Have you ever heard the Maya language spoken in San Francisco? If not, listen to our audio story to the right. It will open your ears to a little-known language spoken by thousands of people in the city – but rarely discussed outside its cultural community.
San Francisco is a hub of Maya language and culture, and one of the most densely Maya-populated cities in the country. There are an estimated 10,000 to 15,000 Yucatec Mayas — or Mayas from the Yucatan region in Mexico — living within its seven by seven-mile boundaries. The earliest Maya language dates back thousands of years, and modern variants of it survive in Mexico and Central America.
Beyond the Yucatan, over 25,000 Mayas from Guatemala and other regions in Mexico, like Chiapas, have also taken up residence in the greater Bay Area. In the Mission especially, Mayas have left their stamp. Walk around the neighborhood and you’re certain to see a Maya restaurant or two, hear the distinctive vowel-rich sounds of the language, or even catch a sound bite of Maya music, drifting out of half-open windows.
While the Maya language and culture is kept alive in the Mission and throughout San Francisco, the community’s self-contained nature has also given rise to a growing need for Maya language interpreters. A 2003 survey conducted by San Francisco City College students found that 85% of Yucatec Maya immigrants living in San Francisco speak Maya as their first language, and over 95% speak it very frequently at their jobs and in their homes.
That language barrier can be problematic when Mayas come into contact with officials in city agencies such as courts and hospitals if they don’t have the tools to communicate in English.
The need for indigenous language interpreters in the courts and hospitals led to the creation of the Maya language interpreters program at the Asociacion Mayab, a Mission-based nonprofit organization and community center for Mayas. The three-month program trains native Maya speakers to interpret from Spanish and English to Maya, in the city’s judicial system and medical centers.
Through an intensive three-hour class every Saturday, the program gives them the tools to wade through the complicated legalese of courts and medical terminology of hospitals. So far, the program has certified eight interpreters, and is on track to certify more when it ends this June.
On a recent Saturday, two Mission Local reporters stopped by the Asociacion Mayab to see the class. Listen to this audio piece to hear what the language sounds like—and to learn more about what the program does to expand the communication of its students.