Amid the pandemic, indigenous Mexican workers in the United States fight to be heard | Agricultural News

Oxnard, California, United States – When Arcenio Lopez made the trip to the United States from his hometown of San Francisco Higos in the Mexican state of Oaxaca in 2003, he was just 21 years old. Spanish was commonly heard in his hometown, along with Mixteco, a language spoken by the indigenous Mixtec, or Nuu Savi, communities of southern Mexico.

In California, Lopez found work in the strawberry fields surrounding a small town called Oxnard in Ventura County, about 100 kilometers (62 miles) northwest of Los Angeles.

Many workers who spent hours bent over picking berries also had origins in Indigenous communities in Mexico, and spoke indigenous languages ​​such as Mixteco, Zapoteco, Purepecha and Triqui. Some spoke little Spanish, arousing the contempt of Mexican foremen and some colleagues in the field who despised the indigenous workers.

Lopez, now executive director of the Mixteco Indigena Community Organizing Project (MICOP), which serves the indigenous Mexican population of Oxnard and several neighboring southern California counties, says anti-indigenous racism continues to stalk workers in the other side of the border. “It goes back to the history of colonization,” he told Al Jazeera. “We carry this trauma in our DNA.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought additional challenges, as community members struggle to find resources in Indigenous languages ​​and take advantage of public vaccination and testing programs, after decades of discouraged immigrants d to use public assistance.

Community groups have therefore stepped in to bridge the chasm of trust between the government and indigenous migrant workers.

Legacy of Discrimination

Even before the pandemic, advocates said anti-Indigenous racism and a lack of resources in native languages ​​left Indigenous workers vulnerable to abuse and exploitation, including wage theft.

“A lot of agricultural labor is paid by the piece,” Jorge Toledano, a Mixtec community organizer with MICOP, told Al Jazeera. “If a native worker brings a basket of strawberries, the supervisor can trick him into saying there is less fruit than there really is in a language he doesn’t know, so the worker is paid less. »

Sarait Martinez, a Zapotec native who leads the Centro Binacional para el Desarrollo Indigena Oaxaqueno (CBDIO) in California’s Central Valley, said there was “a lot of anti-indigenous racism in the Mexican community.”

“It can be intimidating for people to stand up for their rights,” Martinez told Al Jazeera. “But if you have the courage to contact the government to report a workplace violation, what if no one at the agency speaks your language?”

Such language barriers can have deadly consequences. In July 2021, Gerardo Martinez, a 19-year-old Zapotec, was shot dead by police in the town of Salinas. Martinez was holding what appeared to be a handgun and did not respond to police inquiries in Spanish. But the weapon in question turned out to be a BB gun, and Martinez was a monolingual native speaker who didn’t understand Spanish.

California has never extensively studied the state’s indigenous Mexican population, and estimates of its size and composition in the labor force vary. The most comprehensive effort was the Native Farmworker Study, conducted by the California Endowment and California Rural Legal Assistance in 2010.

The study estimated that there were approximately 120,000 indigenous Mexican farm workers in California, primarily in the Central Valley and Central Coast regions. Yet despite their substantial representation in California’s $50 billion agricultural industry, Martinez says authorities have shown only limited interest in understanding these communities — although that has begun to change during the pandemic, amid growing pressure from indigenous defenders.

“We ask counties and different departments how they track Indigenous needs, like language needs, and they don’t have an answer,” Martinez said. “Institutions are not allocating the right amount of resources to ensure that our communities have access to information and services in their language. The fact that we are invisible among these services really impacts how they serve us.

Lilia Garcia-Brower, the California state labor commissioner who oversees enforcement of wage and hour laws, told Al Jazeera that her office worked with community organizations before and during the pandemic, and had partnered with MICOP and CBDIO on “work caravans” that seek to inform workers of their rights.

“One of the ways to make sure we’re available to workers is to partner with organizations that the community trusts. We want to make sure those relationships continue,” Garcia-Brower said. “These investments are just one element, but they also cannot replace a more institutional effort to accommodate workers in multiple languages.

Navigating COVID-19

During the pandemic, the lack of information in native languages ​​has sown confusion, leaving voids quickly filled with rumors and conspiracy theories. “If you can’t find answers to your questions, you might turn to social media instead,” said Lopez, who recently wrote a column highlighting the spread of misinformation among Mexican indigenous communities on social media. .

Groups such as MICOP have used radio stations to share information about the pandemic, workers’ rights and immigration law updates, all in indigenous languages. In Oxnard, MICOP operates 94.1 Radio Indigena, which offers 40 hours of weekly live programming in Spanish, Zapoteco, Purepecha and a variety of Mixedco dialects.

In the Central Valley, a station called Radio Bilingue also offers programs in Spanish and Mixtec. Many of these stations’ employees are Indigenous, making them a reliable source due to their roots in the communities they aim to reach.

Keeping up with ever-changing pandemic guidelines and updates – and translating all that information into many languages ​​– takes a lot of time. To address the scale of needs in the community, MICOP has grown from 70 employees to 120 since March 2020, Lopez said, “Delta, Omicron, new CDC guidelines; we need to stay on top of all this information and then translate it into multiple languages ​​so that it can reach people in a timely manner. »

94.1 Radio Indigena in Oxnard, CA provides the community with information on everything from COVID-19 to labor rights, available in Spanish and a number of indigenous languages [Brian Osgood/Al Jazeera]

The difficulty has been compounded by a political climate in which migrants, particularly undocumented migrants, are reluctant to seek state assistance. Even workers who are eligible to use government programs often avoid doing so, fearing that relying on welfare programs will hurt their chances of obtaining citizenship.

In such an atmosphere, state urgings to get tested and vaccinated for free may seem contradictory. “It’s hard to undo something that’s been so entrenched for so long,” Martinez said.

While community groups can help bridge the gap between state institutions and community members, this responsibility – largely due to a vacuum left by government agencies – can also be draining. “There’s a collaboration that we’ve never seen before with the state,” Martinez said. “We would like to make sure that the changes we see are structural and that there are more agencies hiring people who speak these languages.”

Toledano, despite the challenges his community faces, has hope for the future because of the power of organization. When he first arrived in California, he saw a video of legendary workers’ rights activist Cesar Chavez and was inspired to organize in the workplace.

“When we are divided, we can be exploited,” Toledano said. “But when we fight together, then we are in charge and we can claim our rights. Nothing will change until we make them listen.

Comments are closed.