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HomeFeaturesA Minority within a Minority

A Minority within a Minority

Mayan ruins of Palenque, Chiapas, Mexico

Elizabeth Jenner and Maria Konkel work with Mayan ELLs

Educational obstacles faced by immigrant Mayan English language learners (ELLs) in the U.S. are typically compounded by residual effects of inequity originally experienced in their home countries, where indigenous Mayan populations have long suffered a brand of neo-racism that has manifested into substandard education (Mijangos-Noh, 2009, pp. 3–7).
Many Mayan children who graduate from elementary school do so without having become literate in their first language, “and an undetermined number finish… without knowing how to read and write in any language” (Mijangos-Noh, 2009, p. 5). In this article, we aim to present an overview of the factors that have led to Mayan ELLs’ disadvantages in education and what educators can do to assist this population.

A Great Civilization

The Maya boasted some of the largest, most complex cities in the ancient world. Their civilization reached incredible intellectual and artistic heights. Although ultimately conquered by the Spanish in the 1500s, the Maya live on. Presently, over six million Maya of various tribes live in the areas that their ancestors once ruled—southern Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, and El Salvador (Arciniegas, 1968, p. 8; Pérez Campa and Sotelo Santos, 2006, p. 11). Millions speak one of 30 living Mayan languages (“List of Mayan Languages,” 2017).


Historical injustices, which produced long-lasting effects on Indigenous identity and education, began during the conquest and continued through colonial times (Galeano, 1973, pp. 49–50, 62). The Spanish viewed the Maya as uncivilized, exploitable, and dispensable (Meyer and Sherman, 1991, pp. 211–214; Riding, 1989, p. 200).

Attempts to demean, impoverish, and subjugate the Maya so as to obtain a pool of cheap, controllable labor, and ultimately to erase Indigenous identity through forced assimilation, were widespread and systemic (Farriss, 1992, p. 3, 286; Riding, 1989, pp. 199–202). The Maya were enslaved, their land and other resources stolen, their culture denigrated (Chasteen, 2001, pp. 313–314). Noncompliant individuals were tortured or executed (Burkholder and Johnson, 1990, pp. 52–53; Chasteen, 2001, p. 89).

Such treatment has been maintained and reaffirmed in the modern period (Mijangos-Noh, 2009, p. 3; Ogulnick, 2006, pp. 150–151; Reinke, 2004, pp. 485–486). Throughout the 1990s, the Maya revolted against oppression—demanding political representation, access to ancestral lands and education, and an end to human rights abuses.

Latin American militaries responded with extreme violence mirroring that used in the Spanish conquest (Chasteen, 2001, pp. 278–279; Menchú, 1993, pp. 172–182; Simon, 1987, p. 126). Of the 200,000 people murdered (and 45,000 disappeared) in Guatemala’s civil war, 83% were Maya (Martínez Manzanero, 2017, p. 2).

Land Inequity

The Spanish wrested communal lands away from the Maya, and they were often never recovered. Today, land still passes from one non-Indigenous landholder to another, including large foreign corporations that do not provide fair wages for Mayan workers.
This land disparity is perhaps the most extreme in Guatemala and El Salvador: 2% of the population owns 65% of Guatemala’s cultivatable land, and only 5% of El Salvador’s Indigenous people own land (Cooperative for Education, 2017; Minority Rights, 2017). Here and elsewhere, many Maya are “[n]o longer able to maintain themselves on their remaining plots” (Riding, 1989, p. 212).

They must therefore perform exhausting, backbreaking labor on the elite’s ranches and agricultural estates for mere pennies a day. Simultaneously, they must plant crops and raise small livestock for themselves on nearly every square foot of land around their homes or on rented low-quality land.

Consequently, thousands of Mayan children work daily. With 70% of children in Indigenous Guatemalan communities “chronically malnourished,” any monetary or agricultural gains mean more critical calories for consumption (Mayan Families, 2017). As a result, basic needs for survival have, for many, outweighed the need to attend school.

Substandard Education

To further complicate matters of education, the nearest school is often in another community. Bus fare, tuition, uniforms, books, and supplies may be unaffordable. Some children cannot afford a single pencil. For rural Mayan children who do enter school, the education they receive is grossly substandard. Basic supplies, like chalk, can be nonexistent.

Among rural Guatemalan schools, 90% “lack books” (Cooperative for Education, 2017). Teacher Ismael Tapia Castellanos (personal communication, 2017) reports some rural Mexican schools have as few as ten books.

