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.




Topics: ,

Share This

We welcome comments that add information or perspective, and we encourage polite debate. If you log in with a social media account, your comment should appear immediately. If you prefer to remain anonymous, you may comment as a guest, using a name and an e-mail address of convenience. Your comment will be moderated.
  • Is the husband an illegal too? This says he’s working an above board job, which means someone has committed a Federal crime, albeit one that will go unpunished for whoever did it.

    Just what we need to be stronger, illegal aliens speaking obscure jungle languages.

    • Jacobite2

      Don’t worry, your kids will be studying them in elementary school — mandatory.

  • “I feel bad because I can’t communicate with people. I can’t do anything.”

    What in blue blazes did she think would be the result when she decided to move to NYC? That the whole native, English-speaking population would drop whatever they were doing to sign up for Mixtec classes?

    • propagandaoftruth

      We are so getting the best of the best aren’t we?

      And they say there’s no Whites on Mexico? Sure there are. They stay there and really don’t mind these guys coming up here…

      Wonder why?

      • Fathercoughlin

        The brain drain…lol.

      • Adolf Verloc

        Yes, in my experience, upper class Mexicans are race realists par excellence.

        • propagandaoftruth

          Yeah, like Southern Whites used to be, some of whom still are…

          One of the things I liked when I lived there (I was in Costa Rica, but same dynamics). I was still a libtard who hated my country for many of the wrong reasons, but…found myself appreciating my White heritage around my pretty-darned Castilian in-laws.

          That was the whitest group of students I ever taught, by the way…and yeah they came to the US – to get an education and usually go back to run their country. Maybe visit sometimes. See the in-laws, go back home.

          White people, lol…

          But then I came back here and had to “re-libtard” to fit in and get by.

      • Erasmus

        Remember: Our greatest weakness is our diversity.

    • TruthBeTold

      She thought America was a land of magic and all her dreams would come true (or at least the government would pay for all her needs).

    • MikeofAges

      Even the people in NYC who don’t speak English largely speak modern cosmopolitan languages. Spanish. Russian. Chinese. Whatever. Anyone learning another language either is learning English or is learning another major language.

      Long ago, Colorado governor Richard Lamm put a bottom line on the situation. He said, “It is a blessing for an individual to be bilingual; however, it is a curse for a society to be bilingual.”

      What are we supposed do, even for legal immigrants? We can offer English classes or other instruction. Darn, she could assimilate into Spanish-speaking society. At least she could make it through the day.

  • JackKrak

    I give it six months before you can get a driver’s license, vote, sign up for food stamps and apply for public housing in Mixtec.

  • Einsatzgrenadier

    Why do we even need this third world immigration anyway? The US cannot attract the best and the brightest. All the federal government does now is import more poverty, unemployment and crime. Time to deport the third world invaders. Time to slam the door shut.

    • ncpride

      Then have the gall to constantly bemoan the ‘wealth disparity’ between Whites and everyone else. The reason this woman will be an utter failure here is, according to loony liberals, no doubt due to White racism.

    • antiquesunlight

      Long past time. Our government is insane.

      • at least insane could be a clinical problem, This government’s problem is political and
        needs to be addressed with rebellion and convictions of officials of high treason ..

    • anitrasdance

      The federal government’s goal is to replace Whites with illiterate third world baby machines.

    • mobilebay

      Obama thinks the “best and brightest” are those sneaking across the border. We need to deport the illegals and place a moratorium on all immigration until we regain our country.

    • Erasmus

      Why do we even need this third world immigration anyway?

      We don’t. Immigration isn’t a net gain for the US. It’s not even a net zero. It’s a net loss with all the social programs Americans have to pay for for these people.

  • IstvanIN

    Signs in Mixtup should be posted all over the city offering free airfare back to Mixtopia.

    • Maybe she should consider a move to southern Mixtifornia. There’s probably plenty of these illiterate Mixtards in the L.A. area.

    • JDInSanD

      What makes you think any of them know how to read?

