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Obscure Mayan language leaves justice tongue-tied

TAMPA — He was 28. She was 11. Her parents said they gave consent, claiming cultural norms of the Guatemalan highlands. But in Dover, Florida, a little girl with a baby raises questions.

When deputies came, Teodoro Pablo-Ramirez understood only some of what they said, according to his lawyer. He speaks no English and little Spanish — just the Mayan tongue of Mam.

The indigenous language, understood by few interpreters, has stymied court cases across the country. One interpreting service in Washington resorted to recruiting a Mam speaker out of a jail lobby.

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 court could provide only Spanish interpreters.

In Spanish, the word "trial" is juicio.

In Mam:

Tun txi´ jun xjal twitz aj kawil.

Pablo-Ramirez lived next-door to the 11-year-old in a cluster of Dover trailers inhabited by migrant workers. He was her brother-in-law. They had sex at least three times in her bedroom, and in the spring of 2005, the girl got pregnant, records show.

She missed school and gave birth to a baby boy when she was 12. When she returned, a counselor asked why she had been away. By day's end, a Spanish-speaking detective was knocking on Pablo-Ramirez's door.

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.

When West Tampa lawyer Bryant Camareno first spoke to Pablo-Ramirez, the prisoner mixed bits of Spanish with Mam in a combination the lawyer couldn't understand. Camareno knew he needed to find a Mam interpreter. But how?

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.

Public defenders and advocacy groups e-mail her regularly, sometimes once a week, looking for an interpreter.

The interpreter's office at the Hillsborough courthouse found a Mam interpreter in Lake Worth but could never connect with her to get her to court.

So Pablo-Ramirez sat through his jury trial last year with a Spanish interpreter.

An expert witness for the prosecution testified that Pablo-Ramirez spoke fluent Spanish.

Camareno argued that the Guatemalan didn't understand enough of what was said.

The jury found Pablo-Ramirez guilty. Then, on sentencing day, Judge Wayne Timmerman told Pablo-Ramirez he would spend the rest of his life in prison.

The words hit his ears in Spanish.

Pablo-Ramirez registered no reaction.

Timmerman asked Camareno if his client understood what just happened. No, the lawyer remembers saying; that was his point all along.

Camareno turned to Pablo-Ramirez and broke the sentence down to one word he thought the man might understand.

"Vida," Camareno told him.


Finally, Pablo-Ramirez looked shocked. "Por que?" he asked.


• • •

It's unclear how many people in the Tampa Bay area speak only Mayan languages, but officials at the Redlands Christian Migrant Association know the population in east Hillsborough County is growing.

The Immokalee-based non-profit provides early childhood services from Homestead to Plant City. Migrant Head Start manager Lourdes Villanueva said officials realized 10 years ago that about 80 percent of her children came from families who spoke only indigenous languages at home. That posed a problem, especially during child evaluation conferences with parents.

Program workers asked the Mexican consulate and local universities for help, but what they got couldn't begin to tackle the dozens of dialects spoken. So now, Villanueva said, staffers try to find Spanish-speaking neighbors to mediate. If that doesn't work, the child must interpret.

Court trials can't work that way. 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.

• • •

Now 32, Pablo-Ramirez remains in prison. It's unclear whether he understands why. Or whether he'll get a shot at a new trial with a Mam interpreter.

Judge Timmerman was concerned about the defendant's ability to understand what was happening. The judge ordered a competency evaluation.

Doctors discussed his language deficits. Timmerman granted a defense motion for retrial, which prosecutors plan to appeal.

At a hearing this week, Pablo-Ramirez stood before a judge once more, a Spanish interpreter at his side.

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Alexandra Zayas can be reached at or (813) 226-3354.

Hear Mam

To hear a sample of spoken Mam and compare it with spoken Spanish, go to

Obscure Mayan language leaves justice tongue-tied 02/06/10 [Last modified: Saturday, February 6, 2010 8:13pm]
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