Non-Spanish-speaking Mexican immigrants growing
Associated Press
Sept. 19, 2006

Joseph B. Frazier

WOODBURN, Ore. - In a dusty plowed garlic field under a broiling sun, Simon Santol inched along with other stooped-over Mexican workers, tossing parchment-covered bulbs into buckets. But the chitchat across the furrows wasn't in Spanish.

Most was in Santol's native Triqui, Mixtec, Zapotec or other languages indigenous to regions within Mexico. He is among a growing population from poorest Mexico that often barely gets by in either English or Spanish.

"It was hard at first," the 28-year-old Santol said in halting Spanish. "We would look for someone who spoke our language and Spanish. Now I have learned a little Spanish. Grace of God."
But some have not, and in Anglo and Hispanic communities that don't understand them, many newer arrivals have problems finding housing, getting fair interest rates or jobs, navigating the legal system or just communicating, immigrant advocate groups say.

Mexico is Latin America's Tower of Babel. The government recognizes 162 living languages, plus some 300 dialects. And with worsening conditions at home and relatively rosy reports from family or community members already here, the indigenous population - those who speak primarily a local indigenous language of Mexico - has climbed in the United States.

Numbers are hazy since many are here illegally and would rather not be counted, and immigrant population estimates tend to focus on nationality, not language.

But many estimates put the number of Mixtec speakers in the United States from Oaxaca alone at 100,000, a large percentage in Oregon or California's Central Valley.

Daniel Quinones, an agricultural representative whose job with the Oregon Employment Department includes monitoring labor law compliance for immigrant workers, said that with linguistic isolation and a tradition of mistrust and shabby treatment back home, many have turned inward, forming hometown-based groups to work out problems or raise money for a project back home.

"Each group usually has a leader, someone the rest can go to," he said.

"We know they exist, we hear about them, but most (outsiders) have never been there," Quinones said. "It's their own little culture. It's like you almost have to be from that one little town."

Many of the garlic pickers take their problems to Rene Sandoval Perez, 57, a labor contractor who stays in the field with his workers. Contractors hire and manage the workers for landowners who may never meet them.

"If someone is having trouble talking to a landlord he can call me and I can say, "Yeah, he is a good guy," Perez said. "We can try to get them to the right doctor. I get the checks from the owner and I give them directly to the workers, 'Juan this is yours, Paco this is for you.' "

Many indigenous workers are migratory and take their chances from job to job, where there may or may not be a Sandoval Perez. Many of the garlic pickers head south. Others stay here to pick hops.

Ramon Ramirez, who heads Oregon's farmworker union, has sent indigenous language-speaking organizers into fields to hear the immigrants' problems.

They didn't use banks back home and usually don't here, he said, making them potential targets for robbery.

"Some car lots charge them outrageous interest rates," he said.

Many have no idea, he said, of their rights and said the union, Northwest Treeplanters and Farmworkers United, finds it can help best by supporting the hometown associations.

Ramirez recalled one indigenous arrival the union helped who literally didn't know where he was.

Indigenous workers, he said, now do much of the piecework of the harvest. He estimated about 60 percent of Mexican farm workers in Oregon are from such indigenous populations. A new low-wattage union radio station scheduled to go on air Nov. 20 - Mexican Revolution Day - will include indigenous-language broadcasts detailing labor rights and other topics of interest to farmworkers.

A nonprofit law center has distributed tapes and other materials in indigenous languages outlining workers' rights.

Arrivals may be fewer now because of uncertainty among those in Mexico planning to cross illegally.

"The stories (in Mexico) are flying left and right," Quinones said. "People don't know what to expect."

But that also has kept some from going home because they don't know if they would be able to return to the U.S., said Angel Garcia, who came from Oaxaca as a farmworker in the 1960s and now owns 80 acres near Silverton.

As a result, he said, many Oaxacan villages are nearly empty: "It's very sad, there are just old women and old men left. They just wait there for money their kids send."

Juan Varcena, who comes from the Oaxacan town of Santa Rosa and has worked for the Stan Danskey Farms near Woodburn for several years, has a family back home. He sends money and visits when he can but doesn't stay. Yet crossing back to the U.S., he said, is increasingly difficult. "But so what?
That's life."

Linguistic complications crop up in various ways.

The Oregon Judicial Department, which supplies courtroom interpreters, says Oregon could have 30,000 immigrants whose first language is indigenous.

"I would say about 80 percent of the men speak at least some Spanish," said James Comstock, who heads Oregon's court interpreter services. But many, he said, can't handle themselves in court.

He said that is less common among women. But he recalled a woman whose baby was put in state care. "She spoke no Spanish at all," he said. "It was like talking to a wall. She just didn't understand."

"We get two or three (indigenous language cases) a week," he said. "When I started five years ago we might see one every couple of months."

He finds interpreters where he can, but some local qualified residents are undocumented and can't be hired. Some interpretation is done via telephone relay through Mexico.

In a classic case in the late 1980s, a young farmworker who spoke Mixtec was arrested in Oregon, charged with murder and tried in English and Spanish, which he barely understood, in front of a judge who had trouble believing that a Mexican immigrant didn't speak Spanish.

Santiago Ventura got life in the pen and served four years before the real killer was caught. Legal reforms quickly followed.

Indigenous migration patterns are changing, experts say.

"Mexico has 60 million, some will say 50 million, people at various levels of poverty. And the poorest of these are indigenous," said Dr. Guillermo Alonso Meneses, director of the Department of Cultural Studies, who follows migration at the Colegio Frontera del Norte in Tijuana, Mexico.

"The ... poorest of the poorest, don't leave," he said. To migrate they need something to sell to pay for bus or plane fare, or to pay someone to smuggle them across the border.

The stream of indigenous immigrants has grown since the North American Free Trade Agreement opened Mexico to cheap American crops, some experts say.

"Sometimes there was something left to sell at the market. Now corn sent by the United States is real cheap, there's no return for us," said Leon Ciovasquez, spokesman for the Indigenous Front of Binational Organizations based in Fresno, Calif. "There's no point in continuing."

Meneses said some indigenous families have their own networks to help with their migration - legal or otherwise. Some even have their own immigrant smugglers.

"Ten or 20 years ago you didn't see that," he said.