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Mateo’s Story: Connecting with the Twice-Marginalized

Originally posted in The Public I by board member Janice Jayes



If you are a Q’anjob’al speaker in CU, you are probably familiar with the young face of Mateo Sebastian. In videos shared through social media he has helped the local community keep up with information on the virus, school closures, food and rental assistance, and stay-at-home rules. Below he describes his role during the Covid-19 crisis.


From Guatemala to California to CU

I left Guatemala when I was 16. When I got to the Mexican border, I was expecting to meet a relative, but they weren’t able to meet me and I spent three months in a detention center. They asked me about my life, and when I told them that my father had died of TB when I was twelve, they really put me through a lot of medical checks. Luckily, I was OK, and since I was an unaccompanied minor, I was placed with a foster family in California for the next four years.


The family was really nice. They were Mexican-American, and when I got there I didn’t speak any Spanish at all. In Guatemala we spoke Q’anjob’al, and even the elementary schools are in Q’anjob’al. I had to learn Spanish to talk to my foster family, and English in school. But they were really good and they gave me everything I needed to make sure I graduated from high school.


For a few years after high school I worked at a warehouse in California, but finally I decided to come to Champaign, where I had a lot of relatives. I was pretty excited to see them, but at first things were slow. They weren’t sure about me because I seemed different. But then one day I was helping a friend send a money order and translating the form into Q’anjob’al, and someone else asked if I could help them. I was working at Kraft by then, but soon I was helping a lot of people who spoke Q’anjob’al. I helped them go to the doctor, or fill out forms for jobs, or learn how to take the bus or train. A lot of people have to go to Chicago for immigration appointments, and they pay $350 or $400 for people to drive them for the day trip, because they aren’t sure how to use the train. So I helped a lot of people with that.

Then one day I went with a Guatemalan woman to help her talk to the school staff at Stratton [Elementary School]. Judith Martinez [the Unit 4 English Language Learner Parent Liaison, who retired in May, 2020] saw me and asked “Would you help us?” Soon I was helping Unit 4 with parent conferences and phone calls. I spent a lot of time in Edison Middle School with students in the English Language Learner classes, and I really liked working with that age group.


The Covid-19 Crisis

When the virus made everything shut down, I thought I wouldn’t be able to work with the school anymore, but actually they needed me even more. We had to try and let families know about school closures. And many families needed to get computers or internet in their homes or school lunches. So I was helping the school call people, because a lot of the families didn’t get or understand emails, even if they were in Spanish.


I also helped some of the groups that were working to help connect people with food aid or rental assistance. Some of the families speak a little Spanish, but others don’t speak any. And a lot of them are worried about who these people calling them might be. So I explain to them that these aren’t companies, and that they won’t charge them money for the food, etc. A lot of the parents lost their paychecks when everything closed, and they were worried.

A lot of the families use WhatsApp to communicate because it is very cheap, so we used it to record messages for families. We also made a video with information from the CUPHD [Champaign-Urbana Public Health Department] that had basic information about how to prevent the spread of the disease, and what to do if you thought you had symptoms. People can share the video with friends on WhatsApp and go back and listen to it again. It works a lot better than email or flyers.


There are some written materials on the virus in Q’anjob’al, but some of the families aren’t very comfortable reading, so it’s better to have it in the video. There are also a lot of different ideas about how to treat the illness, so we want to make sure they have the information from the CUPHD.


The Future

I’m really lucky because I was able to get a green card in California. It’s a lot harder to get one now because this new administration has changed a lot of the rules. Right now I need to study for the citizenship test, which I will be able to take in a few months. I’m also lucky, because while I have been working for the school I have learned a lot about education. All the teachers I work with are always telling me I need to keep studying, and now that things are more stable for me I can think about that. I’m not really sure what I will do—I like art and music and I like the idea of being a teacher, but I’m not sure. I never really imagined myself in school, but now I am starting to see a future.


You can see the video here.

Q’anjob’al is one of more than twenty indigenous languages spoken in Guatemala, and is spoken by only one to two percent of Guatemala’s 14 million citizens. It is mostly spoken in the northern Guatemalan state of Huehuetenango. In CU, however, Q’anjob’al is the first language for many Guatemalan families, who may or may not also speak Spanish upon arrival in the US.


Q’anjob’al is disproportionately represented in CU because of the special historical relationship between the Huehuetenango and Champaign-Urbana communities. In the 1980s, local churches participating in the Sanctuary Movement sheltered refugees fleeing violence in Central America. Some of the refugees moved on to Canada, but a few families from northern Guatemala remained in town, and were joined over the years by others from the same region. The Guatemalan Consulate estimated in 2019 that there were 5000-7000 Guatemalans in the CU area, and the school districts estimate that there are more than 500 Q’anjob’al-speaking students in the system, but the actual numbers in CU are not clear.

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