      • ElComadreja

        They’re usually illiterate in several languages.

  • NotTooSwift

    I wonder where Laura works.

    • She didn’t go to NYC to work. That’s not why they come here. I have to assume you were being sarcastic.

    • Mason Gull

      She doesn’t. The article states that she can’t do anything besides run simple errands and she never goes beyond walking distance of her house.

      • Katherine McChesney

        Someone should tell her that Mexico is within walking distance of her house.

  • Luca

    They can’t communicate, they fear using the subway, they fear getting lost, they don’t have papers, they have a hard time finding work, getting healthcare, getting help from the police or courts, so what the hell are they doing here?

    Oh that’s right, they get nice little benefits and a promise of amnesty.

  • JDInSanD

    How is this even a story? I broke the law, have no skills, can’t speak the language after 7 years, can’t figure out how to turn on the TV or radio and learn a few words of English but please profile me in the New York Times so someone will step forward with a special program to help those less fortunate.

    • IstvanIN

      Good point, why all the sympathy for law breakers? They broke the law to get in this sad state, we didn’t import them.

  • kenfrombayside

    The picture says it all. This family ain’t ugly, they fugly. Why are ugly, dumb and useless people allowed to invade us. The Statue Of Liberty is a beautiful Caucasian woman facing the land of our ancestors. She is not a ugly, low IQ, mestizo facing south. Once our academic, political and business elite find this out, they will demand the Statue’s destruction.

    • rightrightright

      When they are ready, the Moslems will blow it up for you, for free.

    • r j p

      Carmen is picture perfect example of little brown squat monster.

  • Dave West

    Anyone who is able to say these mestizos are going to turn out just like Irish-Americans with a straight face needs to have their head examined. You can usually tell the worthlessness of each immigrant group by how long it takes the NY Times to write a sob story about them. The less time it takes, the more worthless they are.

    • Zimriel

      If her only language is Mixtec, she’s not a mestizo. Might not even have any *Aztec* DNA. Read “The Great Divide” or maybe even some articles posted here lately.

      The New World cultures got to their little valleys 11,000 years ago and stayed there. Their ancestry is sometimes as different from each other as ours is from Japanese.

  • dd121

    Sweet Jesus, that certainly will present a problem. Laura is the only one who can do something about it, not the government.

  • Greg Thomas

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

    How about learning English. Better yet, just go back to mexico.

  • Simonetta

    The government of Mexico should be funding the development of iPhone aps that do translation of these obscure indigenous (Indian or “injun”) languages into Spanish and English. And make sure that these aps have speech- to-text algorythms so that the speakers of Acatec, Amuzgo, Chatino, Chiapaneca ,Chichimeca
    ,Chicomuceltec ,Chinanteco ,Chocho ,Ch’ol ,Chuj,Cochimi ,Cocopa ,Cora ,Cuicateco ,Guarijio ,Huasteco ,Huave ,Huichol ,Ixcateco ,Jacalteco
    ,Kickapoo ,Kiliwa ,Kumiai ,Lacandon ,Mam ,Matlatzinca,Mazahua ,Mazatec ,Mixe ,Mixtec ,Mocho ,Nahuatl/Mexica ,Oaxaca Chontal ,Opata ,Otomi
    ,Paipai ,Pame ,Pima Bajo ,Popoloca ,Popoluca ,Purepecha ,Seri ,Tabasco Chontal ,Tacaneco ,Tarahumara ,Tectiteco ,Tepehua ,Tepehuan ,Tlahuica ,Tlapanec
    ,Tojolabal ,Toltec ,Totonac ,Trique ,Tubar ,Tzeltal ,Tzotzil ,Yaqui ,Yucatec Maya ,Zapotec and all their dialects can just talk into the box and have the words displayed on the screen in proper English.

    Aside from this kind of technological solution, I don’t see any other realistic approach to dealing with problem of being “illinguate”, if I may be permitted to coin a word meaning being in a situation where you can’t speak the local language.

