Citing California's rapidly growing population of Latin American Indians, advocates for immigrant rights called on court administrators statewide Thursday to recognize the pressing need for interpreters in the pre-Columbian languages of Mexico and Guatemala.
"Often, our people's Spanish skills are not good enough for them to understand the legal process," said Rafael Lopez Robles, a Zapotec Indian who is Los Angeles coordinator for the Indigenous Oaxacan Binational Front, a group representing native peoples from Oaxaca state in southern Mexico.
Speaking at a news conference in Los Angeles, the activists complained that court personnel--from judges to defense lawyers to prosecutors--too often assume that all people from Latin America speak and understand Spanish.
In fact, they noted a huge increase since the early 1980s in the the number of immigrants from Mexico and Guatemala whose principal tongues predate the arrival of Europeans in the Americas. Precise estimates are hard to come by, but the groups estimate conservatively that more than 100,000 indigenous people from the two nations live in California, in rural and urban settings.
Some become entangled in the criminal justice system, where they are assigned Spanish interpreters. Many hardly understand the proceedings against them and thus cannot present an adequate defense, the activists said.
"We can no longer assume that migrants from south of the border speak Spanish well enough to get by with just Spanish interpreters," said Claudia E. Smith, regional counsel for California Rural Legal Assistance, a private nonprofit group that aids the poor.
Perhaps the most notorious miscarriage of justice linked to the language barrier was the case of Santiago Ventura, a young Mixtec farm worker who was convicted of murder in Oregon and spent five years in prison. A judge overturned his conviction in 1991 and ordered Ventura freed after his lawyers argued, among other things, that Mixtec witnesses were unable to respond intelligibly to questions posed in Spanish.
In another Oregon case, Adolfo Gonzalez was committed for two years to a mental institution in Salem where clinicians assumed he was "speaking tongues"--actually his native Oaxaca language, said his attorney, Rebecca Hillyer, who finally won his release.
Currently, California judicial authorities certify interpreters for eight languages, including Spanish, but not for any indigenous tongues, said Elizabeth Vazquez-Avila, staff coordinator for the interpreter advisory panel of the Judicial Council of California. The council sets policy for the state courts.
In individual cases, Vazquez-Avila said, judges may order the use of interpreters of indigenous tongues and other noncertified languages. Court authorities are examining proposals to bolster the use of indigenous interpreters, Vazquez-Avila added, but no decision has been made.
Any effort faces formidable barriers, including a lack of trained personnel and the need to use so-called "relay" translations--with one person interpreting from the indigenous language to Spanish, and another providing the Spanish to English translation. There are relatively few people who can translate directly from the indigenous tongues to English.
However, immigrant advocates recently used a grant from Oxfam America, an aid organization, to send 15 Mixtec and Zapotec speakers to intensive training at the Monterey Institute of International Studies in Northern California. Besides honing their interpreter skills, the trainees learned about courtroom ethics and procedures.
"How can there be justice if someone doesn't understand what is being said in court?" asked Francisco Martinez, one of the trainees, who has worked as a Mixtec translator in municipal courts in the San Joaquin Valley.
While Mexico's population is overwhelmingly mestizo, or mixed race, certain regions, including Oaxaca, include large concentrations of indigenous people. Guatemala's population remains mostly Indian.