Zapotec in 90006, K’iche ‘in 90057: new map highlights indigenous communities in LA


It’s not the kind of Los Angeles County map that people expect to see.

Instead of geographic markers, it shows languages.

The Pico-Union and Westlake zones light up with red and green dots for households who speak Zapotec Oaxaca and K’iche ‘Mayan. Blue dots pepper Long Beach for Chinantec speakers, also from Oaxaca.

CIELO, a local organization whose Spanish acronym stands for Indigenous Communities in Leadership, collected the data during the COVID-19 pandemic to try to draw more attention to the indigenous peoples of Latin America who are often labeled as Latino but who may only have a basic knowledge of the Spanish. Advocates say schools, hospitals, courts and police should pay more attention to these language barriers, as poor communication or not providing an interpreter can have dire consequences.

“We exist,” said Odilia Romero, co-founder of CIELO, who arrived in Los Angeles at the age of 10 from the Oaxaca city of San Bartolomé Zoogocho. “We assume that everyone south of the border is Latinx and speaks Spanish, and that is not true.”

The MacArthur Park area is heavily populated by the Guatemalan Mayans.

(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

About 20% of the Mexican population considers themselves indigenous; in Guatemala, over 40% of residents identify as Mayans.

The languages ​​they speak can be as different from Spanish as Chinese is from English, and can contain dozens of variations. There are 32 Mayan languages, for example, according to Danny Law, a linguist at the University of Texas at Austin.

Some of the earliest migratory networks of indigenous Mexicans to California were established during the bracero program, a 1942 agreement between the United States and Mexico that brought millions of Mexican men to work in agriculture. They continued after the program ended in 1964.

But it wasn’t until the 1980s that the natives of Oaxaca began to settle more and more in the United States after the devaluation of the Mexican peso. Many native Guatemalans also fled to California as refugees during the country’s civil war.

The US census does not track the number of people in Mexico and Guatemala who speak indigenous languages. The 2010 Indigenous Farm Worker Study, conducted in conjunction with California Rural Legal Assistance, or CRLA, estimated a total of 165,000 Indigenous farm workers and their families in California – a projection based on interviews with individuals from 342 Mexican hometowns as well as data from the National Agricultural Survey of Workers by the US Department of Labor.

The researchers placed the number of Latin American Indigenous people in southern California to be significantly higher.

Raúl Hinojosa-Ojeda, a professor in the Chicana and Chicano Studies Department at UCLA, estimated that 200,000 Zapotecs live in LA County based on interviews with hometown associations and their corresponding villages in Oaxaca, as well as consular data on where migrants who left Mexico live.

Eric Campbell, linguist at UC Santa Barbara, said it is difficult to estimate the population because immigrants may be reluctant to reveal that they speak an indigenous language – fearing discrimination – or may not deem it relevant .

Much of the burden ends up on Indigenous nonprofits to provide interpretation services and raise awareness during emergencies such as wildfires and the pandemic. Children born in the United States often perform for their parents.

“A lot of what we see is native language speakers trying to get by in Spanish – it’s because a service provider ignores a request for interpretation, ignores that person doesn’t have a command of that. language, or maybe it’s not clear, ”said Marisa Lundin, legal director of the indigenous program at CRLA.

Masked women hand out small flyers inside a store

Aurora Pedro, left, and Alba Gonzalez hand out flyers with vaccine information at Selecto Plaza shopping mall in central LA

(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

During the pandemic, CIELO distributed cash assistance to several thousand indigenous families living in the United States without papers, some of whom lacked vital information about the pandemic due to language barriers.

Community members publicized the financial aid in factories and restaurants, said CIELO co-founder Janet Martinez.

“We had Zapotecs asking for K’iche, K’iche asking for Chinantecos, Chinantecos asking for other indigenous communities,” she said.

Seeing an opportunity, CIELO also interviewed these households and worked with UCLA to create two virtual cards that show the zip codes where families who speak Indigenous languages ​​live.

One reflects about 2,500 households that received financial assistance from the nonprofit organization. The other represents nearly 1,300 of those households where at least one member said they prefer to speak an Aboriginal language. Density maps plot the members of each household and assume that they have the same language preferences as the person in the household who responded to the CIELO survey.

