Fifteen years ago, Edelmar Arnoldo Borrayes Cifuentes immigrated from Guatemala to Cary, North Carolina. He got a job in construction, found a house, and made friends in his local Latino community. What he did not do was learn much, if any, English.
On this day, Cifuentes sits in a courtroom on the sixth floor of the Durham County Courthouse. He wears a black button down shirt with tiny white polka dots, jeans held up by a leather belt and a navy cloth mask. He appears to be in his 40s and has spiky black hair, hardened with gel. He’s short, shorter than his attorney, Aneta Yordanova Paval, who sits before him in the gallery in a maxi skirt and gray sweater.
He’s here to fight for sole custody of his son, in a language he doesn’t understand, and the translator’s late.
A decade ago, attorneys had to formally request an interpreter weeks in advance. But a surge in demand in recent years prompted the courthouse to develop a better system.
“Now, it’s like calling an Uber,” said trial court administrator Deneen Barrier. At least in theory.
Cifuentes is texting on his phone when Judge Amanda L. Maris calls his case.
When he hears his name, he stands, shoves his phone in his jean pocket, and makes his way to the table at the front of the room. His son’s mother, who is supposed to be representing herself, is not present. In fact, she’s in Guatemala.
As Cifuentes takes his seat, the translator bursts through the double doors and scurries over to his side. She wears a light blue dress and clutches a clipboard to her chest. Paval, relieved, calls Cifuentes to the witness stand.
He walks cautiously to the front of the courtroom.
“Please place your left hand on the Bible and raise your right,” the court clerk says, as though she’s said it thousands of times. (She has.)
Cifuentes, though, doesn’t know this string of words. But he sees a Bible in front of him and notices the bailiff motioning toward it, so he takes a guess as to what he should do: He picks it up with both hands.
The bailiff dashes over and grabs the book while the translator frantically whispers to Cifuentes, who runs a nervous hand through his shiny hair. He guessed wrong.
Once the bailiff replaces the Bible, and Cifuentes’ attorney helps to properly swear him in, Paval begins asking questions.
The translator jots furiously on her clipboard as Paval speaks, relaying sentences to Cifuentes before Paval has finished them. Amid the resulting overlap in voices, Cifuentes doesn’t know where to look. He settles for a spot on the gray carpet between the two women.
Via a complicated game of telephone, the court learns that Cifuentes grew up in Guatemala. There he met his wife, Emilia Gomez Alvarado, and had his son, Bryan, whom he took care of until the boy was three. Then Cifuentes decided to fly to the United States solo to chase “El Sueño Americano.” The American Dream.
His family was supposed to join him after he built a life for the three of them. But, things didn’t go according to plan. In Guatemala, Alvarado neglected Bryan and left him at the age of 10.
Cifuentes describes the dangers his son had to face alone — the crime, the extortion, the gangs — in a raw, shaky tone. The translator repeats his message word for word, but her scripted monotone doesn’t quite capture the sorrow.
This past June, when Bryan, who turns 18 in October, was finally able to leave Guatemala, Cifuentes saw his son for the first time in 15 years. He moved Bryan into his home, registered him for a local school, and now he wants custody over him.
Paval is satisfied with her client’s testimony.
“No further questions, Your Honor,” she says.
“Okay, Mr. Cifuentes, you may step down,” Judge Maris replies.
There’s a moment of stillness while the translator relays the message. When Cifuentes walks back to the table, she follows behind him like a dutiful shadow.
Then the telephone game resumes as Judge Maris states her ruling. Cifuentes stares at her, arms crossed over his chest. He watches her lips move as she says “I hereby grant sole legal and physical custody of the minor child, Bryan Gomez, to Mr. Cifuentes.”
Eyes in the sparsely filled gallery jump over to Cifuentes, expecting celebration. But he remains still. The translator has fallen behind, and she’s not yet repeated the ruling. Cifuentes is the last in the room to learn that he’s won the case.
When he does, the moment for a dramatic reaction has passed. He stands, gives a gracious nod to the judge and heads out of the courtroom, leaving his shadow behind.