Non-Spanish-speaking Mexican immigrants growing
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
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
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
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
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?
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
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.