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Culture Shock

A subculture of the city's Latino community shows signs of growth

Frank Klein
The Y of Central Maryland's Connie Phelps says about 10 percent of the families at Wolfe Street Elementary speak an indigenous language.

By Andrea Appleton | Posted 3/24/2010

The room's main decoration is a household shrine. Fresh flowers, candles, and blinking Christmas lights cluster around an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe, on which several dollar bills are taped as offerings. Perhaps a dozen bags of Maseca--a corn masa mix used to make tortillas--sit atop the fridge. These are familiar elements in many Mexican immigrant households. But the occupants of this Fells Point home, though Mexican, are unusual in one crucial respect: Spanish is not their first language.

"I speak Mixteco," Modesta, who lives here with her family, says in halting Spanish. She declined to give her last name. Six years ago, Modesta moved here from Guerrero, a state in southern Mexico where a significant percentage of the population speaks an indigenous language. At the time, this small shy woman spoke no English and very little Spanish. "English, I won't be able to learn," she says. "Spanish, yes, but English, no. The problem is, I don't know how to read."

Modesta's situation is nothing new. From Mexico alone--home to Latin America's largest indigenous population--there are now about 500,000 indigenous people in the United States, according to the Binational Center for the Development of Oaxacan Indigenous Communities. The majority are either Mixtec or Zapotec, from the southern Mexican states of Oaxaca, Guerrero, and Puebla. For decades, they have immigrated into the agricultural centers of California, Washington, and Oregon. In some communities on the West Coast, Mexican indigenous groups have achieved a critical mass and have their own community associations and cultural events. In Fresno, Calif., there is even a weekly call-in radio show in Mixteco, called "La Hora Mixteca."

On the East Coast, the indigenous Mexican population is much smaller, but growing. Gaspar Rivera-Salgado, a Mixtec sociologist at UCLA, says indigenous Mexicans have recently started coming to the Northeast and the South in greater numbers. "They say they go there because there are jobs for them without a lot of competition," he says. "The new waves of indigenous people tend to concentrate in the toughest jobs, the jobs that other immigrants don't want."

Precise population counts aren't available because, like many other Mexican immigrants, some indigenous Mexicans are here illegally. But anecdotal evidence suggests there is at least a small community in Baltimore. A City Paper reporter spoke with members of five different families whose native tongue was Mixteco. All live in Southeast Baltimore, where the city's Mexican and Central American immigrants tend to settle. But theirs is a subculture that remains mostly under the radar.

"We haven't had people from the Mixteca community coming in to our Baltimore office," says Tania del Angel, communications specialist for CASA de Maryland, the state's largest Latino advocacy organization.

Nelson Ortega, director of local nonprofit Centro de la Comunidad, says that occasionally a Latino immigrant whose first language isn't Spanish will come in seeking help. "But it's very seldom," he says, "because I think they help each other."

The lack of awareness in these organizations likely has to do with the relatively small population of indigenous immigrants in Baltimore. But those immigrants may also be reluctant to seek help. Indigenous Mexicans, like native peoples all over the world, tend to have a low social status in the community.

"There is rampant discrimination against the indigenous in Mexico. If you want to insult a Mexican, call him an 'Indio'," says sociologist Rivera-Salgado. "These discrimination practices don't stop at the border."

But though indigenous immigrants may keep a low profile, they do send their children to school. Connie Phelps, the Y of Central Maryland's community schools coordinator at Wolfe Street Academy, estimates that as many as 10 percent of the parents in the heavily Latino Fells Point elementary school speak an indigenous language, generally Mixteco. "It seems to have happened quickly, in the last two to three years," she says. Some of the parents speak enough Spanish to communicate with the school's Spanish-English interpreter, but others do not. In those cases, the school must pull in a parent who speaks both Spanish and Mixteco to translate.

Traumatic circumstances can also lead indigenous immigrants to seek help. Flor Giusti, director of Adelante Familia, a local program for Spanish-speaking victims of domestic violence, says she has worked with a number of indigenous Latinos. The language barrier can be a big problem, she says. "The thing is that mainstream people who are trying to communicate with a Mixtec expect them to speak Spanish," she says. "So if they are speaking with difficulty, it leads to whatever confusion you can imagine."

Aníbal Gómez Toledo, head of the Mexican consulate in Washington, D.C., has dealt with similar situations. "It is a real problem," he says, though he says his office gets only one or two cases a month involving non-Spanish speakers. He says that when someone seeks help who does not speak Spanish, the consulate must find a translator from within the community. Even that can be a challenge: Mexico is home to at least 60 indigenous languages and Mixteco alone consists of dozens of different dialects. The consulate is currently conducting a survey in the region--Washington, D.C., Virginia, and Maryland--to find out where indigenous Mexicans are from and what languages they speak.

Cultural differences can be nearly as large an obstacle as language. Mexico's indigenous people tend to hail from what Rivera-Salgado calls the "poverty corridor" of the country. Many come from extremely rural, undeveloped places where subsistence farming is the norm.

"The ox goes along with the plow, and we follow after planting corn," says Modesta, in her broken Spanish. "We eat mostly corn. And when there's no corn, there's nothing to eat." Food is cooked over a fire, and some villages have no running water. Many of the indigenous, especially the women, are illiterate.

Such a background can make the transition to a new country doubly difficult. Most of the immigrants interviewed for this article did not know the date of their birth, for example. Birthdays are not commonly celebrated, and Mixteco is not a written language, so some people lack even a birth certificate. "That's one of the challenges," says Rivera-Salgado. "A lot of kids get into trouble in the education system because they cannot produce that document."

Yet, with time, indigenous Mexican immigrants seem to integrate into the larger Latino immigrant population, if not the American population itself. Modesta now finds herself translating for people like her brother-in-law, a dishwasher who speaks no English and only a few words in Spanish.

"I'm not ashamed of my Spanish anymore," she says.

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