Zapotec, Chinantec, K’iche ‘, Mixe and Q’anjob’al are leading among more than a dozen languages ​​represented, said Mariah Tso, a Navajo cartographer from UCLA who worked on the project.

Most Zapotec speakers were concentrated in the Pico-Union and Koreatown regions, with most K’iche ‘speakers in the Westlake region. Of those surveyed, 44% reported working in the restaurant industry, followed by 29% in the cleaning industry and 11% in garment factories.

Brenda Nicolas, a Zapotec professor at Loyola Marymount University whose research focuses on indigenous diasporas in Latin America, said the concentration of families in neighborhoods such as Central LA reflects migratory networks that have stayed together to maintain their culture. .

Children participate in traditional dances and Oaxacan brass bands. Hometown associations organize fundraisers for infrastructure development in their communities in Mexico.

CIELO did not impose income levels on the families it helped. But Gaspar Rivera-Salgado, director of the Center for Mexican Studies at UCLA, said that since the map reflects those who have received cash assistance, it is likely ignoring middle-class Indigenous families.

“The more we know, identify and create policies that target the most vulnerable populations, the better the public policies will be,” he said.

Campaigners point to other areas, such as school districts, where it would be useful to have better data on indigenous students in Latin America.

The LA Unified School District said that for the 2020-21 school year, mandatory surveys in which families are asked to indicate the primary or home language of a student identified 247 for K’iche ‘, 88 for Q ‘anjob’al, 21 for Mam, 17 for Akateco, 12 students for Zapotec, one for Popti and three for Mixtec. More than 218,000 Spaniards listed.

Marcos Aguilar, principal of the Anahuacalmecac World School in El Sereno – a kindergarten to grade 12 school that teaches Nahuatl, a language native to Mexico – said it was a glaring undercoverage . He said the numbers likely run into the tens of thousands given the large portion of the Mexican population who identify as indigenous.

Better data collection, he said, could ensure that families who speak primarily an Indigenous language are offered the support they need and help educators assess the creation of Indigenous language programs. The school district’s education council voted last month to allocate $ 10 million to support Indigenous students.

“Right now, we are facing massive invisibility within the district,” he said. “No one knows how many Indigenous students are enrolled in LAUSD schools.

Close-up of a woman's hands holding leaflets with information about vaccines in other languages

CIELO employee Alba Gonzalez distributes leaflets with information on vaccines through MacArthur Park.

(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

Indigenous activists have previously worked with government agencies to overcome language barriers. In 2019, CIELO partnered with the Los Angeles Police Department to provide pocket cards to officers that can help them identify a speaker of an Indigenous language and, if necessary, call an interpreter. The initiative arose from years of training by leaders of the indigenous Mexican community for LAPD agents following the fatal shooting of Manuel Jaminez Xum, a Mayan indigenous who spoke K’iche ‘.

CIELO says its vaccine awareness campaign, which has helped more than 2,000 people get appointments, shows why data is crucial. Martinez said he shared the map with county health officials to advocate for a mobile vaccination site for indigenous residents.

On a recent hot Saturday afternoon, CIELO staff members Aurora Pedro, who speaks the Mayan language Akateco, and Alba Gonzalez, who speaks K’iche ‘, met MacArthur Park in central LA to begin their outreach .

They asked the juice and clothing vendors lining the sidewalk if they had received the COVID-19 vaccine. Most had and accepted leaflets with information on vaccination sites to keep at their stands.

Aurora Pedro, left, distributes flyers around Bonnie Brae St. and 6th St.

Aurora Pedro, left, distributes flyers around Bonnie Brae Street and 6th Street.

(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

In an indoor mall, Francisco Hernandez, a 36-year-old electronics salesman from Guatemala’s Totonicapan region, told the women he spoke K’iche ‘. He said he recently gave one of their leaflets to a Mayan man who he said lacked information about the vaccine.

“I explained it to him in my language,” he said.

Nearby, Elizabeth Huinac, 33, also from Totonicapan, sold baby clothes. She told the women that she and most of her family had not been vaccinated due to doubts about the vaccine’s effectiveness or safety.

But she said she was now inclined to get it, encouraged by comments from other people – like outreach workers – who had done so.

“It takes a bit of the fear away,” she said.


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