Language interpretation is a vital resource when serving in Guatemala, a country with 25 unique languages. Spanish may be the most common language in the big cities but there are 22 Mayan languages spread throughout rural communities. This diversity creates both a wealth of culture and a myriad of barriers in health equity.  Our medical mission teams not only include Spanish-English interpreters but also interpreters to handle Spanish to the local Mayan language.  Having a strong team of interpreters is a key factor when a patient consult is conducted across three languages. 

The lives of our indigenous interpreters are as rich and fascinating as you might imagine. Isa Lemus, one of our Missions Coordinators, recently sat down with Marta Alicia Xoc López, one of our Pocomchi’ interpreters from Rincón del Quetzal, Purulhá to find out how and why Marta became an interpreter and a whole lot more.

Briskly moving across the gymnasium floor, a temporary location of our Purulhá clinics, Marta is ever-present with her warm smile and bright colored huipil (pronounced “WEE-peel”; a traditional handwoven blouse). Our mutually patient-focused jobs don’t allow much time for chit-chat, but Marta has been part of our mission since Refuge International started medical clinics in Purulhá, so it was great to get to know more about her life, experiences, and dreams.

The youngest of eight children, Marta grew up in a bilingual Spanish/Pocomchi’ family. Her father and brothers were fluent in Spanish, but her mother only spoke Pocomchi’. Like many kids in bilingual homes, Marta spoke both languages, a huge advantage in Guatemala, so becoming an interpreter seemed like a natural progression. As she grew up, she continued to study Spanish in an academic setting developing advanced language skills for conversations and writing.

The indigenous language that Marta grew up speaking is the language of the Pocomchi’ Maya, a language spoken by approximately 90,000 people in the Baja Verapaz, Alta Verapaz, and El Quiché departments (states) of Guatemala. Interpreting in people’s native language is something that is not common in Guatemala, often making indigenous Mayan language speakers marginalized in health care. Marta’s ability to translate from Pocomchi’ to Spanish helps to provide patients with dignity and understanding, letting them know that they have more than just a disease, but that they have diabetes, hypertension, or whatever their malady is, what that means, and how it is treated.

Interpreting isn’t Marta’s only job. Marta is getting a degree in Education specializing in Pedagogy and Social Sciences. Like many people getting advanced educations from Purulhá, her dream is to share her knowledge to help with individual growth of people in her community. Currently, she teaches classes in Purulhá at the intermediate level. Ultimately, returning to the community with skills to improve the lives of its people is something that is a groundswell in this fold on the map in the northern part of Baja Verapaz department, and with resoluteness, it is Marta’s goal as well.

Having grown up with the advantage of being bilingual, Marta also worked with the youth group in her Catholic church. Her participation in this organization gave her the opportunity to travel to different areas in Guatemala, something that is not accessible for everyone in her community. Marta has traveled around Purulhá, to nearby Tactic & Coban, as well as to other departments (states) of Alta Verapaz, Jutiapa, Queztaltenango, San Marcos, Sacatepequez, & Guatemala City.

When asked about Refuge International’s mission work, Marta feels that indigenous interpretation is fundamental in communicating with medical providers. She recognizes that the missions are an economic opportunity for the community and help with population health.

Refuge International’s missions have been one the first healthcare opportunities regularly accessible to the municipality. This type of care is new to many, so Marta worries that women are reluctant to accept care such as surgeries. Because there is not yet a hospital in Purulhá, anyone getting a major surgery must travel to San Raymundo, a 7-hour bus ride away and stay at least a couple of nights. She says that the women worry about who will feed their families, wash their clothes, and take their children to school while they are gone. She reminds us that traditionally women are taught that the men come first and that speaking out for themselves is not a privilege that they have, and Marta goes on to say that the women don’t realize that by avoiding treatment, they are hurting themselves. By helping with translation, Marta can communicate the importance of self-care in a language that is their own.

In her downtime, Marta enjoys making paper handicrafts. It is her dream to someday travel internationally and to continue studying. It is easy in the hustle and bustle of busy mission work to forget to take the time to get to know our coworkers on a personal level, but assuredly should you take a moment to embrace the opportunity you will know why our mission is our family.