    This is just another Mexican problem that they are dumping onto the people of el Norte.

    • Who Me?

      AND illiterate in all 72 languages listed above and any other as well………

  • Martel733

    And tend to have a lower IQ

  • Shawn_thefemale

    How stupid are you that in 7 years you haven’t learned to communicate? Good Lord, even babies learn to communicate words in one year. Thanks for becoming our burden.

    • ElComadreja

      I worked with one who had been here 35 years and was incomprehensible when he spoke.

  • TruthBeTold

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

    You could leave and return home. Just a thought.

  • Gerald Michael

    “I feel bad because I can’t communicate with people…” Yeah? Well I feel bad because I can no longer communicate with the people around me, and I live in California. These people cause us hell.

  • WR_the_realist

    Gee, illegal immigrants come here and find that they can’t communicate with anybody because they speak some language than only 1000 other people in the world speak. And I’m supposed to feel sorry for them?

  • ‘Yet she understands so little of what others are saying around her that she might just as well be living in Siberia.’

    better yet, how about just stay there? just a thought!

  • IKUredux

    What the hell has happened? The French wouldn’t cut you a break if you visited their country and didn’t speak French. Now, this English speaking country is supposed to accommodate hundreds of different languages. Really. Our veterans who fought and were wounded for this country, are turned away and denied coverage. But, whoa, we are going to spend billions of dollars on illegals who our government has helped into this country. ARE YOU FING kidding me? White people! Americans! STOP THIS BY ANY MEANS NECESSARY. Yup, take a page out of their book. They actually have a group called:By Any Means Necessary. Where does this status quo group get off thinking they are revolutionary? They are delusional. WE ARE THE REVOLUTIONARY THINKERS. We are the new sixties radicals! Down with the regime! Down with the government! My God we must be right, because Bill Ayers is on the side of TPTB, Bill Ayers is a member of the establishment! Death to Bill Ayers! FIGHT THIS CRAP HAPPENING TO OUR COUNTRY. And, make no mistake, this is OUR WHITE country.

  • Standup Broad

    English as a second language (ESL) courses are offered at all community colleges at little to no charge, had she a smidgen of ambition she would be conversational in English after seven years of residency. Lazy and useless, except to produce more like herself.

    • Who Me?

      They offer free daytime classes, or evening classes, her “husband” could take her. If he was halfway intelligent, he wouldn’t have to, he could have taught her enough English to get around already. She must be some kind of stupid in addition to being God-awful ugly! She says she might as well be living in Siberia…well, I for one, wish she was!

      • r j p

        That woman has no idea where Siberia is.

    • Zimriel

      Her problem is that Mixtec (or Maya, Nahuatl, etc) is not an Indo-European language. Jose Hernandez from the worst barrio in Mexico speaks Spanish and can, if he speaks slowly, find *someone* to understand him. This just based on all the Latin in English, not to mention the millions of bilingual Spanish speakers all around NYC.

  • Zimriel

    At least Nahuatl has a literature. It’s actually worth checking out (in translation); it was the Mesoamerican common-tongue not just in the Aztec period but in the early Colonial period.

    One might also make a case for various Maya languages, especially Chorti for the archaeologists (most hieroglyphs are in Chorti).

    Mixtec… is pretty useless, even for antiquarian nerds.

  • kikz2


  • Katherine McChesney

    I have no empathy for either Laura or Carmen. Maybe someday they’ll get lost and find their way back across the border.

    • Dave West

      More than likely they’ll pop out a few little brown ones and eventually meander their way to the EBT and Head Start enrollment office.

  • david dorian

    Comments closed on the NYT page— of course.

    Otherwise the obvious would be pointed out.

    She should go back to Mexico, this is someone else’s society that deserves respect and space.

    And of course the article itself is pure propaganda for ignoring that reality.

    • Would the comments section even have been open in the first place?

