Posted on July 11, 2014

Immigrants Who Speak Indigenous Languages Encounter Isolation

Kirk Semple, New York Times, July 11, 2014

Laura is a Mexican immigrant who lives in East Harlem, a neighborhood with one of the largest Latino populations in New York City. Yet she understands so little of what others are saying around her that she might just as well be living in Siberia.

Laura, 27, speaks Mixtec, a language indigenous to Mexico. But she knows little Spanish and no English. She is so scared of getting lost on the subway and not being able to find her way home that she tends to spend her days within walking distance of her apartment.

“I feel bad because I can’t communicate with people,” she said, partly in Spanish, partly in Mixtec. “I can’t do anything.”

Laura, who asked that her last name not be revealed because she does not have legal immigration status, is among hundreds if not thousands of indigenous people from Latin America living in the New York region who speak neither the dominant language of the city, English, nor the dominant language of the broader Latino community, Spanish.

These language barriers, combined with widespread illiteracy, have posed significant challenges to their survival, from finding work to gaining access to health care, seeking help from the police and getting legal redress in the courts.


Partly as a result of this population’s isolation, there are no reliable estimates of its size, experts said.

In recent years, the Mexican Consulate in New York, seeking to learn more about the local indigenous Mexican population, has surveyed the Mexican citizens who seek the consulate’s services. As of the end of 2013, more than 17 percent of respondents spoke an indigenous language, with Mixtec and Nahuatl being the most popular among a total of 16. (Scores of indigenous languages with hundreds of variants are spoken in Mexico alone.)

According to the latest data from the Census Bureau, about 8,700 immigrants from Central America and over the age of 4 in the United States speak an indigenous language and do not speak English very well or at all.

But the Census Bureau’s major surveys do not gauge Spanish proficiency, an equally critical measure for the community of indigenous Latin Americans.

Indeed, for many, not knowing Spanish is as big an impediment as not knowing English. Spanish is the lingua franca among immigrants from Latin America and dominates conversation in neighborhoods like East Harlem; Corona, Queens; and Hunts Point, in the Bronx.

After arriving in New York, most indigenous Latin Americans will learn Spanish before they learn English–if they ever learn English at all. {snip}


For those immigrants who have less than a working knowledge of Spanish and English, even basic services can often remain out of reach. While New York City has a progressive language access policy, it guarantees the provision of interpretation and translation services for city business in only the six most-used non-English languages, which do not include any of the indigenous languages spoken by Latin American immigrants.


In the seven years she has lived in New York, Carmen, who is from the state of Guerrero in Mexico and speaks Mixtec, has learned a smattering of Spanish. But, she said, beyond running simple errands, she is not able to do much without the help of her husband, Juan Manuel, who learned Spanish from co-workers at a restaurant where he works as a prep cook. Neither attended school in Mexico as children.