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Mixtec workers in Fresno, California.

A Mixtec man in Fresno, California, works harvesting onions in the fields.

Photograph by Antonio Nava, Nava Photos

Katya Cengel

for National Geographic

Published June 24, 2013

On a dusty highway in California's Central Valley, a black Chevy truck heads toward bright fields of grapes dotting the barren brown earth. It is a warm June day, and the truck's windows are cracked open to get a little air. Out wafts a rap song: Spanish rhymes interspersed with the occasional English phrase —"hell yes." Toward the middle of the song a third language beats its way in.

"That is Mixteco," says the driver, Miguel Villegas.

Mixteco is Villegas's native language. It is the only language he spoke fluently when he came to the United States sixteen years ago at the age of seven. The trilingual rap song is his own creation and he takes to heart its Spanish language refrain: "Mixteco is a language, not a dialect. It's the gold that I treasure."

Villegas spent two years working in the grape fields where his older siblings still toil. Now he is a community worker at the Fresno headquarters of the Binational Center for the Development of Oaxacan Indigenous Communities, a nonprofit that focuses on the specific needs of indigenous Mexicans who have migrated to California. Across the United States these indigenous migrants are isolated even more than other immigrant groups. They speak neither English nor Spanish and are often looked down on by Spanish-speaking Mexicans.

They may not be the Spanish-speaking migrants that politicians picture when they discuss immigration reform, but as their numbers increase and trilingual members like Miguel organize, they have their own stake in the fractious debate in Washington. A possible language requirement would be particularly difficult for indigenous communities. Without Spanish, their road to English fluency will be that much harder. Their own languages are not traditionally written languages. Many have not had formal schooling.

At the extreme, an inability to speak Spanish and English can lead to tragedy, as in the 2010 case of Jaminez Xum, an indigenous day laborer from Guatemala who was shot and killed by Los Angeles police officers after he did not respond to English and Spanish commands.

People of the Rain

In the 2000 census, 407,000 people nationwide self-identified as Latinos of indigenous origin. In 2010 the number was 685,000, the most recent statistic available. "That's a 68 percent increase," said Jonathan Fox, department chair of Latin American and Latino studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

Migrants from Mexico's more than 60 indigenous groups have been coming to the United States for decades, but their numbers and proportion in the larger Mexican migrant population have increased in recent years. In addition to California, where they number at least 200,000, Fox said large populations can be found in Texas, 90,000; New York, 53,000; Arizona, 39,000; and Colorado and Illinois, both with about 25,000.

Very often, indigenous people come from a world apart, which adds to the pain of adjustment. Their communities have historically been cut off from the greater Spanish-speaking population of Mexico by their geographic isolation in rural areas and their lack of Spanish language skills.

Among the more than 60 languages spoken by indigenous groups, there are numerous variations that make communication between groups difficult. The languages themselves tend to have a poetic quality, said Juan Carlos Aguirre, director of a New York-based Mexican cultural organization. The Mixteco, for example, refer to themselves as "people of the rain." Instead of saying they speak Mixteco, they say, "I speak the sounds of the people of the rain."

 

Indigenous Zapotecos prepare to celebrate a saint's day in Los Angeles, California.
Indigenous Zapotecos prepare to celebrate a saint's day in Los Angeles, California.

Photograph by Antonio Nava, Nava Photos

 

In Mexico, indigenous communities tend to be small and close-knit, and women traditionally marry young. Schools only recently began offering bilingual education, and children are often needed in the fields. Crafts and farming are the main industries, and traditional healers are relied upon more than doctors. In most cases, problems are resolved by elders instead of a formal government.

Community members are expected to volunteer their time to help put on the traditional festivals and celebrations, which tend to mix traditional nature belief systems with Christianity. Even those like Villegas, who have left the country, participate however they can—if they expect to return to their village with their heads high. Since he turned 18, Villegas has twice been asked to help at festivals. He sent money instead.

Looking Mexican Doesn't Mean You Speak Spanish

Odilia Romero began working with local police in the Los Angeles area on cultural training regarding indigenous migrants in 2006; she expanded the process following the 2010 shooting. The trainings educate both communities, teaching the police about the different languages and customs of indigenous peoples and teaching indigenous people about police protocol.

"It is a two-way thing," Romero said in a telephone interview, switching seamlessly among three languages. "We need to familiarize ourselves about U.S. customs, but also they need to know the fact that [because] you're brown or look Mexican doesn't mean you speak Spanish."

Romero grew up speaking Zapoteco in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca, home to 16 of Mexico's indigenous groups. She was ten when she was reunited with her parents in Los Angeles. She was placed in a local school where she was mocked by both English- and Spanish-speaking classmates when she spoke Zapoteco. Far more troubling are the cases she has heard about of monolingual indigenous migrants being taken advantage of by their employers or becoming victims of sexual harassment.

It is not just the language that is unfamiliar to indigenous migrants. Romero remembers how her village of about 2,000 people had no jail, no cars. There was a river and a very close relationship with nature. Everyone grew their own food and fetched their own water. "Back home, before you cut a tree you ask permission of the Earth," she explained. "Here there are no trees."

