Fernando Rosales

The Lack Of Indigenous Language Interpreters And Translators In The Mexican Judicial System

By Rubina Flores

Speakers of original languages, those who don’t understand Spanish have the right to assistance from language interpreters and translators of their own languages when {communication} is part of the legal process or when complaints are issued against them. It is a right accorded by the Second Article of the Constitution, section A, paragraph VIII. Violating this right is an automatic lack of access to justice for original peoples.

For those who can not communicate in Spanish, to have customary access to justice, interpreter assistance in their languages must be available. And it must take into account the linguistic variants that exist among original peoples’ languages. According to studies from the National Institute of Indigenous Languages (INALI) 68 original, registered languages exit, each with linguistic variations; i.e. each one with its different forms of communication making it a distinct dialect. Besides that, the context in which a language is spoken depends on each separate community.

Access to justice for original peoples is pending. The situation regarding assistance from interpreters/ translators is in crisis. Indigenous persons have been denied such access creating obstacles for them, making vulnerable their human rights. First peoples are faced with violation of their equal rights before the criminal justice system by not having an interpreter/translator of their native language during the legal process, in spite of the fact that indigenous languages are the first languages of many inhabitants of various indigenous communities in Mexico.

There are two problematic facets: first, committing a misdemeanor which is defined by criminal law as a minor crime, but has customarily been a permitted practice of the people for many years. For example, hunting animals in danger of extinction. Here, indigenous deal with the justice typically practiced in their own territory. Secondly, when they migrate out of their own community in order to improve their lives, they are faced with customary judicial process. An example would be when these migrants are seen as involved in crime for simply not speaking nor understanding the Spanish language, or for being “confused” by someone or for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. By not being able to speak the dialect or language of the city, they can not understand the situation much less defend themselves.

In part, this problematic situation is due to indigenous people in correctional facilities who don’t even know what they are accused of, nor why they’ve been deprived of their freedom. Studies show that most indigenous were sentenced and processed through the system without indigenous language interpreters’ assistance, and that these people only learned to speak Spanish while in custody at a correctional facility.

The absence of these two important players as part of the criminal process is alarming; wrongful process creates yet another clear violation of human rights. For that reason, it’s important to question such actions with the intention of revealing the situation in which indigenous people live in and are faced with every day. Availability of interpreters/translators would facilitate compliance with the human rights indicated by the Constitution of Mexico. Given this, one might question the Mexican government and its irresponsibility regarding public policy. Training for, professionalization of and contracting with interpreters/translators of indigenous languages is necessary in order to guarantee government compliance with the Second Article of the Constitution.

In order to truly respect the human rights of original peoples and their right to communicate within the justice system using their own languages, it’s necessary to implement specific actions which provide indigenous language interpreter/translator assistance. To truly gain access to the justice system and to fully enjoy their human rights, first peoples must be supported in using their native language. Access to justice implies offering support from indigenous language interpreters and

translators wherever first peoples find themselves: detention centers, public offices, criminal courts, and more, e.g. court rooms during oral arguments, where most hearings occur and in whatever spaces someone might find him/herself in a justice system operating solely in Spanish.

Original peoples have historically experienced multiple violations of their rights and access to justice

and they continue to face such injustices today. Lack of interpreters/ translators of indigenous languages signals zero attention to this sector of the population, no attention to their languages and challenges against conserving and preserving original languages. Languages which continue to resist and in fact are surviving right now.

—Rubina Espinoza Flores belongs to the Na Savi people. She is originally from the Santa Cruz community of Copanatoya Municipality in Guerrero, Mexico. She has been an interpreter of the Tu’un Savi language in criminal proceedings, having completed various courses in human rights, rights of indigenous peoples, among others. She has worked in investigation, interpretation and translation of indigenous languages in the justice system, linguistic rights and rights of indigenous women.

Cover photo by Fernando Rosales.