As scholars of language and culture, linguistic anthropologists often find themselves mediating between different groups and across power differentials in the communities where we work. In this article, three colleagues highlight the linguistic and cultural complexities faced by indigenous Latin American immigrants to the US. In institutional settings, these “invisible” migrants find it difficult to access services that are structured with Spanish-speaking Latino populations in mind. This work aptly represents the contributions that SLA and linguistic anthropologists make by taking our theoretical work into the public sphere.
—Anna Babel and Ilana Gershon
Those of us who work on indigenous languages from Mexico and Central America have become used to regular requests for help in finding interpreters. While the importance of finding interpreters is certainly a central concern, having the necessary interpreter does not ensure that indigenous immigrants have equal access to social services. Resolving the problem of translation does not solve the problem of miscommunication in cross-cultural interactions.
We have been working with local groups in Kentucky and Ohio to develop strategies to enable more successful cross-cultural communication in social service interactions involving indigenous immigrants from Mexico and Central America, even in the context of restrictive institutional structures.
In our work, we apply the findings of linguistic anthropologists working in Mesoamerica to the everyday issues that arise in health care and legal interactions (even in cases where patients are fluent speakers of Spanish). Work such as T.S. Harvey’s research on Maya medical interactions and Jill Brody’s work on the structure of conversation in Maya communities have been extremely helpful in identifying moments where miscommunication might arise from different understandings of how an interaction might proceed.
Indigenous health care interactions typically involve more than two individuals and anyone involved in the interaction may ask or answer questions at any time so that symptoms may be expressed by anyone present in the interaction. However, in our work in Kentucky, one interpreter told us that a doctor suspected that a patient was a victim of domestic abuse simply because it was her husband (and not the patient herself) who answered the doctor’s questions regarding symptoms.
In legal contexts, the interactional structure of the Western deposition may be quite alien for indigenous immigrants. It may be impossible to see any relationship between the larger problems leading to a request for asylum and the specific details requested in the interview for a legal deposition. The genre of the deposition simply does not translate into Maya culture. Likewise, in criminal justice hearings, culturally specific norms of courtroom interactions leave indigenous participants unsure of discursive roles and how and when to make meaningful contributions.
While we have found the research of a number of linguistic anthropologists extremely helpful in identifying problems in social service interactions, efforts to resolve these problems can be extremely frustrating. The interactional norms of Western social services are not particularly malleable. Even if one recognizes strategies for improving communication with indigenous patients, for example, it may not be possible to enact those strategies in the short time a doctor spends with a patient. Awareness that the structure of an asylum interview is problematic for indigenous immigrants may be of little help when the legal system will only accept a unitary way of approaching such interviews. Our hope is that we can work more closely with social service providers to bridge such gaps, but all too often it is the indigenous immigrant who is expected to adapt to Western contexts that are all too foreign, and who ultimately suffers the consequences of miscommunication.
Rusty Barrett is associate professor at the University of Kentucky, Hilaria Cruz is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Kentucky, and Maria Luz Garcia is an assistant professor at Eastern Michigan University.
Cite as: Barrett, Rusty, Hiliaria Cruz, and Maria Luz Garcia. 2017. “Difficult Interpretations.” Anthropology News website, August 4, 2017. doi: 10.1111/AN.547