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Mayan speakers in Dallas face challenges while getting support from fellow Guatemalans

When Spanish-speaking immigrants from Latin America arrive in Dallas they face hurdles, but hardly anything is insurmountable: Spanish is widely used by hundreds of thousands of people.

But those who speak only or primarily indigenous languages suddenly find themselves lost and isolated in a city that doesn’t understand what they say.

“When that’s the case, it’s pretty hard for us. There’s a higher likelihood that we can only find a job in a kitchen or as dishwashers,” said Yesica Solval, 28, who lives in Dallas.

Solval’s native language is Kaqchikel, one of the 22 Mayan languages spoken in her native Guatemala.

Solval works as a cook at Isabel’s Guatemalan Restaurant, a North Dallas eatery where her interactions are limited to the other cooks from Guatemala who speak the same language.

Solval timidly agreed to an interview in Spanish, which she learned as a second language in her country along with Kaqchikel. But she said she continually finds fellow Guatemalans who can only communicate through their indigenous languages.

At Guatemalan restaurants in the Dallas area, indigenous languages create a welcoming atmosphere where chatter effortlessly flows between customers and servers.

Instead of “How are you doing?” customers say “Utz’ awach” or “Utz’ katinwilo” for “You look good/I like you” as they engage in lively conversations in K’iche’.

This is a contrasting scene in a county where 57.2% of the population speaks only English and 33.9% speaks Spanish, among the dozens of languages spoken in the area, according to 2021 Census population estimates.

Emilsa Bautista, 43, owner of La Guatemalteca Emy, a restaurant in northeast Dallas, said some of her employees face a double language barrier.

“Here, sometimes there’s no way to communicate — neither in English or Spanish,” said Bautista, a native of Guatemala who has lived in Dallas for over 30 years.

In her restaurant, menus are in English, Spanish and K’iche’, the most widely spoken Mayan language in Guatemala. The menu reads “Utz i petik,” K’ichean for “Welcome.”

Dallas County is home to about 19,000 people from Guatemala, according to the 2021 Census population estimates. About 7,500 Mayan-language speakers live in the Dallas area.

“They have a hard time adapting to society. It is difficult for them. Most people coming from faraway villages don’t have access to formal education. Migrating here is difficult,” said Tania Hernández Álvarez, vice-consul of Guatemala in Dallas.

Hernández Álvarez said her Farmers Branch-based diplomatic office serves 70 to 80 Guatemalan people per day and about 10% of them speak K’iche’ or Q’eqchi’. The consulate lacks staff speaking Mayan languages.

“They always bring in someone who can translate for them, because as much as we want to help them … they don’t understand us,” said Hernández Álvarez.

Yesica Solval poses in the dining room of Isabel’s Guatemalan Restaurant in north Dallas on Thursday, Aug. 18, 2022.(Liesbeth Powers / Staff Photographer)

Often, staff have to call Mayan speakers from consulates in McAllen or Washington, D.C., to translate by phone.

Calixto Saquic, 32, a Guatemalan entrepreneur who speaks K’iche’, said walking and shopping around Webb Chapel Road in northeast Dallas feels like home — surrounded by people speaking his country’s native languages.

“Some people don’t like us speaking among ourselves. But we are used to those [disparaging] comments,” he said.

Support among Guatemalans is vital

The growing number of Mayan speakers in North Texas has sprouted a supportive community for people who don’t speak or understand English or Spanish.

“We help each other. If someone doesn’t speak Spanish but I do, I bring him along to work with me,” said José Saquic, 27, who in Guatemala studied to become a bilingual K’iche’ and Spanish teacher.

Being a polyglot has paid off. Today, Saquic and his brother Calixto Saquic own Pizza Large on Ross Avenue, near downtown Dallas.

Pizza might be Italian food, but all the cooks and workers are from Guatemala, and most speak their native language. A recent restaurant remodeling was done by an all K’iche’-speaking crew, he said.

Building support networks is how these communities adapt to life in the U.S., said Calixto Saquic.

