In life an Indigenous leader from Guatemala helped so many in Los Angeles find home, but in death he’s caught between two countries.
(CN) — The Indigenous community leader Policarpo Chaj has closed his mouth, but he’s surrounded by friends and family who say they can still hear his voice.
Chaj turned 49 on Jan. 16, 2021, while intubated at Cedars-Sinai Hospital. During a video call, his cousin Ervin Hernandez asked the nurses to come over to hold the phone up to Chaj’s face so they could sing “Happy Birthday” together.
“I asked them, I don’t know if it would be possible to lower his sedation. I just wanted him to know that we were there for him,” Hernandez said.
Chaj died Feb. 16 due to complications from Covid-19. By March 10 he laid in repose at a mortuary in South-Central Los Angeles. Those who attended the wake spoke about his impact on the Indigenous community and how they could still hear his words of encouragement.
“Our brother,” many said in Spanish while waiting in line to pay their respects, “he is not gone.”
Chaj, a Mayan spiritual leader in LA, worked as a K’iche’ interpreter for decades, acting as a bridge for numerous Guatemalan immigrants who traveled to the United States and spoke little English or Spanish. When he first arrived in LA in the early 1990s from Guatemala, Chaj sought to empower all immigrant groups he met. He wanted them to know they had a right to be heard.
Chaj helped many in the Guatemalan diaspora. His efforts included the repatriation process for anyone who died in the U.S. and needed to be sent back home. Now in death, he’s caught between two countries.
“Poli needs to go back to Guatemala,” Chaj’s friend Haydee Sanchez said in a phone interview.
But the Guatemalan government requires that Chaj be cremated before he can return home to Totonicapán, Rancho de Teja, Guatemala. Cremation would go against Chaj’s wishes and his Mayan tradition. An official with the Guatemalan consulate in San Francisco said if the local coroner’s report lists Covid-19 as the cause of death, then Chaj’s family cannot send him home.
Mercedes Say, Chaj’s girlfriend, said it’s important for him to be received by Mother Earth in his homeland due to his religious beliefs.
“We want Policarpo’s body to reach its destination and be with his family,” Say said in a video appeal to the international community. “Because in our Mayan cosmovision, we are part of the cosmos, we are part of the environment, we are part of nature and that has to prevail and we have to rest within it.”
It’s unclear where Chaj caught the virus. Hernandez said Chaj told him he may have caught it at a social gathering. Colleagues say he may have caught Covid-19 while working as a contract interpreter at a downtown LA criminal courthouse. Several interpreters say they worked with a colleague who tested positive in mid-December and two interpreters later died due to complications from the virus. One of those interpreters, Sergio Cafaro, worked at the same criminal courthouse where Chaj worked in December and used the same employee lounge between hearings.
By the end of December, LA County Public Health reported nearly 30,000 new confirmed infections over a two-day period — a surge that pushed more than 6,700 people into hospitals and ICUs. Chaj began to feel ill in late December, but he didn’t want to go to the hospital. He did not have health insurance and was afraid of getting a large bill for what could have been just the flu.
“The money is not a big deal. The most important thing is your health,” Sanchez said she told Chaj. “The last time we spoke, he told me that he was feeling better. I said, ‘Don’t lie.’”
Chaj spent 41 days in the hospital and while he tested negative for Covid-19 before he died, his lungs, kidneys and heart were all critically damaged. There was also the risk of permanent vocal cord damage if Chaj recovered.
“His voice was so important to him,” Hernandez said. “He was a role model. Just knowing that he came here knowing so little English and then we would go to him when we had questions about documents or spiritual advice. He was our go-to source for everything.”
Chaj wielded his voice like a shield for many. He translated in county courtrooms, during medical exams and with case workers. He represented the Mayan people at the United Nations and organized international forums with Indigenous groups from Alaska and Chile.
When the Trump administration detained Central American refugees at the U.S.-Mexico border, Chaj traveled to Texas and Arizona to translate at detention hearings. He taught many K’iche’-speaking people the very concept of asylum.
He explained to them that they were not alone and that there was a community of other Indigenous groups waiting for them in the U.S.
