Posted on February 15, 2010

Language Leaves Justice Tongue-Tied

Boston Herald, February 13, 2010


In Hillsborough Circuit Court, two cases, both too serious to dismiss, are stalled for lack of a Mam translator. In one, a 4-year-old Wimauma girl was raped. The details are locked inside her mother, who speaks only Mam. And last year, Pablo-Ramirez was convicted and sentenced to life in prison, before the judge granted a motion for retrial.


The man from the western highlands of Guatemala, who has only a first-grade education, had entered the United States illegally a few years earlier. Pablo-Ramirez picked up a bit of Spanish from other migrant workers. His lawyer says he knew just enough to understand the detective’s questions. Did he have sex with the girl? Was the baby his?

Si, Pablo-Ramirez said. In broken Spanish, he tried to explain that he was paying child support. The lawyer says his client didn’t understand his Miranda rights. As he was being led away in handcuffs on charges of sexual abuse and impregnation of a child younger than 12, he continued to promise he would pay for the baby.

The girl’s family returned to their home town of Todos Santos Cuchumatan, Guatemala, and sent a notarized letter to the judge, saying the relationship happened with parental consent.

In the letter, the father said that in his culture, boys and girls marry as young as 11.

While more than 15 percent of Guatemalan girls are married by age 15, scholars with the Population Council say a pregnant or married 11-year-old is very rare.


There is no state certification for Mam interpreters, no central bank. Texas linguistics professor Nora C. England wrote her doctoral dissertation on Mam grammar and has penned entire books about Mayan languages. Even she can’t speak Mam well enough to translate, she says. She knows no one who does.


{snip} But Ed Fuentes, who owns an interpreter service in Washington, found a solution.

Seeing cases get dismissed, the Spanish interpreter considered learning Mam himself. Then one day, while waiting for a client in a jail lobby, he heard a man speaking the language.

The man had no interpreting experience. He earned a living by finding laborers to pick brush in the mountains. But Fuentes had never been closer to finding an interpreter. He spent 20 to 25 hours teaching the man legal terminology and court ethics.

Last year, when a Mam man faced a murder charge, Fuentes and his new interpreter worked in tandem at the same hearing–one from English to Spanish, and the other from Spanish to Mam. The case was dismissed and the man was deported.

Attorneys sometimes get lucky with Internet searches and track down Rosendo Leon Aguilar Carrillo, a San Francisco-based Mam interpreter who has traveled to Chicago, Kansas City, New Mexico and Seattle, charging $300 per day plus travel.

He says that when defendants in court can finally hear what’s happening from a fellow Mam, some cry tears of relief.