Oaxacan indigenous migrants: Challenges navigating the US systems

By: Bertha Rodriguez
Oaxaca is located in the South of Mexico. It is the fifth largest state and it occupies five percent of the whole Mexican territory. Oaxaca is characterized for it’s largest ethnic and linguistic diversity. During the last three decades, the wave of indigenous migrations to the United States has strikingly increased presenting different cultural barriers and challenges to our communities.

Oaxaca distinguishes itself for being one of the most diverse states of Mexico. Not only is the home to Mestizos –the blend between indigenous people and Europeans- but also to 16 diverse indigenous communities that speak their own language.

It is important to highlight that out of the 16 indigenous languages spoken in Oaxaca, many of them have different variants. For instance, there are three types of Zapotec (Zapotec of the Sierra, Zapotec of the Valley and Zapotec of the Isthmus), and three kinds of Mixtec (Mixtec from the Highlands, Mixtec from the Lowlands and Mixtec from the Coast), to mention just a few.

Photo: David BaconPhoto: David Bacon
The indigenous migration to the United States started at the end of the Bracero Program (1942-1964); however it was in the decade of 1980’s, when the first significant wave of migration took place and had continued to the present. The economic crises in Mexico have compelled the indigenous to migrate to the US. SEDESOL, the official Agency for Social Development, asserts that 73 % of the total population of Oaxaca, 3 million 500 thousand people, live in extreme poverty. Most of the people live with an income of less than $300 a month. Furthermore, according to the Census 2000, 80.3%, of the 570 municipalities in Oaxaca, were highly marginalized, that is to say, they lacked at least one of basic the services such as electricity, running water, and paved floor.

There are not official statistics that accurately document the volume of Indigenous migration. Some sources point out that around 2 million Oaxacans are living outside the state; the National Council of Population (CONAPO, by its Spanish initials), estimates that in the year 2000 a total of 194,785 Oaxacans were living in the US.

According to the Oaxacan scholar, Gaspar Rivera-Salgado, Oaxacan migrants concentrate primarily in California, Oregon, Florida, New Jersey, North Carolina, Arizona, Texas, Washington and other states. Among the indigenous communities who have migrated to the United States, Mixtecs, Zapotecs, Triquis and Chatinos represent the largest numbers.

Foto: Bertha Rodriguez
According to the Indigenous Farm workers Study (IFS), led by professor Rick Mines, in the last 19 years, the indigenous communities have been able to establish in California migrant networks coming from 350 towns of the states of Oaxaca (75 %), Guerrero (15%), as well as Chiapas, Puebla, Veracruz and Michoacán. However, this study only focuses on the rural areas. Of those indigenous towns found in the study, 57 % speak Mixtec, 15 % Zapotec, 12 % Triqui and the remaining 16 % is divided within P’urepecha, Chatino and Náhuatl, among other indigenous languages.

Most of the Mixtecs, Zapotecs and Triquis work in the Central Coast of California (46%), in the Central Valley (37 %) and San Diego (11%). The Binational Center for the Development of Oaxacan Indigenous Communities (CBDIO), estimates that the Oaxacan population in Fresno County is around 10,000 people.

The majority of these “newcomers” are people who come from remote and marginalized villages lost in the highlands of Oaxaca, Guerrero and other southern Mexican states. Their education level is very low: many of them are illiterate and some of them do not speak Spanish or English fluently.

Given the characteristics of our indigenous migrant communities, when dealing with any member of these communities, we recommend keeping in mind that we have different values, culture, historic experiences and belief systems. Based in CBDIO’s 15 years of experience serving the indigenous communities, we have the following recommendations for providers so they can deliver culturally appropriate services.

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