Mayan Languages: Our Diverse Culture

It isn’t Spanish.

The languages heard in Guatemalan neighborhoods of Palm Beach County
are ancient Mayan. Despite what is commonly assumed, the estimated 35,000 local indigenous people from the Guatemalan highlands mostly converse in M'am, Q'anjob'al, or any one of 22 other Indian languages -- not Spanish which is the dominant language across Central America. These quiet, hardworking people are Mayas, the descendants of a once mighty civilization, who began arriving in South Florida in the early 1980s with no knowledge of Spanish or English.

Fleeing genocide, civil war and poverty, first came the Q'anjob'al Maya from San Miguel Acatán, then the Mames, Jacaltecos and others from the state of Huehuetenango. Many settled in the Lake Worth area, where they remain today, living in the shadows and clinging to their native languages. “They’re not Hispanic. They are Maya,” said Dr. John Linstroth, executive director of Guatemalan-Maya Center. “They are a separate population that speaks many indigenous languages.”

As many as six million indigenous Maya are believed to still be speaking Mayan languages. Most live in Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Mexico, and United States.

The Mayan empire lasted nearly 3,500 years, before it was eventually conquered by the Spanish, according to language scholars. Back then, the ancient language was mostly a tool for the elite, especially the kings. In fact, much of the old Mayan texts discussed the birth, ascension or death of kings, and the rituals carried out by them.

Because Mayas were spread across a large region, their language had many pronunciations, and over time, those dialects spawned new languages that are still spoken today. It’s not uncommon to have people from one region of Guatemala not fully understanding the languages of another region.

Most modern Mayan languages are likely derived from a 5,000-year-old language known as Proto-Mayan. There are five branches in the Mayan language family: Cholan-Tzeltalan, Huastecan, Q’anjobalan-Chujean, Quichean-Mamean, and Yucatecan.

Many of those languages are heard on Palm Beach County streets lined with coin laundries, Mexican eateries and Latin groceries, where Guatemalan families live in apartments and trailers and make a living working at grocery stores and farm fields.

Even though they are far from their homeland, local Guatemalans are more comfortable speaking their languages than conversing in Spanish or English. They spend much of their time among their own, talking with relatives, friends and coworkers who share their languages.

As a result, their tight-knit community and language barriers isolate them from the surrounding society. That’s why Guatemalan-Mayas aren’t represented in government and can’t defend their positions in the growing anti-immigration movement.

The inability to speak fluid English or Spanish also has made many Guatemalan-Mayas victims of crime, particularly robberies, because the attackers know they aren’t likely to go to the police.

But times are slowly changing. The younger generations of Guatemalan-Mayas in Palm Beach County are learning English and Spanish and making strides to fully assimilate. They are attending public school and building friendships outside their Guatemalan-Maya circles. Some Guatemalan-Maya elders are actually urging youths not to stray too far from their Mayan roots and indigenous tongues so that their proud heritage is preserved.

Meanwhile, many adults are starting to take steps to integrate as well. While their children attend pre-kindergarten, parents are learning English and computer skills. Armed with better language skills, they are steadily venturing out of their comfort zones and finding work that doesn’t involve picking vegetables, stuffing grocery bags or cutting grass.

Among the Guatemalan-Maya leaders, there is hope that their community is coming out of the shadows and finding its voice in Palm Beach County.

Writer: Leon Fooksman can be reached at [email protected].