“When Guatemalans are already here, for them ‘here’ is home. ‘Where are you from? I’m from here, as long as I live here and I’m here,’ ” said Calixto Saquic, who arrived in Dallas when he was 12.

He’s originally from Chutzorop Tercero, a small town in the Chichicastenango municipality in Guatemala.

Solval also felt at home when she arrived in North Texas.

She specialized in cooking traditional Guatemalan dishes such as chapín breakfast (eggs, beans and plantains), pepián (spicy stew) or chorizo breakfast. After living for two years in Aurora, Colo., she moved to Dallas and found a robust Guatemalan community that helped her feel more comfortable.

An array of menu items from Isabel's Guatemalan Restaurant sit in the dining room in north...
An array of menu items from Isabel’s Guatemalan Restaurant sit in the dining room in north Dallas on Thursday, Aug. 18, 2022. These dishes include adobo (top row, left), hilachas (top row, center), atol (center), chopin breakfast (center row, right), rellenitos, or black bean filled plantain (bottom row, left), pepian (bottom row, center) and chorizo breakfast (bottom row, right).(Liesbeth Powers / Staff Photographer)

She came to the U.S. from Suchitepéquez, a Guatemalan state in which 38% of 555,000 people are Mayans, and more than 20,000 speak Kaqchikel, according to Guatemala’s National Statistics Institute. About 7.1% of the Guatemalan population speaks this language.

After living in Dallas for three years, Ricky Saquic, 20, José and Calixto’s nephew, still uses K’iche’ as his day-to-day language at work and in life.

He still doesn’t understand everything when people order in English. But at the restaurant, he communicates with his uncles in K’iche’.

“I express myself better in K’iche’, but in other languages it is different,” he said in Spanish.

From K’iche’ to English — languages converge in the U.S.

Pizza Large owners Calixto Saquic and brother Jose Saquic outside of their restaurant on...
Pizza Large owners Calixto Saquic and brother Jose Saquic outside of their restaurant on Thursday, Sept. 22, 2022, in Dallas. (Juan Figueroa / Staff Photographer)

Calixto Saquic wears a suit and introduces himself as a businessman. As soon as he enters the kitchen, he gives instructions to his employees in K’iche’.

When customers come in to pick up orders, Calixto Saquic engages with them in English.

Yet when he gives an interview in Spanish, he speaks slowly and with an accent.

Mastering English was difficult at first, he said, but listening to conversational audios every night after work helped him find similarities between English and K’iche’.

“For instance, to say ‘a hole’ in our dialect, we say ‘hole’, as in Whole Foods. That’s why people assimilate quickly,” Calixto Saquic said, referencing the phonetic similarities. That word in Spanish would be “hoyo.”

This is how the alphabet sounds like in the K’iche’ language
The K’iche’ alphabet is made up of 27 graphic signs, according to the Academy of Mayan Languages of Guatemala, but some letters have several pronunciations, such as “a”, “e” and “o”.
In the following audio, José Saquic recites the alphabet in K’iche’.
a ä a’ b b’ ch ch’ e ë e’ h i ï j k k’ l m n o ö o’ p q q’ r s t t’ tz tz’ w x y ‘

Mayan languages including K’iche’, Kaqchikel and Q’echi’ — among other languages from Central America and Southeast Mexico — don’t share a linguistic history or family with English or Spanish.

“Technically, we could say that both are in the same difficulty level for users to learn,” said Shelby Miller, applied linguistics professor at the University of North Texas at Dallas.

Words sounding similar in K’iche’ and English don’t necessarily have the same meaning but help people to have better pronunciation than if they only spoke Spanish.

For instance, “how” in K’iche’ means “what,” while “wish” means “cat.”

In Solval’s case, she started taking adult English classes offered at a Garland school.

José and Calixto Saquic said they speak English with their respective families and children while trying to preserve their native language.

If Mayan languages are the base of their identity, being trilingual is the future they see for their families.

“I want them to speak dialect, Spanish and English, because it’s important,” Calixto Saquic said.

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