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Language & Diplomacy | Language Intersection Insights with Sheba Velasco

JNCL-NCLIS Insights: Language at the Intersection

About the Episode:

JNCL-NCLIS is proud to introduce the ninth episode of our Language at the Intersection Insights Interview series. In this episode, we are joined by Sheba Velasco, the International Ambassador of Tourism and Mayan Culture, who will help us explore the intersection of language and diplomacy, and how multilingualism moves her world.

The transcript for the episode can be found below.



Amanda Seewald (00:09):

Hello, and welcome to the "JNCL-NCLIS Language at the Intersection Insights" Interview Series, where we talk with professionals from many fields to hear their perspectives on how multilingualism moves our world. The Joint National Committee for Languages and the National Council for Language and International Studies proudly presents this series with generous sponsorship support from Vista Higher Learning.

I'm Amanda Seewald, current president of the Joint National Committee for Languages and National Council for Language and International Studies, JNCL-NCLIS. And today we introduce you to Sheba Velasco, an international ambassador of tourism and Mayan culture who will help us explore the intersection of language and diplomacy, and how multilingualism moves her world.

Sheba Velasco (01:03):

Hello, my name is Sheba Velasco, I'm a Mayan from the Highlands of Guatemala and I am the Ixil interpreter and also is an ambassador of international ambassador of tourism for more than 30 years. My language intersection is language and diplomacy.

Amanda Seewald (01:22):

Perfect. Thank you so much. How do you use multiple languages in your life and work?

Sheba Velasco (01:27):

I use it by, you know, translating for immigration or judges that I have to translate for Ixil to English.

Amanda Seewald (01:36):

And can you tell me a little bit more about multilingualism in your life, and all of the languages you speak, and how they relate to you and your identity and your work?

Sheba Velasco (01:45):

Not just translating for the immigration, but also as interpreters, also as interpreter for culture. So I speak different languages as I travel. We share cultures, especially about the Mayan cultures and then to connecting cultures in United States, the Mayan that there's been, you know, left Guatemala that came to United States, also I help them to, you know, to continue their culture, to continue their language. And so it's not just about Ixil or Mayan languages, I have meetings with international people around the world to let them know or to talk about their culture. So they don't forget their culture, they don't forget their language, they don't forget who they are. It's not very hard to adapt in this country because so many technology, but thank God first of all. And I'm very happy for my grandma to support me with my culture and my language almost four decades that I've been here in United States and I still speak my language and wear my outfit.

Amanda Seewald (02:50):

That's incredible. And I am humbled by what you're sharing with me because I find it so incredible and so meaningful that you connect this to your grandmother and your family and that those connections are so strong. It strikes me that you talk about the difference between having technology and having connection to culture and language and how powerful that is. Can you talk a little bit more about how you see multilingualism as a key in diplomatic settings?

Sheba Velasco (03:19):

Okay. One of them if I understood, one of them is that again, it's so easy to adapt this country because to me United States, the only one country in the world that has everything so much machine, so much technology. So especially for young generation, it's so easy for them to forget their language and to just to adapt to this culture. But again, it's very important to remember our heritage and where we come from and to continue our language as in our culture. And that's one of the things that I do at the UN part-time position. We meet with different nationality from different parts of the world, different country, and we share, and we talk about our culture and to teach and to continue, and to teach the new generation. So they don't forget their ancestry, just like I learned from my grandmother.

Amanda Seewald (04:15):

That's just beautiful. And so I have a question for you about some of those meetings that you've had. It sounds like they must be fascinating. So can you give us an example, maybe a story from when you've interpreted or you've attended meetings, that where being able to speak your language made a difference in a conversation or in being able to help people connect on a certain idea or issue?

Sheba Velasco (04:38):

Yes, so for the 13 years working with the Smithsonian, or traveling in international museum, or different organization, my focus is to learn my culture, my language, my heritage and you know, international culture. When I focus on that and I find that I end up in meetings that, I mean I didn't expect. For example, like Israel that I have a big meeting about Israel and in Palestine. And they were like very like serious when we had our meetings. And so, in that time I changed my presentation. I have to think very important that each culture is important to us. So I end up talking about our culture, our language, so to understand why in the end of it, they were happy because to me, I don't like to talk about political violence. To me, every country, every culture, and language is very important. So I like to weave the culture together in a language. So that's why I love to travel in different country and to connect them. And so I'm very happy and pleased that when a group of people from Israel and in Palestine, when we met, and they were happy and end of the meeting, because to let them know that every country is very important. And that is the thing that I would like to teach the children, like children is very important to me, just like the children, they share with each other. So I would like to do the same.