    • Dave West

      I notice that immigration sob stories on liberal sites get shot down by at least half of the people commenting; some of these stories are so pathetic that even many libtards don’t buy them.

      • Speaking of, I’ve been thinking about what happens when either a left wing website (HuffPo, etc.) or a left of center MSM outlet (NYT, etc) runs an immigration boosting or immigration sob story. You can bet on the comments running at least 2-1 in opposition to the story’s editorial bias, usually something like 5-1 or 10-1. On these same websites, the kook left will be out in force if it’s any other subject matter.

        It can’t be the case that our kind of people are invading leftist and MSM sites every time they do immigration.

        Maybe there’s a pleasing and shocking conclusion here:

        Even white liberals aren’t fond of mass non-white immigration.

  • Hy Alldredge

    “Dumb illiterate Mexican comes to NYC and can’t even speak Spanish. Doesn’t leave apartment for seven years.” The NYT always spills a whole lot of ink on dull stories but this one takes the cake.

  • r j p

    I guarantee that if I moved to Russia I would be able to speak the language within a few months. Reading Cyrillic might be more difficult, but the basics wouldn’t take much longer than a month or two (bus / train route, coffee shop, bar, grocery store, etc).
    These people don’t speak English because they don’t care. Free money comes in no matter what.

    • Who Me?

      Most White Americans could learn a foreign language fairly easily in a matter of months. Immersion is a pretty good teacher if a person has normal intelligence and a desire to learn. Okay, we might have an accent, and reading more than the simple navigational needs might take a while longer but we have a curiosity about the world and people around us, and the desire to communicate with others. This is something that seems to be lacking in people from less developed countries. Maybe it’s the culture, but more likely it’s the IQ.

  • Vito Powers

    Seriously, can we at least sterilize these women from dropping more anchor babies? Can we get something in return for housing and feeding these illegal immigrants? Would that be a humane compromise over deportation?.

  • r j p

    Well they do have superior family values.
    Dad / brother / uncle / grandfather is always daughter’s first …..

    • “Dad/ brother/ uncle/ grandfather is always daughter’s first…”

      “Dar/ brother/ uncle/ grandfather *ARE* always daughter’s first, second, third…”

      Fixed that for you.

  • ElComadreja

    The border works two ways. Her and her Indio trash family can go back where they came from if they’re so unhappy. I’ll bet dollars to doughnuts they’re all illegals anyway.

  • MekongDelta69

    Only the New York Slimes could label these illegal aliens as “indigenous people.”

    You can’t speak English? Too bad. Learn it.
    Better yet – stop your “indigenous” whining and deport yourself back to ‘Mixedupteca’ or wherever the hell you came from. You’ll feel right at home again, because… wait for it… That is your home. NOT here.

    • Who Me?


  • M.

    They didn’t say which values.

  • Jacobite2

    Hey, amigo. How long since you visited the beeg manzana? The onlt people I know who can’t get along in NYC are white Christians. I could’ve gotten into a fist-fight every 10.7 seconds I was there. The whole place looks like a carnival freak-show. It’s another planet from America. Hiring New Yorkers as newsmen or talking-heads to report on America is like hiring a guy who just retired from 20 years working in a slaughterhouse as an ASPCA investigator.

  • MBlanc46

    We sure are getting the creme de la creme, aren’t we?

  • mobilebay

    The one bond – a common language – that cements a nation, has been destroyed by those who want to “fundamentally change this country.”

  • scutum

    Gee, This is just swell. These must be more of the H1B workers we need for our high tech industries in Silicon Valley. Quick; someone get Mark Zuckerberg on the phone!

  • Erasmus

    Be compassionate: Send her and her family home, where she’ll have no problem in communicating to the people around her.

  • Erasmus

    How do you say, “What’s a light bulb?” in Mixtec.

  • Erasmus

    “Her husband was imprisoned and is now facing deportation, she

    Don’t you just love a story with a happy ending? Repeat this same story each time for tens of millions of other cases, then Americans would be among the happiest people on Earth.