 

A pufferfish skeleton.
A migrant worker in Stanislaus County, California.

Photograph by Jose E. Chavez

 

Every year, the big event was the Day of the Dead festival. She and her classmates rebelled against the Spanish-speaking teacher, who Romero said would hit them for their refusal to speak Spanish. "We in a sense did not know there was anything beside the community and language, that we lived in Mexico, or that we lived in the state of Oaxaca," she said.

The rural background of indigenous groups is something she fears will further hinder them when it comes to immigration reform. Most lack birth certificates or any other official documentation of their identity in Mexico, something she believes might be required in order to legalize their status in the United States.

Culture Shock, Cultural Clashes

Juan Santiago, a 25-year-old activist in California's Central Valley, was the first in his family to finish high school. He wears glasses and a buttoned-down shirt and agrees to meet in the cafeteria of the community college he attended in Madera, near Fresno. Like Romero, he is Zapotec. He arrived in Madera at the age of 11 and went to work in the grape fields alongside his parents and older siblings.

When his parents were told he was too young to work, they instructed him to hide when the boss made his rounds. Child labor and education laws were not something they understood. Santiago was eventually sent to school and is now studying political science at California State University in Fresno. Although he is not married, most of his peers are. One of his cousins got married when she was 15.

"It's something normal that happens in our community," he explained. "My mother got married when she was 15."

Early marriage may be normal in rural Mexico, but in the United States it can mean a brush with the law. In 2009 an indigenous Mexican migrant was arrested in California after arranging a marriage between his 14-year-old daughter and a neighbor in exchange for money.

In New York City, where indigenous migrants tend to find work as day laborers and in the food or child-care sector, cultural clashes have resulted in child protective services involvement, said Juan Carlos Aguirre. It is usually a little thing, said Aguirre, executive director of the Mexican cultural and arts nonprofit Mano a Mano, which offers indigenous languages interpretation. For example, a small accident might occur when teenagers are watching their younger siblings and escalate when communication with the parents breaks down.

People in city government need to understand "that there is a big culture shock when a lot of people come to the U.S. and things here are very different from the way things are run back in Mexico and many other countries," said Aguirre.

Mano a Mano began integrating indigenous programs into their work two years ago after noticing an increase in the number of indigenous migrants. A survey conducted with the Mexican Consulate found that 25 to 30 percent of respondents in the tristate area of New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut spoke an indigenous language.

Holding On to Tradition

The Gunnison County, Colorado, Multicultural Resource Office saw the percentage of Mexican migrants belonging to the indigenous Cora group rise from 39.9 percent to 47 percent between 2009 and 2012. Cora, who come from the small state of Nayarit, just to the north of Puerto Vallarta, now account for 40 percent of the county's Latino migrant population. They get in trouble for minor things like not wearing a seat belt or not having their child in a car seat, things that are unregulated in their rural communities, said Ellen Pedersen, the office's health official.

More worrying to Pedersen is the decline of their culture. The younger ones no longer speak Cora, and traditional festivals are no longer celebrated.

In California, where indigenous migrants have a longer and deeper history, the Oaxacan harvesttime festival of Guelaguetza is celebrated in Fresno every September. This March, the Binational Center for the Development of Oaxacan Indigenous Communities began offering Mixteco language lessons to the community on Thursday evenings.

Villegas is the teacher. It is a strange twist for a young man who spent years trying to hide his indigenous roots, even attempting to blend in with his Spanish-speaking countrymen by joining a Mexican gang. It wasn't until he was in his late teens and was introduced to indigenous cultural groups that he began to view his Mixteco heritage as an asset instead of a hindrance.

Now he wears a brown and turquoise cloth bracelet on his left wrist. To him the brown symbolizes the Earth and the color of his skin, and turquoise was the color commonly used in early pictographs of the Mixteco language. On Saturday mornings Villegas offers additional Mixteco language lessons to the children of his friends, family members, and colleagues.

"They love it," he said. "They say, 'I want to rap in Mixteco.'"

17 comments
Art Valenzuela
Art Valenzuela

We must not act in haste and create a cultural genocide. We must embrace what little is left of our culture and foment this to our children. It is clear that the only way to know one's self is by self-identifying that which makes you -- mexican, spanish, english, indian, and other connotations.

The best interpretation of this in America is the Amish... and I don't see anyone telling them to be more "American"?

Diego Frausto
Diego Frausto

@Bill HuntYes maternal DNA is Native, but doesn't paternal DNA count? There are so many light skinned, green eyed blonds in my Mexican family that I wonder if we ever really mixed with natives. My family is from near Guadalajara, Jalisco. (Region known as the Altos)

Diego Frausto
Diego Frausto

@Bill HuntYes maternal DNA is Native, but doesn't paternal DNA count? There are so many light skinned, green eyed blonds in my Mexican family that I wonder if we ever really mixed with natives. My family is from near Guadalajara, Jalisco. (Region known as the Altos)

Jon Baker
Jon Baker

Those that think it is so easy for these people to "just learn Spanish" have clearly never been to Mexico and spent time with the indigenous population there.  This is not a trivial task.  The groups are small and dispersed, and sometimes hard to find. They are afraid and live isolated, often the poorest of the poor. They don't have jobs that easily identify them. They often don't have enough money to send their kids even to public schools. Many of their community that could help once they do learn Spanish, leave the community having gotten out and started to make a better life.  Please don't judge these people until you have walked a mile in their shoes.  You really have no idea...

