CHAMPAIGN — Language barriers were already a public health problem. The pandemic made them even more life or death than usual.

When you’re communicating a COVID-19-derived concept like 6 feet of social distancing to local speakers of Q’anjob’al (pronounced “kahn-ho-Bahl”), one of the most common languages spoken in Guatemala, you translate with as much cultural specificity as humanly possible.

Which means adopting cultural units of measurement — Waqeb’ ja’ — based on a hand’s length, that the older generation of speakers will understand.

“There are young Q’anjob’al that are born here who only measure in feet. Then you have the grandma, la abuelita, who only knows the hand measurement, and the parent who will think in meters,” said UI Assistant Clinical Professor Korinta Maldonado. “It takes so much time to just translate one sentence.”

It’s a drop of the public health messaging that Maldonado and her crew at Pixan Konob’ Q’anjob’al Interpreters and Language Justice Collective have been creating for the last 18 months.

For the work of the collective she helped form, Maldonado on Saturday will receive the 2021 Immigrant Leadership Award from the Champaign-Urbana Immigration Forum.

“I’m very excited, a little shy about it, too. It’s hard to conceive an individual winning this award because it’s such a collective process,” said Maldonado, who teaches anthropology and American Indian studies at the university. “How do I make sure everyone is accounted for? Because everyone has pitched in some little piece of it.”

Through Pixan Konob’, founded in 2019, Maldonado and six core members — along with other professors and community assistants — have approached the verbal walls that exist for local Q’anjob’al speakers, many of whom don’t speak mainline Spanish.

According to estimates from the Guatemalan Consulate, around 8,000 speakers of Mayan languages reside in central Illinois.

There are 22 Mayan languages spoken in Guatemala, six of which have been identified in Champaign County alone. Q’anjob’al is common here, but there’s also Chuj in Rantoul, and other variants like Kaqchikel and Q’echi’ peppered throughout.

The local need for language assistance materialized for Maldonado during some of the group’s early work helping asylum seekers, when she often served as a second interpreter for Mayan Guatemalans struggling with online or over-the-phone translators.

“Family separation can start from there, from losing language,” she said. “I’m from Mexico City; my kids are from Champaign, and my little one almost doesn’t speak Spanish. And I see how hard it is to connect with my family in Mexico.”

The services of Pixan Konob’ have come under a spotlight during COVID-19, which provided additional linguistic challenges to an already strained community.

The team helped with early COVID-19 communications, especially in Rantoul. Many of the workers caught in the Rantoul Foods outbreak were Q’anjob’al speakers.

Then they took to the radio waves, emceeing a weekly show “Be’i bal h’eb jich mam” on Mondays on WRFU 104.5 FM from 6 to 7 p.m., with traditional music and COVID-19 information provided in Q’anjob’al and Spanish.

Language work isn’t just about interpreting, Maldonado said. It means amplifying the transnational Mayan culture locally and bringing it to the minds of the surrounding community.

“We’re breaking this mold of monolingualism. You turn on the radio and they’re speaking a different language,” Maldonado said. “We’re breaking the mold of what people think is Champaign.”

They can’t always tell how many people tune in to broadcasts, unlike TikTok, where the collective operates under the handle @pixankonobchampaign.

“When we did a TikTok, there was a lot of excitement within the collective of doing them and learning how to do them, and I could see the potential because people were actually sharing it,” she said.

Beyond facilitating the well-being and exposure for this community, the collective is seizing on a global moment, Maldonado said, when the work of anthropologists makes sense to a world audience.

“Our field, of putting the human experience to the forefront, is crucial,” Maldonado said. “Like why are people not using a mask? We need to know that, and that goes through the human experience and their own histories.”

‘Language barriers are a problem right now’

Growing up in Mexico City, Maldonado’s anthropological interest sparked when she learned of the Chiapas conflict in southern Mexico, led by indigenous Zapatistas, which exposed her to the radical diversity that existed in her nation and around the world.

“It just brought me to understand the complexities of Mexico, beyond my little scope in the city through this armed uprising that was saying we are Mayas, and we need to be accounted for in this nation,” she said.

From her education in Mexico and Texas, Maldonado brings an approach to anthropology that’s more hands-on than traditional practice.

“We’re producing knowledge, not just because — but because we’re solving a very specific problem, and in the process, many other things happen,” she said. “Language barriers are a problem right now, and it’s immediate, and it really affects people’s lives, it’s life or death in some cases.”

Pixan Konob’ is crafting a video about the delta variant, and with more native-speaking linguists on the way, the team will start working on writing skills, particularly among the older generation of Q’anjob’al speakers.

They may be able to speak the language perfectly, but with the aftereffects of colonialism, its usually just the younger generations who know how to write or read Q’anjob’al, with the guidance of new indigenous language policies.

“It was punished if you speak Maya,” she said. “That experience marks everybody, and that cannot happen again. It shouldn’t happen anywhere.”

‘We are determined to be on the map globally’January will mark the new frontier for her work: the United Nations’ Decade of Indigenous Languages begins, a period dedicated to the documentation and preservation of the world’s at-risk tongues and the communities they inhabit.

“We are determined to be on the map globally,” she said. “We’re going to be on the map in Champaign as a diverse community, we’re going to celebrate and put our work out there of the multiple communities that are here.”

Maldonado envisions a time “on the horizon” when C-U fully embraces a multicultural identity. The professor said she’s seen a lot of progress on this front since she moved here in 2005 for her post-doctorate.

“I think there’s so many people working toward a really diverse community that I think it’s near, it’s possible and it’s not that far off,” Maldonado said. “I see Champaign, and I see little dots connecting to all these places, and I can’t get that out of my head. We’re like a large network.”

She’s equally optimistic for post-pandemic life and how we’ll hold the lessons of living through months that felt downright apocalyptic.

“We’re going to come out with this great knowledge of how to survive crisis and survive this ‘doom moment’ in ways we don’t even envision yet,” she said.

More than ever, Maldonado finds solace in nature, or wherever she can avoid mosquitos. The professor grows a vegetable garden — “half of the time, I fail,” the professed city girl said — but her green-thumbed hands have steadied in the last year and a half of isolation.

“There’s so much in your backyard that you can discover that you hadn’t before considered, learning about our kin that is not human as well,” she said.

Throughout the week, we’ll tell the stories of community members and organizations set to be honored with C-U Immigration Forum Welcome Awards in a Zoom ceremony at 3:30 p.m. Saturday:

Immigrant Leadership: Korinta Maldonado

Business Leadership: Maize Mexican Grill

Community Impact: Immigration Justice Task Force of Unitarian Universalist Church of U-C

Distinguished Service: Greg Springer

Student Leadership: Daniella DiStefano

Claire Szoke Lifetime of Service: John Muirhead