Rural school teachers are “not properly trained” (Global Education Fund, 2017). In Mexico, new teachers are assigned to undesirable locations—rural schools. They are transferred to preferred locations—closer to cities—after gaining experience (Reinke, 2004, p. 486). Some schools have “one barely educated youth teaching all six primary grades”—a recent high school graduate whose own education was substandard (Riding, 1989, p. 233).

In 2017, a recent high school graduate in Palenque, Mexico, was offered the equivalent of U.S. $105 per month to teach at a rural school. It is hard to retain teachers long term on this low salary. When those just gaining experience quit, students suffer.

Typically, low-quality education does not result in improved economic status. Lack of results is one reason some parents do not enroll their children—even when attendance is mandatory. The percentage of Mayan individuals completing primary school is therefore shockingly low; in Mayan-majority Guatemala, for instance, 70% of the population has “an average of less than three years of schooling” (Ishihara-Brito, 2013, p. 192).


Teachers in rural Mayan schools are usually non-Indigenous outsiders who do not understand the language of their students. They are “linguistically unqualified” to teach where bilingual education is a stated goal or requirement (Reinke, 2004, p. 491). Teachers present Spanish as the language of knowledge, progress, opportunity, and power and “transmit… cultural values that are markedly distinct from those of the communities in which they are teaching” (Ogulnick, 2006, p. 151). They may unwittingly be the type of agents R. R. Day refers to when discussing “linguistic and cultural imperialism” that could “result in linguistic and cultural genocide” (as cited in Phillipson, 1992, p. 13). Assimilation “into the state’s vision of the social order,” not bilingual education, is the real goal (Howell, 2017, p. 6).

Promoting monolingualism and Western culture is already causing major changes. Lacandón Mayan youth in Chiapas, Mexico, for example, have begun to abandon their endangered language, traditions, and dress. To lose Mayan languages and cultures is to lose everything they hold within—worldviews, cosmologies, philosophies, and much more (Aguilera and LeCompte, 2007, p. 11).


Illiteracy among the Maya is unfortunately common. Approximately 40% of Indigenous Guatemalans are illiterate, for instance (Cooperative for Education, 2017). Many considered literate have only basic skills. In personal communications with Lacandón individuals who have completed sixth grade, Spanish words are frequently misspelled and/or mis-parsed: hola is written “ola,” aqui as “aki,” ellos as “eyos,” and igual as “y gual.” These same individuals are unable to write in their first language.

Powerless Leadership

In spite of the aforementioned difficulties, the Maya want to create successful bilingual schools for their children. The Guatemalan Peace Accords, signed in 1996 by guerrilla and state actors and ending that country’s civil war, addressed this desire. The accords required that local Indigenous leadership be allowed an active role developing Indigenous education. But, as in Mexico, decisions regarding curricular content, pedagogical methods, resource allotment, and teacher selection and retainment continue to be made by policymakers outside Indigenous spheres of influence. As a result, “Guatemala’s educational system continues to rank as one of the region’s most unequal” (Bellino, 2015, p. 58).

Similarly, the governments of Honduras and El Salvador promised in the 1990s that national education systems would be reformed to the benefit of Indigenous communities. The Indigenous were to have direct authority to hire teachers, monitor their achievement, and fire them for underperformance at new decentralized, community-managed schools (Altschuler, 2012, pp. 121–122). These promises were also eventually left unfulfilled.

Ultimately, laws meant to protect the Maya are rarely enforced. National policies and processes have repeatedly left local Indigenous leaders with little authority to enact positive socio-educational changes in their communities across Latin America (United Nations, 2009).

El Norte: A Similar Troubled History

The U.S. also suffers from its own painful history regarding the education of Indigenous children. In the 1870s, the federal government began sending Native American students to boarding schools, where they were expected to assimilate into mainstream U.S. culture under a harsh philosophy of “kill the Indian in him, save the man” (Bear, 2008). Every effort was made to eradicate their ways of life, including religion, food, dress, and home languages. Physical and emotional abuse were common and often used as punishment when students took liberties to practice their traditions.

Thus, we can identify significant areas of overlap between the historical treatment of Indigenous communities on both sides of the Mexico–U.S. border, most notably the faulty assertion that Indigenous culture is a detriment, not an asset. As educators of Mayan ELLs, understanding our own nation’s past in this regard may offer some insight, and subsequently, a frame of reference for working with this population.