So that's what I do in different country. Just to bring peace among every country and to remind ourselves that every country is important. Every country has their point of view and is special. So it's very important for me to respect each culture and to respect each languages. It doesn't matter where they come from. And again, the children is very important to me, so I try to visit different country or museums to educate the children to learn from each other and to, you know, to teach them responsibility and to teach them, to let them know not to forget their culture. And so some of the kids that I'm visiting in school, university, and museum, I just share a little bit information and the pack and they were, they're so happy to share their culture. "Oh, my mom is from here and this is what we do in our house." And we like to share each other's culture.

Amanda Seewald (07:11):

Yeah. That's wonderful. You know, I love working with children too, and I see the promise in our future generations if we focus on multilingualism and provide that as a standard in all of our educational settings with regard to how we get students and children to understand the value of connecting language and culture. So I have a question about that a little bit. If you didn't have your multiple languages, how do you feel it would be different? And what would you like the, what would you like the world to know? Or what would you like our advocates, those who are going out to advocate for language to know about the importance of language education, and the importance of multilingualism?

Sheba Velasco (07:54):

I meet thousands of people my way as I travel. And a lot of people end up coming to me and says, "I have a gift because I can do this." Some of them cry, "why I cannot do this, what you can do?" And I encourage them, just be yourself, just be yourself. And if you believe in yourself, you will end up in a place like where I am right now. Cause I never been to school in my life. I mostly, I learn how to write, read in English and as well as Italian, English, and my language, and Spanish. So when you believe in yourself, like when I take a step, I'm not scared. Like when I end up working with the government, I don't, I'm not thinking like, "oh no, I don't have diplomacy. Maybe they're not going to accept me."

No, no. I said, "this is what I would like to do." Number one for me is very important to pray and ask God for guiding. And then when I do that, and then I take my stuff and I'm not afraid, I'm not afraid to go anywhere. And that's what I did with the Smithsonian, the government, and thank God, they let me in. And so that's what I like the world to do, to let the world know that you were born with the talent. Everybody in the world has their own talent, a gift from God. And it's very important to use those gifts. It's very important to use that talent, because if you don't use that, nobody will, and everybody has their own, you know, again, special gift from God. So just, you know, to be strong and believe in yourself. When you do that, you make a difference, big difference in the world.

And other people will learn from you because so many people that, you know, write me letters and tell me that, oh, they call me that saying that, "it's because of you and we are here today because this is what we heard from you." And I can't remember those people, maybe they were in a group. I didn't see them, but I couldn't remember, but they wrote me letters. And many of them and saying that, you know, "we heard your story and because of God, we are here today and that's truth that, you know, we have a gift and that's what I did." So I would like to the world just to believe in yourself and especially to strongly ask God about guidance.

Amanda Seewald (10:03):

Okay. Thank you for that. I have just a couple of other things I wanna ask you the first is I know that you worked with the Smithsonian for years. And so I have a question about representation, specifically, language representation. I think that in many museums, you know, multilingualism can be important so that people can access the ideas in the museum. But specifically in the Native American or the native language museums or the native museums, where we're looking at indigenous cultures, I feel that multilingualism and language is such an important aspect of representing people. I wonder if you can say something about your experience in the museum and how language was important there.

Sheba Velasco (10:44):

If I didn't speak English or other languages, I wouldn't be in the museum. I don't think with the UN, especially at the UN, because language is very important. It connects cultures, it connects people together. It connects meetings, especially like museum, with the UN, other organizations. So language brings us together. Language brings us to share with each other.

Amanda Seewald (11:09):

That's wonderful. So I'm gonna just, I wanna just ask you to go ahead and just say whatever you want to about multilingualism in your language.

Sheba Velasco (11:18):


I am very happy that I don't forget my language and I thank God what I learned from my grandma and what I learned from my grandma, languages, and my culture, has been taking me thousands of miles away from my village.

Amanda Seewald (11:49):

That's beautiful. That's just wonderful Sheba. I am so grateful to you for sharing your story today.

Sheba Velasco (11:57):

Okay. Thank you so much. Thank you. Have a good, a great day.

Amanda Seewald (12:00):

Be well, take care.

Sheba Velasco (12:02):

(GOODBYE IN IXIL) That means goodbye!

Amanda Seewald (12:17):

That concludes today's featured story from our "Language at the Intersection Insights" Interview Series. For more information about the advocacy work of the Joint National Committee for Languages and National Council for Languages and International Studies, please visit To learn more about this interview series, hear stories from other professionals, and explore how language moves our world, visit Thank you to our interviewees for sharing their stories, thank you to our series sponsors Vista Higher Learning, and thank you all for listening.

This series is made possible by a generous sponsorship from Vista Higher Learning. To learn more, please visit

_____________________________ About JNCL-NCLIS: Established in 1972, the Joint National Committee for Languages (JNCL) and the National Council for Languages and International Studies (NCLIS) unites a national network of leading organizations and businesses comprised of over 300,000 language professionals to advocate for equitable language learning opportunities. Our mission is to ensure that Americans have the opportunity to learn English and at least one other language. Contact:

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