorance about the indigenous population, which is one of the poorest in the State of California. This fact leads to the unawareness by service providers of this community’s needs, since some of them don’t even know they exist.
  • Cultural and linguistic barriers: Since Lorena’s work is mainly at the courts, she shared some of the most common barriers she had encountered while working with this population. Mistakenly people think that they speak a dialect, when they speak a language; because of fear or shame they hide the fact that their first language is not Spanish, so most of the times they are assigned to Spanish interpreters who are not qualified to interpret for them, since they don’t understand the client’s language or culture; all of these result in misunderstandings and unfair trials.
  • Legal barriers: They don’t speak English or Spanish.
    • Triqui man institutionalized in mental health facility for several years because he did not understand Spanish or English (Oregon, 1990).
    • 16 Mixtec men deported for failing to speak Spanish or English (Mt. Vernon, Washington, 2009).
    • Indigenous mother has twins removed for failing to speak Spanish or English (California, 2008).
    • In 2005 the Lebanon (Tennessee) Democrat newspaper revealed that at least twice a local judge ordered Mexican mothers to learn English or lose their children forever. In one case, the child lived with the mother, in the other the child was in foster care. In both cases, the mother spoke an indigenous language other than Spanish.

Regarding Healthcare, the Indigenous Farmworker Study (IFS) says: “While hospitals are required by law to provide care in a language the patient can understand, compliance with this requirement is highly uneven. Frequently, providers rely on the patient to bring in a friend or relative to translate, sometimes even a child, which raises difficulties when dealing with delicate matters and can result in misunderstandings. The inability to communicate breeds distrust, avoidance of seeking care and non-compliance with prescribed treatments…”

“…In Oxnard, one highly accomplished interpreter who is trilingual in English, Spanish and her native Mixteco explained that there are no words in Mixteco for numerous medical conditions such as asthma, tuberculosis, anemia and diabetes…”

Even though over the last ten years some hospitals have seen the need for indigenous interpreters and efforts have been made to hire them to work with healthcare providers, it is mainly Mixteco speakers who have been hired, lacking services for Triqui and Zapoteco languages. As we can see the need for appropriate language services is vital to try to bridge the inequity gap for these communities, the first step is to be aware, and be informed of the existence of this growing migrant population in the United States.

American Translators Association annual conference 2018 American Translators Association annual conference registration







ATA website:
Indigenous Farmworkers Study (IFS) website:
UNESCO 2019 International Year of Indigenous Languages:
Lorena Pike: 2018 ATA Conference, “Speakers of Latin American Indigenous Languages: What Every Spanish Interpreter Should Know”


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