In the United States, the Spanish language is often used as an identifying marker for U.S.-born Latinos and Latin American newcomers, whether they speak it or not — because not all Latinos speak Spanish, and I am not just referring to later-generation descendants of Spanish-speaking people.
There are 45 million indigenous people in Latin America, and many more from the 826 distinct indigenous communities have come to the United States after being displaced by violence or environmental degradation and/or seeking the same sort of alternatives and opportunities that many other immigrants do. Although about 60% of indigenous people in Latin America are bilingual (meaning they speak both the dominant language in their country, which is Spanish for the majority of the continent, as well as one or more indigenous languages), 20% speak only the dominant language, and the other 20% speak only indigenous languages (according to recent studies by ECLAC).
Receiving communities across the U.S., including West Michigan, are learning that they can’t assume that all people from Spanish-speaking countries indeed speak Spanish, which challenges the bilingual (English and Spanish only) support structures that are set up to accommodate Latinos with limited English proficiency. Voices of NY reported earlier this year on the case of a Guatemalan man who went missing in Brooklyn and it took his family 8 months to find him because court records had the wrong spelling of his name; the Spanish spoken by the court interpreters offered as little to him in the way of understanding as the English spoken by the court officers.
Grand Rapids is home to indigenous Guatemalans as well. In 2014 the Grand Rapids People’s History Project published an online series about how faith-based groups in the area created a sanctuary for Central Americans fleeing violence in the 1980s. The first people to arrive in Grand Rapids under the Central American Sanctuary movement were two indigenous families from Guatemala in 1987. The history of this community does not seem to be well documented, from what I can find, but it makes sense that other indigenous people followed their relatives and neighbors to Michigan. In fact, approximately 6,000 people or over one-third of the residents of Cajolá, a Mam Mayan town in Guatemala, have come to the United States — and 1,000 of them have settled in Grand Rapids (according to NACLA).
Indigenous Latin Americans, especially those who don’t speak Spanish, are stigmatized and marginalized by the majority culture in their own countries. When they come here as immigrants, they are frequently invisible as part of the larger Latino community. When I searched several different combinations of the words indigenous, Mam, Guatemalan, Grand Rapids, and West Michigan, I found very little information online. Colleagues who work with Latino organizations in the area are aware, at least anecdotally, of the Mam-speaking community here, and it appears that there are Mam interpreters working in the healthcare and legal settings.
It’s important for those of us who advocate for bilingualism to acknowledge and to continue to expand the space for indigenous Latinos to have their own voice, even if it is not one that speaks Spanish.
[Update: After writing this post, I came across this Latino USA segment about a trilingual Mam interpreter – it’s worth a listen if you are interested in hearing more about this topic from someone much more qualified to speak about it!]