Mesoamerican Language Interpretation Opens Opportunities for People in Oregon


When Bonnie Windham was having conversations with Oregon Department of Human Services employees who directly serve members of the public, language interpretation services came up. ODHS told Windham, who is the Language Access Manager for the Office of Equity and Multicultural Services, that there were some gaps in the languages offered; What was missing were languages spoken by people from Mesoamerica.

The historic region of Mesoamerica includes the modern-day countries of northern Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, Belize, and central to southern Mexico. This area was populated by groups such as the Olmec, Zapotec, Maya, Toltec, and Aztec peoples for thousands of years. 68 languages and 364 variants are recognized in Mesoamerica.

“One thing that keeps people from accessing our services is language barriers. Language is a social determinant of health and economic stability. Language is central to who we are. There can be no service equity without language access,” Windham said.

So, she worked with the Oregon Certified Interpreters Network (OCIN) and the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization (IRCO) to expand their telephone interpreter services to ODHS, allowing the department to include these Mesoamerican languages for on demand prescheduled interpretations: Chuj, Jakalteko, Kaqchikel, K’iche’, Mam, Todos Santos, a variant of Mam, Maya, Mixteco (Alto y Bajo), Náhuatl, Poptí, Q’anjobal, Tzotzil and Zapoteco.

ODHS and its partners can call for interpreter services on demand or schedule them in advance. In addition to these Mesoamerican languages, both OCIN and IRCO offer full language banks with more than 300 other languages.

To Windham, offering these language services to the people ODHS serves is important because “language holds our identity.”

“[Language] holds our history,” Windham said. “A lot of language erasure is cultural erasure. When we ignore something as central to people’s identities as the language they speak, we unintentionally can cause harm. It increases the level of fear and the level of frustration. People are in a vulnerable situation when they come to us. And some communities do not trust the government. Plus, navigating our systems can be scary. It’s hard enough when English is your first language to understand what the rules are.”

When a woman recently came into an ODHS Linn County office needing to make changes for her food benefits, the staff members saw that she spoke Spanish. When she was handed an eligibility form written in Spanish, however, she couldn’t read it, as Spanish wasn’t her first language. She spoke Mam.

Many of the Mesoamerican languages are not written, but ODHS was able to supply the form she needed in an audio format, as they can do for other languages.

“She was super happy we were able to help her,” Marlen Torres, ODHS Publications and Creative Services Language Access Manager said. “But this also shows we need to have better customer service, use best practices to find a linguist match. We need to ask what part of Mexico people are from — what county, state, province or municipality — and what languages they speak. This is important in the work we do. It could be a life or death situation.”

Not only is language access important for the well-being of the people ODHS serves, but it is a federally protected civil right. ODHS is required to provide vital documents and language services and communication for people with disabilities.

“When we can offer equitable services with interpretation or translations in the languages the individual speaks or needs, they tell us how grateful they are,” Torres said. “Their kids may now have health insurance through the Oregon Health Plan or food services. They tell us, ‘You’re helping my family a lot. You’re saving lives.’ They say we are heroes, but no, this is my job as a public servant, this is what we do. It is nice that my community sees that our agencies are trying to provide services in an equitable way.
Now we can help more people help them be self-sufficient.”

Is there more work to be done to create more language access for people in Oregon? Always.

“It is a small piece of the need,” Windham said. “Ideally, we would have someone available in person. And it is still hard to find interpreters for some languages such as Rohingya, Dari, Pashto and Uzbek. There are however some ODHS eligibility forms into those languages. Having quality interpretation services is really important for the work we do.”

If you have questions about ODHS language services, you can send an email to

About Author

Christine Decker is a Public Affairs Specialist for the Oregon Department of Human Services. Before working in communications she was a working journalist.

Comments are closed.