Our Heart and Soul based in Culture, Language, and Empowerment


This week, while driving in the car in North Carolina, I heard a short story on NPR that immediately connected with our work in Guatemala.

The 62 year old woman being interviewed for the story, who speaks only Spanish, explained to the narrator that, “she always prefers to see a doctor who can actually understand her.” The narrator continued that the woman also said, “All doctors are good people, she says, but when they speak Spanish, its better.”  The physician interview for the story agreed and explained: “No matter how good of a translator you have, your concern is that you may lose some part of the of integrity of the message.”

This interview demonstrates one extremely important facet for Wuqu’ Kawoq – Maya Health Alliance: providing services in the language of the community. For the woman in the NPR story, it was Spanish, but for the majority of our community members in Guatemala, it is not Spanish, it is Kaqchikel or K’ichee’ Maya. Time and again we have heard the same explanation from our community members in Guatemala…doctors and services providers do not understand them nor do the community members understand the providers.

Language and culture are dynamic contexts that frame how each one of us understands and views the world. It creates the beautiful diversity in our world and can be the foundation for misunderstandings and problems. Vulnerable communities, like the indigenous Maya of Guatemala, have faced decades of marginalization, racism, lack of access to resources and poverty. We, as health care providers, as NGOs, as charities,  we are only perpetuating the decades of marginalization, racism and poverty by  continually failing to provide services in the language, culture, and understanding of the vulnerable communities.

I often receive the questions: What is the heart and soul of Wuqu’ Kawoq? Why is it different from other medical missions and medical groups in Guatemala?  Valid questions that defined the reason why Wuqu’ Kawoq exists.

Wuqu’ Kawoq is working to provide health care in the maternal language and culture of the communities we serve, to provide quality health care, while at the same time systematically addressing a continued problem in Guatemala. This problem is the unrelenting marginalization of indigenous Guatemalans from their own country’s resources because services are not provided in their language, culture, context, or worldview. Our model drives at the heart of this problem by fundamentally changing the way development and service provision is done in Guatemala. We want to change the system  in Guatemala where poverty and poor outcomes are the norm and instead create a culture of empowered communities inspired by their language, culture, and identity. We are working to confront racism, violence and marginalization of the Mayan communities by building capacity, disseminating information, utilizing Mayan languages and culture, and providing access to world-class health facilities in Guatemala for indigenous communities. We are doing this from the inside—teaching communities how to access their own health care in their own language and to no longer be satisfied by what is lost in translation.

NPR STORY and Section of the Transcript: 

GOLD: Graciela Jauregui came to the clinic with severe pain in her knee. She was born in Mexico, but she’s lived in the U.S. for 17 years working as a housekeeper. She’s 62 and doesn’t speak English. She says she always prefers to see a doctor who can actually understand her.

GOLD: All doctors are good people, she says, but when they speak Spanish, it’s better. There are translators at the clinic, but they can be in short supply. And Chavez’s boss, chief of family medicine, Geoffrey Leung, says medical details can get lost in translation.

DR. GEOFFREY LEUNG: No matter how good of a translator you have, your concern is that you may lose some part of the of integrity of the message.