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Mayan Guatemalans disenfranchised because their government can't spell?

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The RENAP national registry was set up in 2007 to create and disseminate the new national identification card, called the DPI. The transition to a more sophisticated ID card, complete with an embedded data chip, is meant to guarantee citizens’ rights to identification, and the government services and protections that accompany that right. But, with corruption scandals and an audit by the Organization of the American States (OAS), which led to the required correction of over 2.9 million ID cards, RENAP earned a reputation for incompetence.

But Tulane University Professor Judith Maxwell fears RENAP's inability to support the proper spelling of Mayan names goes beyond government inefficiency.

“Mayan names usually contain a symbol in them, which is not found in the standard Spanish alphabet,” says Dr. Maxwell, who has worked as a linguist, teaching and preserving indigenous languages in Guatemala, since 1973. “But it’s basically just an apostrophe … you can’t tell me those symbols aren’t on a computer.”

Maxwell worked with a team of linguists to standardize the Mayan alphabet after Guatemala’s civil war ended in 1996.

“One of the principles we used is they’ve got to be all symbols that are readily available on a standard keyboard,” says Maxwell. “I believe the government is inefficient, but I think that this is systematic discrimination.”

Rolando Yoc, the director of public policy and conflict resolution programs at Guatemala's Human Rights Investigator’s Office disagrees. He believes it’s a lack of cultural understanding that led to the majority of registration mistakes in indigenous communities. For instance, in some towns in the east of Guatemala, people have last names that are often used in Spanish-speaking communities as first names. As a result, registry employees might unintentionally mix up the order of the names.

“For example, the name Renato Pedro. It sounds like two first names, when really Pedro is the last name,” Mr. Yoc says. “When a registry employee writes it that way, it shows their cultural predisposition.”

Bureaucratic obstacles

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