Study Visibilizes Indigenous Languages in Los Angeles

In the United States, those who emigrate from the south of the border are all labeled as Latinos, coming from a “Latin” culture for speaking the Spanish colonial language. But in Abya Yala, our origin is richly diverse, particularly when it comes to language. Thus, Indigenous Communities in Leadership (CIELO) has achieved a crucial step in helping to make these differences visible in the most significant way: migrants from indigenous communities who do not have Spanish as a first language.

This past July, CIELO published a data density map that shows that only in Los Angeles there is a diaspora of migrants from Mexico and Central America, who together speak more than 17 different indigenous languages. “Displaced Indigenous migrant communities in the United States have historically been undercounted in the Census due to many being classified under Hispanic/Latino. This is a statistical genocide – the erasure of Indigenous communities from public records and creating major barriers to accessing basic human rights like interpretation in institutions, ”explain the members of this project led by a Zapotec born in Los Angeles, Janet Martínez, and Mariah Tso, a Diné-born cartographer from the University of California (UCLA).

Source: CIELO “Nearly 2,500 unique households applied for CIELO’s fund, signifying nearly 11,000 individuals from over 30 different unique Indigenous communities throughout Mexico and Central America.”

According to information compiled by the US Census Bureau between 2009-2013, there are at least 20,000 people in the United States who identified themselves as indigenous-speakers from Latin America, 7,650 of those who speak different Mayan languages. So it’s really no surprise to find such rich diversity in Los Angeles.

Founded in 2016 by Odilia Romero and Janet Martinez, CIELO is an indigenous-led organization fighting for the human, cultural, economic, social, and linguistic rights of undocumented indigenous immigrants in Los Angeles. In the beginning, much of their work revolved around the linguistic revitalization of communities, which led them to hold the first Indigenous Literature Conference in Los Angeles, in cooperation with the Indigenous Front of Binational Organizations and a National Congress of Indigenous Interpreters. Linguistic justice is the key.

Through years of successful community work, they were also recognized as consultants to the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) to deliver cultural awareness workshops and convince LAPD police officers to carry an “Indigenous Language Identification Card,” which included instructions in Mayan, Guatemalan, and Mexican languages. The idea is to prevent unnecessary deaths, which is exactly what occurred on July 16 with zapotec indigeneous youth Gerardo Chavez Martinez, who was recently shot down at home by police for not understanding the Spanish and English instructions they gave him to raise his hands.

But then the pandemic began, placing this small but bold indigenous organization at the heart of an emergency. Many jobs were lost due to the emergency COVID-19 lockdown, and entire families dependent on daily wages found themselves in precarious situations. Those migrants who did not lose their jobs were essential workers, greatly exposed to COVID-19, many without access to health insurance.

Despite being one of the most affected communities, undocumented immigrants did not have financial or unemployment assistance from the national government. For this reason, CIELO created the Undocumented Indigenous Fund to obtain and administer donations for families made invisible by their immigration status. With a first small grant of $ 10,000, they reached 38 families in Los Angeles and documented their demographic makeup. They explain that “approximately 78.9% of the funds went to Zapotec families in Los Angeles. Another 5.3% of those funds went to Mixe, 10.5% to Quiché, 2.6% to Mixtecos, 2.6% to Triqui households. ” But the need was even more significant.

A year later, CIELO has managed to raise through its Undocu-Indigenous Fund more than half a million dollars to help the indigenous families of Los Angeles, with the delivery of checks for $ 400 for an average of 2,500 families, with the help from local allies such as the Oaxaca Regional Organization, the Mixteco / Indigena Community Organizing Project, Maya Vision, and several bilingual community radio stations. 

A survey accompanied each donation on basic demographics, family size, preferred language, and workplace. With the accumulated information, they decided to create a geographic reference system and an interactive map that could influence public policies with that data collection. For example, more than 50 percent of the respondents, who initially included 2,500 families with around 11,000 members, answered that their preferred language was other than Spanish or English. This consists of 17 languages from at least five principal language groups.

To successfully develop their strategies, CIELO does its guzuna (volunteer community work in Zapotec) by informing communities about the pandemic and vaccination in their own languages. Its objective is to create linguistic justice systems, accompanied by visibility instruments, to have a high impact on public policy with various municipalities and the Los Angeles Unified School District Board of Education.

A Tu’un Savi Mixteco teacher who is helping CIELO in their language revitalization program, Claudio Hernandez, talks about the difficulty of navigating multilingualism in a country where quick assimilation is expected: “In California, where the racism of Mexican migrants and the United States collide, Indigenous migrants have to face the shame both nations impose on Indigenous people. In the United States, Indigenous migrants have to become comfortable navigating another world where their language is excluded, where they are pressured to feel English and Spanish are important for survival and success. My parents would often repeat a phrase most often used to push English-Spanish bilingualism, ‘El que habla dos lenguas, vale por dos.’ This often does not apply to Spanish-Indigenous language speakers because Indigenous languages are seen to be below English and Spanish.”

The cultural roots, the deep identification with its ancestry, makes CIELO transcend borders because that is where that resilience comes from, having had to leave the roots and plant itself in another land, with other languages, with other peoples. As Janet Martínez tells us, in her beautiful collaboration “Zapotec resilience” with the Tzam-thirteen seeds project, about belonging to her community of origin in Oaxaca:


“It’s hard to convey the significance of such a strong community network and how important it is to reciprocate that love and support. Since he [my grandfather] passed his parting lesson was the importance of being there for the community like it was there for me. He left his community of Zoogocho in 1970 yet the people who were at the rosaries and ultimately laid him into the earth in his final resting place in Los Angeles were Bene Xogsho. 2,190 miles away from the land that saw him born. But between those 2,190 miles from the land he was born to, to the place he was ultimately laid to rest, lies an imaginary Zapotec territory, a place where guzune and da ja la guno still exists, where death is mourned in community, and jarabes are still being danced at community events. Life and belonging to each other is what unites us in the metropolis of Los Angeles. The collective memory of a community that existed and grounded us in a Zoogocho continues to unite us 2,190 miles.”

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