“I think human beings always need to know where they came from so they can know where they are going,” Chaj said in a 2009 interview with the UCLA Library Center for Oral History Research. “That fact that other cultures see that we have black hair and have them think that south of the border of the United States there is only Latinos, well, it must be their own mistake.”
Spanish-language court interpreter Begonya De Salvo called Chaj a vital advocate for K’iche’-speaking people in the courts.
“It’s a tragedy that Poli is not there anymore to help Indigenous people who speak K’iche,” said De Salvo. “I’ve interpreted for defendants or witnesses who could only respond to my questions in Spanish with a few words. In one instance, the case for that person got far into the proceedings and finally I asked this person if they were K’iche’ and their face lit up. The court just thought that Spanish would be enough.”
The transition from the Guatemalan countryside to California could be a jarring experience, Chaj said.
“Coming out from a place like that, coming to a foreign country with different laws, a different language, with a different system,” Chaj said during the 2009 interview. “It is quite difficult, the adaptation towards urban life, especially in a foreign country, right?”
As part of Mayavision, an Indigenous advocacy group he co-founded in 1998, Chaj petitioned to have Indigenous interpreters at immigration hearings.
“Then, we decided to notify the Department of Justice that our people were not all Mexican, nor Latinos, nor Hispanic, but Maya in reality. And since the Mayan community is a multilingual one, in Indigenous languages, then, they had to grant them that right,” Chaj said.
“Policarpo had a global mind,” said Douglas Carranza, Chaj’s friend and department chair of Central American studies at California State University, Northridge. “He was defending the rights of Indigenous people and opening spaces for everyone.”
One of their last conversations was about traditional ways to feel better during times of sorrow, like during a pandemic.
“Policarpo told me that our community must gather strength within. Instead of isolating yourself, you have to try and be together,” Carranza said.
While Chaj and other Indigenous advocates would not identify as Latino, LA County has not broken down the deaths of K’iche’ or other Central American Indigenous groups.
“It’s been awful in the Indigenous community. How many died alone without an interpreter, without seeing their family,” said Odilia Romero, Chaj’s friend and executive director of Comunidades Indígenas en Liderazgo, an LA-based Indigenous advocacy nonprofit. “When Poli passed, it was just like a huge hit. We are considered Latinx to the local governments and he just passed into the numbers. He was just another Latino.”
At the height of the pandemic in January 2021, Latinos accounted for 40 deaths per 100,000 residents, up from 3.5 deaths per 100,000 in November 2020. The devastation tore through LA County and left many families reeling, with difficult goodbyes and funeral arrangements. Chaj’s family and friends say he’s stuck in a city he learned to adapt to so well.
“This is a truly global city,” said Gaspar Salgado, Chaj’s friend and project director with the UCLA Labor Center. “Like all immigrants, there’s a struggle to maintain culture. People like Policarpo represent the 50% of that community — he’s a first generation and so much more are younger people. It’s a challenge in how the first gen[eration] maintains a sense of identity. Policarpo managed to teach that connection to the old countries.”
“He taught us to always make part of that past our present,” said Josue Chaj, Chaj’s nephew who arrived in the U.S. years after his uncle. “Our last conversation we talked at a park for at least five hours. We didn’t feel time in those conversations.”
Romero, Chaj’s longtime friend and Zapotec, had numerous conversations with him about language and translating complex ideas into their native languages. They also talked about retirement and going back home.
“To be buried back at home is what we all want,” Romero said. “He did it for so many people.”
During his 2009 interview, Gloria Chacon — then Council on Library and Information Resource Fellow at UCLA’s Charles Research Library — asked Chaj what he wanted people to remember about his life.
He said it would have to be about social change, human growth and cultural diversity.
“I believe humanity faces the challenge of maturing and growing, of contributing positively to the development of human life in the planet,” Chaj said. “Then, with this I want to say that — that if we are Indigenous, black, white, Chinese, we have the moral obligation of cherishing our cultural diversity and cherishing our human existence.
“We need a culture that respects peace, that respects the natural order of life, that respects the harmony that should exist among the diverse human cultures because within each human being dwells a spirit; within each human being dwells a hope and we should not destroy our neighbor.”
Chaj’s body arrived at last in his village, where he was buried April 12.