Creating a bridge for expression, connection

A staff member patiently writes down every word a little boy in El Salvador says as he dictates his letter to his sponsor by phone. The boy wants so much to express his thoughts well and get every word right.

A sponsor of a child in Bolivia learns some phrases in Quechua [ke-chu-a], the language of her sponsored friend, and puts them in her letter to the child.

A staff member in Guatemala provides workshops, tutoring and information in both Spanish and in the indigenous language of the community.

These are just some of the ways Unbound shows respect for languages around the world.

Among families served by the Unbound program in Guatemala, 10 languages are spoken. In addition to Spanish, families speak nine Mayan languages.

“Part of the benefit of serving families that speak different languages is being able to learn about their culture, their identity and their vision of the world,” said Oscar Ventura Tuch, regional reporter for Unbound in Guatemala.

While Spanish is the official language of Guatemala, it’s not universally spoken or understood.

“Languages in Guatemala are a vital part of communication with families," Tuch said. "In the rural areas, the mother tongues are the dominant spoken languages, and it's in these spaces where large numbers of Unbound families are located.

"From my experience as a reporter, when I meet with someone for an interview in their native language, the result is that the conversation really opens up broadly, since the person being interviewed feels comfortable being heard in their own language."

Preserving languages and cultures

In Bolivia, Spanish is the dominant language with about three-fourths of the people speaking it. According to Brenuely Karen Quispe Valeriano, a staff member with Unbound's Cochabamba program in Bolivia, many sponsored friends speak at least two languages.

"Families that speak two languages can help us open up spaces to improve communication with the sponsored families [that don't speak Spanish] or amongst the parent support groups," Valeriano said.

She shared that being able to speak in their own language allows the mothers to express themselves more naturally and increases their confidence as they make decisions.

It’s easier for people to tell their stories in their language. And storytelling is essential at Unbound — from oral storytelling to stories told through the written word, music, dance and the visual arts.

"Language is very important," Valeriano said." It’s the main way of interacting with our circle. The words preserve our history, traditions, culture and our identity. Native tongues are legacies from our grandparents. [Language is important] to improve communication and understanding since our society identifies with the two native languages.

In Bolivia we have 36 original languages, even though three of them are at risk of becoming extinct and make up part of the revival program for native languages. The most spoken languages are Quechua, Aymara and Guarani, while Spanish is considered the language that connects the entire Bolivian population.

– Brenuely Karen Quispe Valeriano

When people share in another’s culture and languages, their connections deepen. For children, elders and family members writing in their own languages, translators serve as the bridge between them and their sponsors.

In El Salvador, Jorge Castaneda manages the team that translates letters for most of Latin America. He said that some of the main challenges translators face come from the diversity of the regions. Local vocabularies, regional dialects and regional idioms can make translating letters from sponsored members more difficult. But, he shared, all the members of his team have five years or more experience working for Unbound and have learned a lot about regional differences in language.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, families and Unbound staff have had to be creative in how they write and deliver letters for sponsors. Castaneda said that sponsored members are sending letters to the local Unbound staff via email, WhatsApp or by phone. Families also have the option of writing handwritten letters just like they have previously. In that case, they either send it as an image via email or text, or through a mothers group leader from the community who delivers the letters to the local staff. Once local staff have the letter, they scan it and send to Unbound headquarters in Kansas City. Then, Kansas City staff forward the letter on to the sponsor.

No matter the languages spoken, Unbound is dedicated to creating a bridge of friendship through letters between sponsored friends and their sponsors.

"Due to the pandemic, many things have changed," Castaneda said, "and it’s been very helpful to innovate the approach to our work, in every area. The main goal is that we want the correspondence to arrive as quickly as possible, because sponsors expect news from their sponsored friend and their families.”