Bill Hunt
Bill Hunt

According to Church records, fewer than 400,000 Spaniards ever set foot in the New Spain.  At the time of first contact there were more than 20 million Native Americans; after the plagues and wars maybe 2.5 million were left.  Do the math; most Mexicans ARE Native.  Maternal mitochondrial studies suggest as much as 93%(http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23754474). 

Zen Galacticore
Zen Galacticore

The indigenous of Mexico are demonstrable proof of the importance of having a lingua franca (common language) in any nation state, whether it be Mexico or the United States, or any other country.

By not learning Spanish, they are only aiding in their own exclusion from the larger Mexican society. Granted, there are many other forces and factors at work in this cultural alienation, among them the Spanish colonial legacy (take care of the aristocrats, the army, and the Roman Catholic clergy), and the peasants--meaning the indigenous and those of "mixed" ancestry, be damned.

Peter Nurkse
Peter Nurkse

Worth noting that these indigenous immigrants are all Native Americans, as native to this continent as the Sioux, the Cherokee, or the Iroquois. A few years ago California overtook Oklahoma as the state with the most Native Americans. Not because the Native Americans within California increased, but because of the new Native Americans who immigrated to California from Mexico, Guatemala, and other countries of the Americas.

Roxanne Roxanadanna
Roxanne Roxanadanna

@Art Valenzuela The Native Americans from Mexico have largely been invisible.  Before reading this, I'd assumed the only Native Americans were in the US, those in Mexico itself either having been extirpated or intermarried, such that the descendants all spoke Spanish. How wrong I was!  What we need to do is find out more about these groups, to hear their stories, to learn of their particular cultures & traditions. This is a golden opportunity for all.

Joel Wischkaemper
Joel Wischkaemper

@Jon Baker .. an excellent exam.  And no.. it is not a trivial task because they use oral teaching methods where they teach at all.  Moving to Spanish from a local language would be a staggering accomplishment.  Keep in mind though, with their education which is very generously called 5th grade level, we are going to expect the illegal alien to learn the second, or perhaps the first most difficult language in the world.. English.  Congress is going to abuse these folks.  They are acting very foolishly in what is happening in our country today.

Diego Frausto
Diego Frausto

@Bill Hunt, Yes maternal DNA is Native, but doesn't paternal DNA count? There are so many light skinned, green eyed blonds in my Mexican family that I wonder if we ever really mixed with natives. My family is from near Guadalajara, Jalisco. (Region known as the Altos)

Joel Wischkaemper
Joel Wischkaemper

@Xira Arien Nor should we have been asked.  Instead, we are being thugged, and that will make things worse for them and for the United States.  Think clearly folks: if Mexico were to do well economically, (shuck corruption), and assume a world role, wouldn't all of use be better off?  Yes we would, and the very best place for the Mexican People is in Mexico. 

Bill Hunt
Bill Hunt

@Zen Galacticore   As a public school teacher I hear what you are saying, but I think in dealing with the larger issue, it is a matter of literacy, oral or written that is the key.  Kids who know "who" they are, have better self-esteem and are more motivated to learn.   

Language (English in particular) has a history of being used as a tool of cultural oppression.  My own Celtic ancestors were treated just like Native American kids in the early boarding schools.  In Wales, in the 1890's, kids who dared to speak Welsh received corporal punishment and forced placards that said "NG" ie No Gaelic.

Jorge Orozco
Jorge Orozco

@Peter Nurkse , thank you for recognizing that. Most people simply dismiss these folks as Mexicans who don't belong here..

Joel Wischkaemper
Joel Wischkaemper

@Roxanne Roxanadanna ...  There are over 200 dialects of Spanish in Mexico.  Most of them belong to the tribes in the various reservations, and are probably in the area of 20% Spanish and the rest the tribal language.  Now this is a broad overview.  But think about that circumstance, and you suddenly understand why many who did come to this country wanted this country to teach them .... Spanish.  With Spanish, these early migrants who settled in Mexico to become what we call American Indians could, with Spanish, enter that society in Mexico.  The Mexicans abused the tribes on their reservations, but the tribes abused the help and support they got from Mexico.  It is an important story, and anyone who does numbers will tell you we could take the money we are spending on the illegal aliens in the United States, and do wonders with it in education, in Mexico.   

Joel Wischkaemper
Joel Wischkaemper

@Jorge Orozco @Peter Nurkse Native Americans from Mexico do not belong here.  They have very little chance of doing well, and studies of those migrants tell us their kids don't do well either.  They are Mexican Nationals, and they are very, very expensive to maintain in this country.  Over a trillion dollars of Social Welfare in the last ten years, even more in maintainer costs, and it has to stop.

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