Henry Sales is an Indigenous educator who was born in Guatemala and now works for Oakland Unified Public Schools. He speaks English, Spanish, and his home language, Mam. He came to the U.S. as a teenager and has since become a strong advocate for the large Mam community in the Bay Area by teaching Mam classes, organizing Mam cultural events, working as a Mam interpreter, recording public service announcements on topics ranging from the U.S. census to information about COVID-19, and much more.
In this interview with Colorín Colorado, Henry tells us how he became such a passionate advocate for his community. You can learn more from Henry in this special video series available in English, Spanish, and Mam.
Q&A with Henry Sales
Tell us about your experience growing up in an Indigenous community.
I was born in San Juan Atitán in Guatemala. In Mam, it’s Xjan Xwan. Huehuetenango is the nearest city and that’s where I went to high school. On the one hand, I was very proud of my community because I thought it was very unique. We were so connected with the land, working and planting corn, going to the forest, going to the mountains, and having a strong connection with the animals and trees and nature. I have many happy memories from that time, such as playing with my Mam friends, hiking to the top of the Mountain Twi Q’u’, our special ceremonies, planting trees, and walking with my dog into the forest.
On the other hand, I also faced discrimination outside of my community. Going to the nearest city where the main language is Spanish, my classmates made fun of me for not speaking fluent Spanish. My first language is Mam, and I knew enough Spanish to say my name and age and have a small conversation, but not to express myself or talk about a subject in detail. For example, a teacher might ask, “Can you stand up and explain?” And I was always stuck and people would say, “Where are you coming from? What’s wrong with your accent?” And that’s when a lot of people made fun of me, telling me, “You belong to the jungle, you should go back where you’re coming from,” meaning, “You’re a monkey or an animal or primitive.”
And I felt bad. And at some point, I thought I needed to get rid of this culture and I wanted to become "one of them" so I could be accepted. And sometimes if we don’t know how to defend ourselves, we get stuck into that mindset: "What they are saying is true, and I need to get rid of this language."
How did you overcome this deep discrimination you faced?
I think I overcame the challenge by saying, "I'm not going to get rid of my language, I'm going to stick with it, and I'm going to tell everyone one day that I’m proud of it." It was really hard, but I kept going and I kept learning.
Also, when I started attending high school here in the U.S., I had some Chicano teachers who would talk about Indigenous history and tell me, "You should be proud of your heritage and you should be proud about where you’re coming from." That really helped me a lot and I felt proud of who I am and my language, my community, and my people.
In addition, reading books, watching documentaries, and listening to Indigenous communities talk about the genocide that has targeted our people also helped me make an even stronger commitment to preserving my culture.
How did promoting your language and culture become a passion for you?
It didn't happen right away. In 2014, I got my high school diploma here in the U.S. I was so proud. And I was so proud of being a Latino because I had in my mind, "I'm a Latino." I remember that schools usually thought I was a Spanish speaker and when I was applying for FAFSA and scholarships, you have to choose an option for, "What's your ethnicity?" I kept hearing, "You should mark yourself Latino." And at first, I did, but then later on I thought, "I'm not going to mark myself Latino anymore, I'm going to mark like this 'other' ethnicity," and I would write Mam or Mayan.
Then in 2015 and 2016, I was finding out about myself and who I am, and at some point, I gave up. I decided, "I'm going to study engineering or computer science and I want to work for a company. And I'm going to just leave this behind because I think it's time to move on."
But even then, I always kept coming back to this, and in 2016, I found myself, and I thought, "This is who I am." I started reading more when I got my job at Oakland Public Library and San Francisco Public Library. I was surrounded by history books, and I started reading books about my identity, my story, and the story of my ancestors. And I was like, "Oh my God, I’m a descendant of this civilization and I should be proud, and I should not be ashamed, and I should go back and study more history," and that led me to go back to college and study a little bit of our history.
And sometimes, it was seeing the misconceptions that motivated me even more. For example, I remember seeing a title where it said, "When the Mayan existed…" I thought, "No, we’re still here. I'm one of them and if I'm still here, that means that we're still alive." And that really made me sad; how can people say that we no longer exist? Or my civilization is extinct? Because I always believe that we're still here. And I look back at the community, I see thousands and thousands of Indigenous people or Mayan people. We’re still living in small communities where the culture is very alive and the language is too.
I also remember that one of my Chicano teachers in college always talked about Indigenous people. And he always showed us great books to read and documentaries. And watching those or reading those materials reminded me to be proud and to see how far we come. So, then I went deeper when I started reading about Indigenous communities and discrimination and all the atrocity that has been done to us. And then I went back and I realized, "Okay, I see why it’s happening," or, "Why did this happen to me because I speak differently, maybe I act differently, maybe I see the world from another perspective? I'm proud to be from an Indigenous community, and I’m going to fulfill my job."
Since then, I've been an advocate for our people and my community, and that has led me to teach Mam language, to create a class where everyone is welcome to come. And ever since we have been developing a team, and we’ll see in the near future that the culture and the language will flourish.
And I also keep telling my community that we’re Indigenous, we’re natives, that we have the right to live, we have the right to get an education, we have the right to move anywhere else where we want. And we have the right to laugh and to live, because many times we have been denied those rights.
Tell us about your work and outreach now.
Right now, I work for Oakland Unified School District as an administrative assistant at this unique school called Rudsdale Newcomer High School. And I manage all the attendance, the orientation and registration. I also advocate for my community because there’s a lot of Indigenous or Mam people there, and I act sometimes as a counselor and teacher because I help my community.
I act as a bridge between the Indigenous community and the non-Indigenous community because we have Latino community as well, so sometimes they will ask the Indigenous students, “Why are you speaking broken Spanish?” And I explain that they are coming from a different background.
