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Building Equitable Health Services for Speakers of Mayan Languages: Community Voices in Southeast KS

Updated: Dec 14, 2022

Did you know that your health is influenced by your zip code? Public messaging often presents good health as the result of a series of personal choices, such as eating well, attaining regular health screenings, staying up to date on vaccines, and being physically active. However, there are factors that shape our health outcomes that we are not always able to control, like where we are born and grow up, where we work, the policies that shape our health care, and the ways that others respond to us based on our race and language. These factors are called social determinants of health (SDOH).

Last week, Alce su voz leaders Monique García from Wichita State University’s Public Policy and Management Center and Dr. Rachel Showstack from the Department of Modern and Classical Languages and Literatures, and the KDHE Equity Assistance Liaison and Coordinator Courtney Hayden traveled to southeast Kansas to learn about the SDOH that shape health outcomes for Mayan indigenous families and communities in the state.* One of these social determinants is the set of policies for providing language access services in a healthcare system. Community leaders in Montgomery and Cowley counties informed us that health care institutions in the region do not always provide interpreters who speak the languages of their Mayan patients. Our data analyst estimates that Montgomery and Cowley counties are home to hundreds or even thousands of Guatemalan individuals, and we learned from our community partners that many of these individuals speak Akateko or Q’anjob’al, Mayan languages that are spoken in the department (similar to a state) of Huehuatenango in northern Guatemala. Limited healthcare language access is only one of the factors that influences the health of Mayan individuals in Kansas, and needs are high in southeast Kansas to improve services for newcomers to the state.

During our trip to southeast Kansas, we were thrilled to engage with individuals who are advancing access to quality healthcare and resources for Kansans in the region, including residents of Montgomery County and some of the Cowley County leaders who created this video about local community health needs and coalition building. The individuals with whom we spoke expressed great passion for equity, the affirmation of linguistic diversity, and the need to connect people with resources in a way that makes them comfortable and not fearful. These people are engaging tirelessly in activities to serve newcomers who need language services and other forms of assistance, and we are very excited about possibilities for future collaboration to work toward building a state in which everyone has the opportunity to attain the highest possible level of health.

While in Southeast Kansas, we had the privilege of meeting with a Guatemalan family that speaks Akateko. They told us that in their town in Guatemala, San Rafael La Independencia, Akateko is spoken in the home, and children who go to school learn Spanish there. Of the members of the family, the father learned Spanish in Guatemala and the mother and children learned Spanish here in Kansas. One opportunity that we did not foresee as a result of our endeavor is the chance to learn a new language, and we were thrilled to receive an offer of Akateko classes from the father of this family, who wants to preserve the language in his community.

A common theme in our conversations with community members and community leaders was the importance of individuals who can guide newcomers to navigate their healthcare needs. Our partners have suggested that Mayan people in Kansas tend to have very low levels of literacy and that even those individuals who do speak Spanish or English may need some extra assistance with written documents. For example, we heard a story of an Akateko-speaking family that asked a receptionist for assistance with filling out a written form at a healthcare institution; in response to their request, the receptionist looked at the form and simply told them that it was in Spanish and handed it back. While training all staff at healthcare institutions to be responsive to linguistic diversity and varying levels of literacy could help, we see an exciting opportunity for the development of a workforce of individuals who can focus on health navigation, such as specialized promotores de salud (‘community health workers’) who are members of the communities they serve.

Our learning about community needs and opportunities occurred as the result of listening, and we look forward to continuing to listen to communities and build coalitions with community partners in southeast Kansas to understand the social determinants of health for individuals who need language assistance. The 2023-2025 priorities for the state health improvement plan Healthy Kansans 2030 are: (1) Improve Inequities in Health & Health Outcomes, (2) Improve Access to Care, (3) Facilitate Healthy Behaviors/Improve Health Literacy, and (4) Improve Public Health Funding & Capacity. By addressing the social determinants of health for newcomer Kansans and by continuing to listen to community voices, we can work toward making Kansas a healthier place for all.

Alce su voz is a community-based coalition whose mission is to improve health equity for Spanish speakers and speakers of indigenous languages in the United States, with a focus on Kansas and the Midwest. For more information or to get involved, please send an email to You can also join our email list and follow us on Facebook.

* The state of Kansas has an equity assistance program to help organizations receive certain grant funding. Ms. Hayden is the community liaison and coordinator of that program based out of the Kansas Department of Health and the Environment (KDHE). Her work supports Dr. Ximena García, the senior advisor to Governor Laura Kelly on vaccine equity. She engaged with our work to enhance equity in our programming.

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