Mayan Immigration to the U.S.

Educators should take care to familiarize themselves with the political and economic catalysts behind several immigration trends from countries where the Maya primarily reside. One of the most notable began in the 1980s, when a wave of immigrants from Central America poured into the U.S. as civil wars ravaged Guatemala and El Salvador, a bloody revolution began in Nicaragua, and Honduras became a training ground for U.S. counter-communism efforts (Center for Justice and Accountability).

As a result, thousands of Maya fled their home countries to seek refuge in the U.S. In an unanticipated aftershock, a second wave of Mayan immigration came about in the mid-1990s after the conflicts subsided, as many communities struggled to piece their lives back together. More recently, many Central American countries have been plagued by high rates of unemployment, poverty, and crime, with gang violence in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras increasing with each passing year (Berthet and Lopez, p. ii). As we have stated, the Mayan community has been particularly vulnerable to such issues, so it is no surprise that many have ventured north in search of better opportunities.

Because they are typically classified by their nationality and not their ethnicity, it is difficult to determine the exact number of Mayan immigrants in the U.S., but the figure is estimated to be around 500,000 (Brown and Odem).

While fewer Mexicans have been migrating to the U.S., the number of immigrants from Central America has increased, many of them minors: “At the U.S.–Mexico border, the number of families and unaccompanied children apprehended by U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials is again rising… From Oct. 1, 2015, to Jan. 31, 2016, 24,616 families and 20,455 unaccompanied children [were apprehended]—the vast majority of them from Central America” (Krogstad).

The journey itself is fraught with peril. In recent years, the Mexican government has increased efforts to detain and deport Central Americans passing through its borders, which has encouraged migrants to take more dangerous routes where they are subject to rough terrain, criminal activity, and corrupt officials (Ahmed).

If they successfully cross into the U.S., new challenges await. Fear of deportation for oneself or a loved one can be a constant, and this fear has only been exacerbated by the current political climate. In addition, chasing job opportunities can lead to a nomadic existence, making it difficult for children in migrant families to regularly attend school or forge steady educational pathways. But the single greatest hindrance for Mayan immigrant children’s success in the U.S. is their prior lack of formal education, especially literacy education. As Karen Ogulnick (2006) points out, “when they are not taught to read and write in the language varieties that they know from their homes and communities, they… encounter greater difficulties acquiring literacy (p. 154).”

What Can Educators Do?

The forces working against immigrant Mayan ELLs are undeniable; from adversity in their home countries to challenging journeys to (or within) the U.S., the factors that may affect these students are numerous and complex. But educators can take certain concrete steps to help address these students’ needs.