In addition, there’s a lot of ways that I’ve been supporting the Mam community in the Bay Area. First, we started holding festivals in 2018. And then we did a second one in 2019 where there were 500 people and we were able to bring Indigenous people from Mexico. We also connected with Indigenous communities here in North America to hold a Pow Wow and worked with members of a Cherokee tribe.
We went to Mexico and I was able to bring some of the Indigenous Mam with me. It was so great. It’s funny because I remember when I was younger, I actually thought that we were the only Indigenous community before I started traveling! And then after I traveled, I learned about other Indigenous communities, not only in Central America, but also in South and North America as well. Connecting with other Indigenous communities has helped me a lot and also has helped me to become a better person.
Tell us about your interpretation and teaching work.
I have interpreted sometimes in immigration court, school, or medical settings. I will say that working as an interpreter at immigration court, I have learned that judges or the system often assumes that we are Spanish speakers and that Mam interpreters or the Mam language is not accessible. Most of the time when there’s no Mam interpreters, there’s only Spanish available.
There is some hope, though. There’s a lot of people who have learned and done research about Indigenous people. For example, some judges may not ask the client to make eye contact because they know that for us making eye contact is very disrespectful, especially when talking to authorities. They understand that cultural difference now, which is important.
For now, though, I am focusing my advocacy efforts around education and outreach instead of interpreting. We teach Mam, which means that we want non-Mam people to at least learn how to say something in Mam to welcome our community when they go out to places like the school or hospital. This way, they can feel like, “I’m welcome here and I can speak Mam, I can bring my culture, and I will not be discriminated against.” But we’re also teaching Mam to Mam students as well, to help them stay connected to their language and culture, because they may not have had a chance to learn it here in the U.S.
What do you think schools can learn from your experience?
First, schools need to know that not everyone that comes from Latin America is a Spanish speaker. They might be Indigenous and speak another language. (When I say students are Indigenous or they come from an Indigenous community, that means that they are part of communities that were in the Americas before colonization, more than 500 years ago, and that their first language is an Indigenous language which is from the Americas, not a language from Europe like Spanish, Portuguese, or English.)
If Indigenous students do speak Spanish, they may not be fluent in Spanish, or maybe they don’t know how to read and write in Spanish, and maybe they never went to school, and they have their own identity, which is Indigenous. We don’t want to deny that identity, because identity is sacred.
Second, we want Indigenous students to be proud of saying who they are – for example, by wearing their traditional clothes. Maybe they’re not wearing them now because they are afraid to wear it. Indigenous students or indigenous families living in the U.S. may have been victim of discrimination and racism in the past and may be hiding their identity now. Perhaps in the past they were told, “You should be ashamed of your culture and language,” and they may think they might have more rights or seem more educated if they speak Spanish or English.
For example, we are working hard in Oakland to help students feel proud. There’s a space at the Oakland Unified School District that is welcoming them and saying, “You can come here with your traditional clothes, and you can take class, and be in class, and you will not be stopped.”
How can schools welcome Indigenous families?
Schools or teachers should approach parents and families because they are the first resource for supporting Indigenous students. Schools should also look for cultural leaders or spiritual leaders who are bilingual or maybe who are interpreters that they can go and talk to better support the Indigenous community.
Schools should also connect with local organizations. For example, here in the Bay Area there’s a lot of local organizations that at least serve or work with the Mam community or with the Indigenous community.
For example, you could hold a parent meeting and find out whether parents are more comfortable with Spanish or their Indigenous language. Schools can also partner with Indigenous families to create a welcoming place by having a festival in school or have a gathering with traditional dance, food, language, textiles, and art. Ask kids to share their culture. It’s getting to know them, getting to know the culture, the people, where they’re coming from, their history, their village, and why they’re here. Those are some of the ways for schools and teachers to have effective communication with Indigenous families.
And it’s key because sometimes Indigenous families have different cultural norms. For example, a woman may prefer a same-sex interpreter. So getting to know those details helps a lot in U.S. schools to better support Indigenous families. And the more information these families have about the school, the better the education the kids can get.
How can schools support unaccompanied minors?
Schools can support an unaccompanied minor by having a space for them, because sometimes schools will put them among other students who have already been here and if they don’t speak Spanish or English, they will be lost and consider dropping out of high school. And having a space where all of them are unaccompanied minors and asking them, "How is everyone doing?” is essential for them to say, “I feel accommodated because I have my classmates with me who have the same experience, who are going through the same experience.” And also like having social workers that will only work with an unaccompanied minor and bilingual staff really helps a lot. It makes a difference.
How do you help your baby daughter connect to the culture?
I help my baby daughter, my baby girl by singing songs like “At jun wiy tal nwiẍa”. And listen to marimba. And she loves it, she loves to dance. We teach her how to dance. And we dress her in traditional clothes. And also like, traveling with her back home, that’s where she’s getting that connection like, going there. And the last time we went, I mean, the first time when we went with her, she felt that connection with other kids. And as for now, we’re only speaking Mam to her because we want her to become trilingual.
What’s next for you? What are some of your hopes for the future?
I see myself working and building our own school in three languages with a focus on Mam. I want to keep connecting my community to the ancient Maya Mam indigenous system of education and focus on revitalizing, using, developing, and transmitting to future generations our culture histories, languages, oral traditions, philosophies, and writing systems, as well as our systems for mathematics, sciences, medicine, and literatures. I also want to help retain and designate our own names for communities, places, and people. In addition to creating a school, I want to create a culture center in the Bay Area.
In this special video series, Henry encourages other Mam and Indigenous families from Latin America to keep their culture and language strong. The videos are available in English, Spanish, and Mam.
The following resources include some of Henry's own resources, as well as other articles where he has been featured.