Puma Tzoc - 2021 HILLTOP Award Winner for Agency Staff/Volunteer Achievement

August 4, 2021

The HILLTOP Awards (Heroes Inspiring Leadership, Learning, Teamwork, Opportunity and Pride) honor individual and organizational efforts to address poverty in Multnomah County.

As one of the few K’iche’ interpreters in Multnomah County, Puma Tzoc has continued to be a literal and figurative voice for change within the Indigenous community. 

2021 HILLTOP Award for Agency Staff/Volunteer Achievement winner Puma Tzoc
Puma Tzoc was living in New York when he took an urgent call from a friend who needed help to release a fellow member of the Indigenous community who had been detained and was at risk of being incarcerated.

The person who was detained only knew K’iche’, a Mayan language spoken by over 1 million people in Guatemala, and he couldn’t find an interpreter who could translate for him in court. The man’s friend hoped Tzoc, a native K’iche’ speaker and fellow Guatemalan, could assist. 

“He was going to be incarcerated just on the barrier of language,” Tzoc recalls. 

Tzoc was eager to help. After bridging the language barrier in court, the person detained was quickly found innocent and released. 

For Tzoc, this experience was transformative, allowing him to see the meaningful difference he could make by speaking and celebrating his native language. The case became the first of many.

“It’s a gift and a way of resistance to speak my own language,” he says.

Tzoc moved to Portland in 2016, and after balancing his day job with the work of K’iche’ interpretation for several years, he landed a full-time position at local immigrant advocacy nonprofit Pueblo Unido. Tzoc, an advocate for the Indigenous community both inside and outside the workplace, and a member of various traditional dance groups and Indigenous rights movements, was perfect for the job.

As the coordinator of the Collective of Indigenous Interpreters of Oregon, Tzoc has continued to be a voice, both literally and figuratively, for the Indigenous community as one of the few K’iche’ interpreters in the area and for Indigenous interpreters across the state. 

But using his voice and native language as a means for change wasn’t always possible.

Born in Guatemala, which Tzoc refers to as ‘Guatemaya’ to honor its pre-colonial Mayan roots, speaking K’iche’ and other Indigenous languages often led to persecution. Growing up, the Guatemalan government forced the Spanish language on Indigenous populations and Tzoc remembers being only allowed to speak Spanish at school. 

He recalls his parents and others being scared at the thought of their children growing up unable to utilize the language spoken by their people for generations.

“But our parents didn’t want to see us suffering in school so they started talking in Spanish with us at home to try to encourage us to speak Spanish,” he recalls. “That’s when so many people lost our own language.”

Fleeing this cultural persecution, Tzoc moved to the United States in 2003. While living in New York City, he slowly began to reclaim the cultural practices that the Guatemalan government had tried to take from him. 

Tzoc quickly became involved in several traditional dance, or Danza, groups where they performed the dances of various Indigenous cultures. Not only did they help him reconnect with his Mayan roots, they also gave him a sense of community in a new city. 

“When I first moved to New York, I didn't want to use the word scared, but in the beginning, I was uncertain to leave my community and family behind. Would I have the same chance to build the same community far away?” he says. 

Tzoc remembers walking with his dance group to late dinners after long practices on Friday nights. On the way, they would discuss a variety of things, including the various socio-political and Indigenous rights movements in the city. 

His groups also performed at many political rallies in New York, which opened Tzoc’s eyes to other issues such as climate change and women’s rights.

During one performance at a climate change rally, Tzoc and other Indigenous groups convened to erect a massive representation of Coatlicue, the Aztec goddess of Mother Earth. As Tzoc walked around, danced and glanced up at the giant skyscrapers and Coatlicue, he remembers feeling a tremendous amount of gratitude to the Earth for being able to sustain him and so many other forms of life. 

“I started tearing up a little bit,” he says.

When Tzoc arrived in Portland five years ago, he already had two years of experience translating. Like dancing, being an interpreter allowed Tzoc to reclaim the cultural heritage he was deprived of growing up and to use it to help those needing to overcome a language barrier. 

“Organizations have to provide interpreters for our people. It’s a human right,” Tzoc says.

As Tzoc delved further into interpretation, he realized that it wasn't just his Indigenous clients facing unfair treatment, but Indigenous interpreters as well. 

Despite being in lower supply than interpreters of other languages, Tzoc says that Indigenous interpreters do not receive adequate compensation compared to others.

Additionally, Indigenous interpreters are often pressured to translate more quickly, despite tremendous dissimilarities between Indigenous languages and English.

“In our Indigenous languages, there are a bunch of words that don’t exist in English. How can we interpret that word? It’s a lot of brainstorming and thinking of what to say because we don’t want to give someone misinformation,” Tzoc says. “But they often don’t see that.” 

When Pueblo Unido provided Tzoc with a full-time opportunity to pursue his passion for helping Indigenous people through language and culture, he jumped at the chance. 

Since the beginning of the year, Tzoc has recruited more than 30 members to the Collective of Indigenous Interpreters of Oregon (CIIO) to continue fighting for fair treatment and payment to Indigenous interpreters and connect them with paid interpretation opportunities. 

He also led a class that taught CIIO members to be navigators for the Oregon Worker Relief and Quarantine Funds. Since that training, CIIO members have submitted more than 4,000 applications for COVID-19 relief, which has distributed approximately $6 million dollars to help immigrants and other non-English speakers maintain housing and food access during the pandemic.

Now in his seventh year of interpretation, Tzoc has no plans to stop anytime soon. Though the work can be incredibly difficult at times, Tzoc says it is very rewarding.

“I just think about my people. If I do this, it can help more of us — not just K'iche’ speakers but Indigenous language speakers in general,” he says. “If I’m not doing it, who else is?”