'We are invisible': How native Mexicans carve out their own space in U.S.

ByLinda Ha WABC logo
Wednesday, September 15, 2021
The invisibility of growing up Indigenous Mexican in the U.S.
Indigenous Mexican communities in America felt neglected and ignored. Today, they're empowered to teach the next generation that their native language, culture, and traditions matter.

FRESNO, Calif. -- For Felix Mendoza, growing up as an Indigenous person of Mexico in the United States was no easy feat.

He and his family immigrated from the Mexican state of Oaxaca to California in 1990 when he was a teenager. They started working in the agricultural sector of Madera, picking grapes, tomatoes and strawberries on meager seasonal wages.

"I am very proud about being an Indigenous person from Oaxaca. I'm Mixteco," said Mendoza. "I think we are very hardworking and very capable of doing things like everyone else."

California is home to an estimated 120,000 Indigenous Mexican farmworkers from the states of Oaxaca, Guerrero and Michoacán, according to the Indigenous Farmworker Study. This includes people from the communities of Mixtecs, Zapotecs and Purépechas who face language barriers, as many often only speak their native languages.

The Centro Binacional para el Desarrollo Indígena Oaxaqueño (CBDIO) was created to help lower those barriers. The nonprofit based in Fresno, California, offers translation services for monolingual Indigenous migrants.

"We have been one of the most marginalized groups," said Miguel Villegas Ventura, a program coordinator at CBDIO who identifies as Mixteco. "When our communities are not being seen or not being recognized, or not even being considered when information is being provided, they don't know that there are resources available to them. They don't know that they have rights."

Villegas Ventura pointed to the lack of information for Indigenous communities during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Hispanic Heritage Month begins in the middle of September. That's because five Central American countries all celebrate Independence Day on September 15.

"Most of the information is in English, in Spanish and other languages, and most of our communities don't know how to read or write. That's when we come in and make sure they have information about how to protect themselves from COVID, where to go if they need testing or vaccines, how to apply for support if they've tested positive for COVID," said Villegas Ventura.

Spanish is the dominant language in Mexico, but there are about 68 Indigenous languages recognized in the country. In the state of Oaxaca alone, there are 16 different Indigenous languages and communities.

"People will talk about Indigenous people in the history books like the Aztecs and the Mayans, and they talk about the past a lot, but we are still present. Our language has been around for more than 3,000 years," Villegas Ventura said.

Felix Mendoza and his wife Nicolasa Aguilar opened Sabor a Oaxaca restaurant in April of 2020.

"We want everyone to know about Oaxacaqueno food, about the Oaxacan flavor. Our slogan is 'La casa de tlayuda,' which means, 'the home of the tlayuda.' It's a big tortilla with special beans we prepare," Mendoza said. "It includes cabbage, avocados and tomatoes. All these ingredients make this plate very delicious."

"The Oaxacan culture is happy and colorful, primarily the colors, the tradition, the food. I feel it's the best-tasting food in the world," added Aguilar.

From actors to activists, people share stories of celebrating their heritage, expressing their identity as Latino, Latinx, or Hispanic, and representing and embracing their diverse cultures. Celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month with "Our America: Todos Unidos" on ABC Owned Television Stations streaming apps and Hulu.

Celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month with "Our America: Todos Unidos," premiering September 15 on ABC Owned Television Stations streaming apps and Hulu.