Mayan translator hears 'sad stories' from migrants at U.S. border

The pressure is on Sheba Velasco these days. She is the only one used by the U.S. immigration system to translate Ixil, a Mayan language in Guatemala, for court proceedings. Velasco has been very busy due to the recent flood of migrants crossing the border.

Sheba Velasco translates Ixil, a Mayan language in Guatemala, to English in U.S. courts

U.S. border crisis

9 years ago
Duration 1:47
Woman translates Ixil, a Mayan language, to English for migrants at U.S. border

For some of the many migrant children from Central America streaming across the U.S. border in recent months, Sheba Velasco is a comforting voice at the other end of a phone line.

That's because she's the only one in the U.S. who can speak to them in their own language. Velasco is from Guatemala and speaks Ixil, a Mayan language spoken in the country's highlands. Fewer than 200,000 people speak it in and around her village of Nebaj.

Ixil is nothing like Spanish, she explains during an interview at her home near Washington, D.C., which means when migrants are detained at the Mexican-U.S. border, they often can't communicate with authorities.

Her services are mostly called upon to translate Ixil to English during immigration court proceedings and lately, she's been very busy. Last year, Velasco would get maybe one or two calls a month and now she gets two or three a week. Most of her work is by phone but she also travels to Texas, New Mexico and other states that are handling the bulk of migrants trying to get into the country.

Many of them are children. Velasco said they are "mostly sad stories" that she interprets for the courts.
Sheba Velasco translates Ixil, a Mayan language in Guatemala, to English and her services are used in many immigration hearings in the U.S. With the recent flood of migrants from Guatemala trying to cross the U.S. border, Velasco has been busy. (Meagan Fitzpatrick/CBC News)

"I hear children, when I translate for them, very sad, scared. They don't know where they are and they don't know what's going to happen," she said. "No one is waiting there for them. When I see them crying, it is emotional for me." 

She tells them not to be scared, that even though they might be sent home, the immigration officials will not hurt them and they are in a safe place. Stories of young girls being raped during their journey from Guatemala are familiar ones to Velasco.

Proud of her Mayan culture

Velasco, 47, came to the U.S. in 1981. She lived in Minnesota and later moved to New York City and worked as a cultural interpreter at the National Museum of the American Indian, then came to the capital to work at the museum's Washington branch.

She is immensely proud of her Mayan culture and works hard to preserve and promote it. She dresses in a traditional shawl called a zute and a colourful shirt called a huipil. She made them both by hand herself; she was taught how to weave by her grandmother as a young girl. Part of her work with the museum involves her going back to her village and taking photos to illustrate the culture.

It's not always easy for Velasco to go home. People expect her to help them get to the U.S. and they become angry when she tells them she can't. The same pressure is put upon her when she's in court interpreting for them in the U.S.

"They don't understand that I'm only translating," she said. She’s not a lawyer or adviser, she can’t get involved in the cases. All she can do is translate and that's not easy for some of these people, desperate for help, to accept. "I'm sorry I tell them, I can’t."

Velasco knows of only one other person living in the U.S. that speaks Ixil, but they are not a U.S. citizen like she is, which means they can't work as an official translator for the court. It’s all up to her.

When asked about the volume of unaccompanied minors flooding the border from her country, Velasco said she doesn’t agree with parents sending their children on these dangerous journeys. For starters, their safety is at risk, but second, she’d prefer they stay in Guatemala where they can practise their cultural traditions and language. She knows many families are poor and struggle but Velasco said coming to America is not necessarily how to get a better life.

"What I would like to share with them is, you can make it where you are," she said.

She feels badly that families fall for the lies they are told by smugglers. The coyotes, as they’re called, show photos of the U.S. around her village, and tell young people how easy it is to make money there. Parents essentially sign their houses over to the banks to get money to pay the smugglers. Their children get caught at the border, are sent home and everything is lost, Velasco explained. In the worst-case scenario, their children don’t even make it back.

"I would not send my children," she said. "Their life is more important to me."