In a region teeming with Hispanic diversity, the Mayan-speaking indigenous immigrant—often overlooked and sometimes disparaged—faces significant and heartbreaking difficulties in South Florida.
Her name was Estella.
She didn’t speak English at all, and her Spanish was rudimentary. But her son, she proudly proclaimed, could speak both.
“At home, we speak nuestro dialecto,” she said, referring to Mam, one of the many exMayan languages, and spoken by no more than a half million indigenous people. “But Miguelito learns everything very fast. He is increíble.”
Miguelito—later he would ask that everybody call him Miguel—seemed unfazed by his mother’s praise. He was eleven years old, wiry and small for his age. Or perhaps it was just that the face he wore seemed to belong to a fully grown adult man. There wasn’t a remnant of baby fat anywhere on him.
Liana Vasseur, Florida JFON’s administrative assistant, was doing intake interviews the day Estella and her son walked into the clinic. The three of them sat at a table and Estella began to tell her story, Miguel easily translating his mother’s words.
She was a widow from rural Guatemala. When her alcoholic husband, never a reliable family breadwinner, took his own life, she took her young son to the city to try to find a job to support them.
It didn’t go well. She couldn’t make enough money as a domestic worker. Sometimes she wasn’t paid at all. Miguelito was hungry too often and life in the city was even harder than the one they had left behind.
But Estella had a sister in Homestead, Florida, 40 miles south of Miami. It would be a dangerous journey, but there might be steady work at the end of it.
“I came here because of poverty,” she told Liana.
“And how long do you want to stay?” Liana asked.
“Three years,” was the reply. “Give me some time to work and then we can go home.”
“Her desires were so modest,” Liana reflects. “She didn’t talk about long-term dreams. Her immediate needs weighed so heavily upon her that it was as if there wasn’t any space left for dreams. “
Long-term dreams are replaced by short-term goals. To work; to make enough money to support herself and her son; to put food on the table and shoes on his feet; to sit and listen to him switch from Mam to Spanish and then to English, and proudly think, “this is my son.”
It isn’t a lot to ask from a woman whose Mayan ancestors lived in the Americas thousands of years before the first European settlers arrived. But even these humble goals may be out of reach.
Estella came to the clinic that day because she had an upcoming immigration court hearing and she was very afraid of going alone. Her fears, says Liana, were justified.
“We were able to listen to her and tell her what to expect in court, but she didn’t appear to have a clear remedy that would allow her to stay in the country,” Liana explains. “As difficult as her life was in Guatemala, it was unlikely to meet the requirements under U.S. asylum law. Other avenues seemed to be closed to her as well.”
For non-Spanish speaking indigenous immigrants like Estella, understanding and navigating our legal system is doubly difficult when you can’t always find an interpreter who speaks your dialect.
“So much depends on how well you make your claim, your access to hard evidence, your ability to persuade through language and whether or not a legal remedy exists,” says Liana. “There are so many hurdles to cross.”
In Estella’s case, these hurdles may be insurmountable.
But for now, she and Miguelito are here. On Sunday, he will wish her “Happy Mother’s Day” in three different languages, and Estella will beam and exclaim, “This is my son.”
Besides their adult indigenous clients like Estella, fully 80 percent of Florida JFON’s unaccompanied minor clients are Mayan-speaking. Like their adult counterparts, they must grapple with language and cultural barriers, prejudice, and isolation from the Hispanic communities as they try to make sense of our laws and customs.
They shouldn’t have to do it alone.
Florida JFON is hoping to establish a a hospitality committee to transport and accompany indigenous and other clients to their immigration court hearings. If you would like to be a part of planning this effort please contact them on their website. Please also consider making a donation to help clients like Estella and her son.—