Indigenous Immigrants in NYC Face Language Barriers

Adela Esiquio, with her children Ester del Carmen and Jesus Granados, at El Centro del Inmigrante on Staten Island. (Photo by Mariela Lombard via El Diario)

Adela Esiquio, with her children Ester del Carmen and Jesus Granados, at El Centro del Inmigrante on Staten Island. (Photo by Mariela Lombard via El Diario)

For many immigrants, it is often hard to learn how New York City’s complex system works. This is far more challenging for people coming from indigenous communities in Latin America, who do not speak English or Spanish.

Every year on Aug. 9, the United Nations celebrates the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples. This year, immigrants from indigenous groups throughout Latin America took the opportunity to reiterate their request for more access to translation services into their languages at public schools and more representation in local and state government agencies.

Adela Esiquio, a 23-year-old Mixtec, thinks before speaking, even though she speaks fluent Spanish. She proudly admits that, although she has difficulty pronouncing some words, she offers informal interpretation assistance for parents in her community, settled on Staten Island.

In 1980, the borough welcomed its first Mixtec immigrants, who come from the Mexican state of Oaxaca, and it soon became an enclave for the group. Public School 20 reflects their growth.

Esiquio’s children, Ester del Carmen and Jesús Granados, attend school with several other children of Mixtec descent. Many of them are trilingual, speaking English, Spanish and their parents’ native language.

“If my community does not get involved in meetings or events at school it isn’t because we are not interested, but because most of the parents don’t speak Spanish or English,” said Esiquio. “We need Mixteco translators and personnel sensitive to our needs.”

Esiquio combines the work of raising her children with her informal translation services. She helps the women in her neighborhood with school and public assistance paperwork. However, activists say that it is often the children who serve as translators for their parents, against state laws and in spite of the existence of programs aimed at facilitating access to language services,

“I didn’t go to school, but my father taught me to read and write. To my people, education is a big problem, as many of us can’t even write in Mixteco,” said Esiquio. “Language barriers are more severe for indigenous immigrants.”

Quichua is not spoken either

The lack of indigenous translators in public schools is also evident in Parkchester in the Bronx. Between 500 and 1,000 Quichua-speaking indigenous people from Ecuador live in that neighborhood, according to Charlie Uruchima, a researcher specialized in that language. Quichua belongs to the family of Quechuan languages, spoken in the Andean area of South America.

“My master’s thesis poses the question of why we receive so many requests for Quichua translators at NYU and why city agencies and courts lack these services,” said Uruchima. The scholar wrote a guide to basic immigrant rights in Quichua.

Last May, Uruchima worked sporadically as a translator at P.S. 119 in Parkchester as part of his research.

“Teachers face a great difficulty interacting with parents who only speak Quichua. It profoundly affects the academic development of the kids,” said the expert.

The problem is worse for Ecuadorean children and youths who arrive here not knowing Spanish or English. “They are learning two languages at once while getting used to a system that can be very aggressive,” said Uruchima.

The researcher explained that, in the past, indigenous families migrated to Ecuadorean cities to learn Spanish first, and then came to New York. Now, he said, they come directly from their rural communities to the Big Apple.

The DOE knows about the need

The Department of Education (DOE) is aware of the growing Mixteco- and Quichua-speaking communities at P.S. 20 and P.S. 119. Both schools have a language access coordinator who facilitates translation in these languages over the phone.

“The DOE provides linguistic services to thousands of families regardless of their native language or the neighborhood where they live,” said Yuridia Peña, spokeswoman for the DOE. “This is a fundamental aspect of the chancellor’s vision, and we are working to ensure that the families are welcome as partners in every school.”

The DOE is currently putting together a proposal to open the possibility for translation services by phone in less-common languages – including indigenous languages – but it is still in the works.

Sandra Fuentes-Berain, consul general of Mexico in New York, recently met with DOE Chancellor Carmen Fariña to discuss the needs of parents who require support to get involved in the educational life of their children.

“In this context, the consulate’s immediate strategy – in an educational sense – is to expand the Plazas Comunitarias [literacy] program to public schools,” said Gerardo Izzo, spokesman for the consulate. The diplomatic office co-sponsors the community project.

Jorge López, from the Ecuadorean consulate’s press office, said that they are collaborating with city authorities to facilitate access to Quichua translators for their compatriots.

Requests for representation

Guatemalan activist and day laborer Leobardo Ambrosio, of Mayan and Quiché descent, said that worker protection laws and language access programs will not be effective without the presence of a representative of the indigenous communities in state and city agencies and in their countries’ diplomatic offices.

“We are the law, the government and the organizations’ forgotten people,” said the Bay Parkway resident, home to a Quiché enclave. “The people speaking for us are not indigenous.”

Esiquio gave the example of the large percentage of women in her community who work at nail salons in complete silence. “They work; they don’t talk. Their Mixteco language is a barrier. They don’t defend themselves,” she said. “Many activists barely know our reality. What will the state do to reach these workers?” she wondered, referring to the Task Force to Combat Worker Exploitation and Abuse recently formed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

“Being able to communicate with the exploited workers is indispensable,” said Frank Sobrino, spokesperson for the governor’s office. “We will look for different ways; not just translators, but also representatives for these workers and technology. It is a priority.”

Jorge Torres, president of Staten Island community organization El Centro del Inmigrante, said that there is a pressing need for information in Mixteco and other indigenous languages, and that it is crucial to provide workers with better access to services and protections.

“It is not only the responsibility of New York authorities. It is also the job of the governments of Latin American countries through their diplomatic offices,” said the organizer. El Centro del Inmigrante provides services to Mixtec day laborers.

Izzo, from the Mexican consulate, said that two of their three mobile units operating in the area have Zapoteco del Istmo and Mixtec interpreters. Both languages are from the Oaxaca region.

“We are exploring the possibility of hiring more personnel to respond to the needs of our compatriots who speak indigenous languages, especially Náhuatl,” added Izzo. “Indigenous immigrant communities face more adverse conditions than other migrants, making them one of the most vulnerable groups. Language is a decisive factor.”

Of all indigenous immigrants from Mexico, 61 percent live in New York, 39 percent of whom speak Mixteco, and 25.1 percent hail from Oaxaca.

UN acknowledgement

The General Assembly of the United Nations established the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples on Dec. 23, 1994. This year, it [focused] on access to health services. On Aug. 10, the organization [presented] their “State of the World’s Indigenous Peoples” report at a special event.

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