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A Tlayuda Pop-Up Speaks The Language Of South LA's Indigenous Community

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On September 5, 2010, an LAPD officer shot and killed 37-year-old day laborer Manuel Jaminez Xum. A spokesperson for the Los Angeles Police Department said Jaminez Xum was inebriated and had threatened people with a knife. Some witnesses in the Westlake neighborhood disputed that account. They insisted Jaminez Xum wasn't holding a knife and was not a violent person.

Al Labrada, a commanding officer with the LAPD, said bike officers had ordered Jaminez Xum, in both English and Spanish, to drop the knife. Whether or not he had a knife, Jaminez Xum wouldn't have understood them. He didn't speak either language. He had moved to Los Angeles from Xexac, a village in southwestern Guatemala where he had grown up speaking Quiche, an indigenous Mayan language.

The incident set a match to the long-simmering distrust for law enforcement in the heavily migrant neighborhood. After the shooting of Jaminez Xum, unrest flared up.

"We had about three days of minor civil disobedience and disruptions in the community," Labrada says. "One thing we learned was that we didn't have good communication in the Rampart-Westlake area. We're still working on that."

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In the aftermath, the department wanted to increase officers' understanding of native communities. To do that, they partnered with Comunidades Indígenas en Liderazgo and Binational Front of Indigenous Organizations, two groups dedicated to furthering the language, rights and self-determination of indigenous peoples native to Mexico.

Speak Your Piece

CIELO and FIOB primarily serve people who come from Baja California, Oaxaca and Guatemala. When they arrive in the United States, they are, like many migrants from Latin America, classified as "hispanic." Beyond the general public, administrators in government organizations, hospitals and the court system often assume that all Latinos speak Spanish, leaving countless indigenous people in the U.S. without a voice.

"A lot of immigration agencies still don't know about the diversity of the languages," says Odilia Romero, president of FIOB and a freelance interpreter of English, Spanish and Zapotec. "It's crazy. I might get 20 calls a day saying, 'I need a Zapotec interpreter.' I'll get on the phone and find out it's not even Zapotec but it's Chinantec or a different [variation of] Zapotec. They just don't know."

Guatemala is home to 23 indigenous language families and Mexico has 68. Each of those language families has dozens of dialects that can vary from village to village. Two people who speak Zapotec but come from different pueblos in separate regions might not understand each other.

The lack of access to interpreters masks a deeper problem — not recognizing the need for them.

The problem presents itself not only in interactions with the police. It's a challenge in hospitals, in courts, during routine traffic stops and in interactions between private citizens.

Silvia Ventura Luna, an English, Spanish and Mixteco interpreter with FIOB, works primarily in the medical field, helping patients and providers communicate with each other. She often finds herself trying to determine from facial expressions whether a patient understands the Spanish she is interpreting for them.

"I realized [one woman] wasn't comprehending the question. She was answering something totally different from what was being asked. The way she was articulating her response wasn't the way a Spanish speaker would respond," Luna says. After three attempts to relay the information, the patient finally admitted she spoke another language, Azteca.

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Many people are afraid to admit they aren't fluent in Spanish. They worry they won't receive proper medical care. They fear institutionalized racism and discrimination by Chicanos against indigenous people. They want to maintain their privacy and may not want members of their close-knit communities to know their business.

Luna says interpreters are held to an impartial standard and can't advocate for patients. They can only tell providers when they think the patient speaks another language. "You can't establish communication aside from what's being said by the provider. As an interpreter, you're just supposed to relay the message. Sometimes, I walk away feeling very powerless," Luna says.

An Edible Metaphor

Every Friday evening, friends and family gather adjacent to the South Los Angeles headquarters of CIELO and FIOB in South Los Angeles for food and mezcal. The weekly pop-up is the home of Poncho's Tlayudas, known for its large corn tortillas covered with beans, cheese and shredded cabbage then folded and grilled to a crisp. At Poncho's — famous thanks to stories in Eater L.A., the New York Times and L.A. Taco — Romero offers the Oaxacan specialty with links of plump blood sausage made from her mother's recipe. On Sundays, at Smorgasburg L.A., she serves them with chorizo and tender sheets of tasajo. For vegans, she makes mushroom and cactus options.

The tlayudas are a gastronomic wonder, transcending borders and shattering language barriers, which is perfect. In most indigenous languages, there is no word for "border" since these cultures generally eschew the concept of possessing land. That's one example of how difficult it can be to translate concepts from language to language, from culture to culture.

Commander Al Labrada of the LAPD. (Jon Endow for LAist)

Interpretation is an imprecise process in the best of circumstances. It requires not only trial and error. It demands trust and cultural awareness.

Some Spanish and English concepts conveyed with a single word — "incarceration," "chemotherapy" — often require many words in indigenous languages.

Thanks to the partnership with CIELO and FIOB, LAPD officers will soon start to carry pocket-sized translation cards. When subjects don't appear fluent in English or Spanish, the questions on the cards will help officers determine what indigenous language they might speak. Romero says officers will even try to narrow it down to the pueblo. "Then we can say, [for example] we need to find a K'iche' translator and try to reach those folks," the LAPD's Labrada says.

"That's the difference with our training," says Janet Mart, director and coordinator at FIOB. "It's [done] by indigenous people to bring cultural awareness and cultural competency to the LAPD. We want to make space for people [so they can] speak for themselves and not just have us speak about them."

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