The Native American Health Center entrance, located at 3124 International Blvd in the Fruitvale district. Credit: Florence Middleton

Mayra Matias Pablo cradles a baby doll in her arm while holding a stuffed breast in her other hand. Dressed in traditional Guatemalan clothing and speaking Mam, a Mayan language from Guatemala, she uses the props to demonstrate a proper latch. 

Matias Pablo works for the Women, Infant and Children program at Oakland’s Native American Health Center in Fruitvale, and created this social media video to help Mam-speakers learn how to reduce nipple pain during breastfeeding. The WIC program supports pregnant women, new moms, infants, and children up to age 5 with access to healthy food, nutrition education, and breastfeeding support. 

Mayra Matias Pablo working in the WIC office on Nov. 4. All of her work supporting clients is remote, but she goes into the office when clients need to pick up materials like WIC cards. Credit: Florence Middleton

Ninoska Ayala, WIC program director, estimates that 25% of the program’s clients speak Mam. But, she said, there is very little information available in their language. The WIC team is trying to change that with two powerful tools: TikTok and translation.

Oakland is home to one of the largest Mam communities in the U.S. Crecencio Ramirez Pablo, an Oakland-based Mam activist and founder of Radio B’alam, estimates that Oakland has approximately 15,000 Mam speakers. They gravitate to Oakland, he said, because it is a sanctuary city. There are more job opportunities, medical services, and legal resources to apply for asylum.

In the past five years, the WIC team has added two Mam speakers to support Mam clients.

Mayra Matias Pablo, Mam-speaking WIC staff member, at the WIC office at Native American Health Center in Fruitvale on Nov. 4. Credit: Florence Middleton

Matias Pablo, 26, began her relationship with Native American Health Center 10 years ago as a WIC participant after she had her first baby. When a staff member heard she spoke English, Spanish, and Mam and that she had breastfed, they recruited her to the WIC team in 2017. She joined as a part-time peer counselor to support breastfeeding Mam speakers. Now she works full-time and is training to be a nutrition assistant. 

Matias Pablo said she was motivated to expand her role because Mam interpreters are not always available when their clients need them. And even if they are available, the interpreters might not speak the “right kind of Mam.” 

Mam has regional dialects that are distinct enough that Mam speakers from different Guatemalan towns struggle to understand each other. Matias Pablo is from Todos Santos Cuchumatán, like many other Oakland Mams. 

“With the translators, it’s Mam, but it’s like a different accent,” she said. “That’s why I decided to be here full time to be able to help the moms struggling a lot with the language.”

The space used by WIC’s lactation consultant, Tina Benitez, when clients need support beyond what peer counselors can provide. Credit: Florence Middleton

The WIC team also looked for other ways to support Mam clients. Ayala noticed many of the clinic’s younger Mam participants were not always interested in their classes.

“They’re just a different population and becoming quickly disengaged,” Ayala said. “We thought, let’s try this.”

In partnership with Alameda County’s Latina Chicana Lactation Taskforce and with a grant from Friends of La Leche League, the WIC team created six TikTok videos about breastfeeding. Each video has a version in Spanish, English, and Mam and was released in August for National Breastfeeding Month. The videos were co-produced by WIC’s lactation consultant, Tina Benitez, and cover the topics of colostrum, milk supply, engorgement, latching, nipple pain, and newborn crying. 

Matias Pablo said she uses the videos with younger Mam mothers, especially first-time moms. The most popular Mam video, with more than 300 views, is on reducing nipple pain.

Maribel Mendoza Jeronimo, 32, is a Mam WIC participant with two daughters, aged 4 and 1.  Mendoza Jeronimo found the Mam-language TikTok videos helpful because they show the approach to raising a baby in the U.S., she said in Spanish. 

Mendoza Jeronimo likes attending WIC classes, and although she speaks both Spanish and Mam, she likes that the Mam staff joins the classes because she is the most comfortable communicating in Mam. 

The WIC program is creating Mam videos rather than written content, Matias Pablo said, because Mam is primarily an oral language and many Mam speakers do not read or write their language.

In November, Ayala’s team released more Mam-language videos. They dubbed the Welcome to WIC video series into Mam for new clients. They also dubbed March of Dimes videos on the dangers of breathing air pollution from California fires during the prenatal period, and they are weaving the content into their prenatal classes. 

Mam is not the only language preventing some WIC clients at Native American Health Center from accessing nutrition and breastfeeding information. Ayala said they also have clients who speak Vietnamese, Cantonese, and Haitian Creole.

The federal WIC program created several forms and videos in Vietnamese and Cantonese that the center’s staff can access when needed. WIC clients at the center also have access to interpretation services for Vietnamese, Cantonese, and Haitian Creole. Despite these resources, communication is still challenging, Ayala said.

“When we really don’t have anybody that speaks the language, then it’s really difficult.”

Spanish interpretation was provided by Vanessa Flores.

This story was co-published with Oakland North.

Florence Middleton is a visual journalist based in Oakland, California. She joined The Oaklandside as a photojournalist intern through a partnership with UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism, where she is pursuing a master’s degree. Florence’s work focuses on themes of community, women, and culture, and she has covered stories both locally and globally. Florence is the recipient of the 2023 Pulitzer Center Reporting Fellowship and the 2023 Dorothea Lange Fellowship honorable mention.