  1. Revisiting the school environment
    Before content or language learning can begin, students must feel physically and emotionally safe at school, especially if they have been exposed to extremely stressful or traumatic situations. To help address the basic needs of Mayan ELLs, every effort should be made to ensure that families have the information they need to make the most of the resources available to them.
    Schools should brainstorm optimal modes of communicating information about relevant programs to Mayan families (e.g., free lunches, afterschool activities). While it may be difficult to translate such materials into Mayan ELLs’ home languages, companies that offer translation and interpretation services in less common languages do exist and will likely become more accessible with growing demand.
    In fact, “new statistics from the U.S. Department of Justice show that three Mayan languages—Mam, Quiche, and Kanjobal—were among 2015’s top languages used for translation in immigration courts” (Pentón Herrera, p. 8). Depending on the size of the Mayan community, parents who have been in the school district for a longer period of time may also be interested in assisting newer families at back-to-school nights or parent-teacher meetings.
    Care should also be taken to create a low-anxiety setting during the school day by examining potential psychological triggers in the classroom. Since educators work with students daily, they are in an advantageous position to analyze what may or may not pose a problem for specific students. For example, might images of warfare spur an adverse reaction? Is student bullying a pervasive issue? Would it be better to arrange a group presentation versus a solo one for an upcoming assignment?
    Another key measure schools can take is to promote collaboration among all school staff. At times, English for speakers of other languages (ESOL) teachers are viewed as the primary liaisons between ELLs and the rest of the school community, and for good reason: they are often in a strong position to be effective cultural or linguistic brokers.
    However, the multifaceted needs of Mayan ELLs do not stop at the ESOL teacher’s doorway. Content-area teachers, administrators, guidance counselors, and so on can take an active role in building a culture of shared responsibility, which Diane Staehr Fenner (2014) describes as “the mindset that all educators must see themselves as equal stakeholders who must strive to positively influence the education of [ELLs] in the classroom as well as outside of school” (p. 28). Specific ways to promote shared responsibility for Mayan ELLs include:
    Sharing credible resources that will help staff understand Mayan ELLs’ backgrounds, such as articles, books, or websites
    Administering targeted professional development workshops that showcase viable ways to support Mayan ELLs, emotionally as well as academically
    Establishing professional learning communities (PLCs) where staff can meet regularly to discuss tactics for working with students they share
    Examining the pros and cons of different program models to determine what (if anything) should be adapted to best meet student needs
  2. Empowering students through the home culture
    Mayan ELLs should not merely feel safe in the school environment; they should also feel celebrated. While individual cultural identity is a personal choice, schools can take steps to ensure an equitable and positive representation of all students’ backgrounds to help them feel included and appreciated. Some ways that educators can positively acknowledge Mayan ELLs in school include:
    Co-planning interdisciplinary lessons that feature prominent historical Mayan figures or notable contributions from the Maya throughout history
    Incorporating Mayan culture into the school environment (e.g., schoolwide fairs, bulletin boards)
    Having students interview each other on their families’ traditions to build intercultural knowledge and understanding
  3. Acknowledging and anticipating linguistic and academic challenges
    Because Mayan ELLs are typically classified under a more generic “Hispanic” category, it is often incorrectly assumed that they have a proficient knowledge of Spanish. As we have noted, many Mayan ELLs do not grow up speaking Spanish as a first language. Educators should be aware of the specific set of challenges that comes with third-language acquisition, especially since research suggests that “the proficiency of the third-language learner is dependent upon a working vocabulary and proficiency in the second language” (Wood, p. 82). Thus, if Mayan ELLs’ knowledge of Spanish presents specific gaps in reading, writing, speaking, and/or listening, these gaps are likely to be present and potentially wider when learning English.
    Additionally, Mayan ELLs come from a language tradition that is primarily oral. As a result, literacy and numeracy skills may be lacking or nonexistent. According to Luis Javier Pentón Herrera (2017), “these students need academic support that is relevant, relatable, and realistic to their academic skills upon arrival” (p. 9). Therefore, educators must make it a priority to identify Mayan ELLs’ unique needs. Some ideas include:
    Attempting to find out about any prior schooling and tapping into students’ background knowledge across content areas accordingly
    Capitalizing on the pre-existing cognitive skills required by oral tradition, featuring activities that utilize memory, narration, and rhythm (Pompano)
    Administering a verbal needs assessment (at least initially) that considers the gaps in knowledge that are most likely to be present
    Embedding peer work in the classroom whenever possible to offer ongoing support, especially for students who may enroll in school after the academic year has begun
    Addressing any gaps in basic literacy and numeracy skills first, as they will serve as the building blocks for academic success across curricula
    Building confidence in targeted, specific skills by initially limiting corrective feedback to these predetermined areas
    It is important to note that all of these recommendations are meant to serve as starting points. They are focused on issues that Mayan ELLs often grapple with. However, every student’s experience will be different, and it is up to educators to tailor instruction to fit individual contexts. Similarly, setting realistic expectations is imperative, since the challenges facing Mayan ELLs will not vanish overnight. In spite of many obstacles, schools and communities alike can work to build a greater sense of awareness when it comes to this minority population, and help to facilitate their success in the process.

References available at

Maria Konkel has spent the last ten years taking on different roles in the field of language education, including teaching ESOL and Spanish in K–12 public schools, working as a research associate for an educational consulting firm, and currently, developing English-language proficiency tests for Educational Testing Service. She also serves as a member of the College of New Jersey’s adjunct faculty in the School of Education.

Elizabeth Jenner is an applied linguist and TOEFL® test developer at Educational Testing Service (ETS) in Princeton, New Jersey. She has been specializing in TOEFL Listening and TOEFL test preparation at ETS for 13 years. She is also the coordinator of ETS’s English Language Learning Summer Institute, which hires approximately 35 interns each year to write content for the TOEFL and TOEIC® families of tests. She speaks Spanish, has lived in Mexico and Guatemala, and loves learning about the indigenous cultures of Latin America.

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