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Welcome to Oaxacalifornia, Where Interpreters of Indigenous Languages Are Hard to Find

By Eileen Truax

Los Angeles

Mexico is a multicultural, multilingual country where seven million people speak Indigenous languages. Of those, more than a million speak only one of seventy-two Indigenous languages, and no Spanish. This population is concentrated in a few of Mexico’s thirty-one states. Oaxaca is one of the three poorest states in the country and is also the state with the largest Indigenous population, at over 1.5 million. Many Indigenous Oaxacans migrate to the United States for a better life, like interpreter Odilia Romero. But when it comes to finding translators and interpreters fluent in their languages, they don’t have as many resources as Spanish-speaking Mexicans do. Where can they turn for help in a new home where they face discrimination from the US and from fellow Mexicans? For Native American Heritage Month, this is Odilia’s story from Eileen Truax’s How Does It Feel to Be Unwanted?: Stories of Resistance and Resilience from Mexicans Living in the United States.


“Good afternoon, Senator Sanders. My name is Odilia Romero, Indigenous Bene Xhon.”

Standing onstage at the Casa del Mexicano in Boyle Heights, a neighborhood in east Los Angeles, Odilia holds a microphone in one hand and in the other her speech for Bernie Sanders, then a candidate for the Democratic Party’s nomination for president. It was May 4, 2016, and in the auditorium beneath the fifty-foot-high domed ceiling, four hundred people had gathered, a mix of pro-immigrant organizations, young activists, and members of the Latina community.

“I come from a sacred place where now very few people live; it’s a ghost town, because most of us now are here in Los Angeles,” Odilia says. She is dressed in a white skirt and blouse embroidered with brightly colored flowers, very typical of Zoogocho, the community she comes from. She explains that while Indigenous communities are rich in culture and natural resources, every day Indigenous peoples are forced to migrate north as a consequence of US agricultural policies.

“When we stand up for our land and human rights, we’re threatened with death by the Mexican police and army,” she says. “We go from being landowners to becoming low-wage workers. But in the United States, we are in the same condition: we are over 20 percent of the agricultural labor force in California, but we face discrimination, structural racism, and labor exploitation, along with racism from our other Mexican brothers and sisters.”

Sitting on a stool on the stage with one foot on the floor, wearing a light blue shirt with rolled-up sleeves, slightly hunched over, his hair a tousled mess as usual, Senator Sanders looks at Odilia and listens respectfully, sometimes looking surprised by what he hears.

“What will you and your team do to build a broad, inclusive coalition that acknowledges our diverse community and create policies that recognize Indigenous peoples’ right to stay home and make immigration voluntary instead of a forced necessity?” Odilia asks. “Will you prohibit any future agreements like NAFTA that increase unemployment, low wages, poverty, and displacement of Indigenous people all over?

“Thank you, and welcome to Oaxacalifornia.”


Odilia is a Bene Xhon, which means “Zapotec people.” she was born in Zoogocho, in Oaxaca state’s northern mountains—“where we walk in the clouds”—in 1971, at the beginning of the decade that would bring the devaluation of the dollar and the decline of rural life in Mexico. Odilia clearly remembers the first wave of migration from her community. A flatbed truck would come every week on market days, and along with the market vendors, the truck would take people who were going away in search of opportunity. “A truck full of empty baskets, and empty men and women, hoping to fill their wallets they would leave behind their people, their language, their traditions, and their hearts to go over to ‘the other side of the fence’ for a few years,” Odilia once wrote, remembering those years.

Eventually her day to climb aboard the truck came. She arrived in Los Angeles in 1981, where her family was already waiting. She does not remember the exact date, but she does recall “the ugly buildings I saw here on sixth and Union streets,” her first impression of the city. She was ten years old, and she was struck by the jarring change in her environment, going from living in a natural landscape, next to a river lined with trees, to spending her time inside in a room she rarely left, in a neighborhood where she was not allowed to go outside to play.

“It was the worst thing that had ever happened to me. I think I suffered from depression, but I didn’t know it.”

Like most children who come to the United States to live, Odilia learned English quickly. When she was only fourteen, she even acted as an interpreter for another native of Oaxaca preparing for a state exam to be licensed as a hairdresser: he did not speak English well, and knowing that Odilia could speak Zapotec and some Spanish, he asked her parents if she could help him. When he got his license, he offered to pay Odilia for her help, but her parents refused. At the time, Odilia couldn’t imagine that being an interpreter could actually be a professional career, but now she remembers that experience as her first real interpreting job.


It’s Friday in Los Angeles, and the heat announcing summer’s arrival can be felt rising in the air. Odilia, who I have known for several years through my work writing on migration issues in Southern California, meets me at a café a half block from Children’s Hospital, where she is working as an interpreter. The hospital is full of stories of pain, and of hope. Founded as a nonprofit in 1901, it is now considered the best children’s hospital in California and one of the top ten in the United states. Children and their families who come to the hospital generally receive unwelcome news involving organ transplants or intensive treatments for diseases like cancer and leukemia, but they also get resources to support them. For families who do not speak English, one of those resources is an interpreter’s services.

The hospital has a permanent staff of Spanish-English interpreters and hires freelancers such as Odilia when it needs additional people to translate the type of Zapotec she speaks (there are several variants of that language). Of the freelancers, Odilia is the only one who speaks an Indigenous language. She is often asked to try to find other interpreters through her networks. She has seen families at the hospital from Oaxaca and Guatemala who speak dialects of Zapotec that she does not understand, as well as Chinantecan, Mixe, Mam, Kanjobal, and Chibchan. If the patient and his or her family can communicate only in one of those six languages, no interpreters are available.

As for courtrooms, recent months have seen rising numbers of Indigenous peoples from Guatemala: Zapotecs from the southern sierra who, Odilia tells me, started migrating because of mining concessions in their areas that made the fields no longer arable as a result of unplanned water exploitation and soil contamination, among other factors. another growing group is the Triqui, fleeing political conflicts in their region. For the Raramuris, from northwest Mexico, their problems stem from their location near the US border: narco-traffickers use them as drug mules, and when caught, they have been sentenced to prison, even though they could not understand anything that was said at their trials for lack of an interpreter.

“Indigenous communities are faced with the structural racism of the justice, health-care, and education systems in the United States; with the language barrier on top of that, but also cultural issues, because in our communities, justice is not punitive,” Odilia explains. “The other day we were in a workshop for training new interpreters, and the instructor asked, ‘How would you say “judge”?’ There were Quichés, Zapotecs, and Mixtecs, and we thought it would be something like ‘the big man,’ or ‘the principal,’ or ‘the elderly man,’ because that’s who has authority—the role of judge does not exist in our communities. ‘and how would you say “court”?’ That would be ‘the big man’s house.’ ‘How would you say “prison”?’ Iron house, or metal house. ‘And how would you say “juvenile court”?’ Then that would be the house for children who do not walk straight, because you’re not going to say they did something bad or good. In our cosmic vision, when the child does not walk straight ahead, there is time to put him on the right path. It’s not like the punitive system in the United states that throws you in jail because you stole a pizza.”

In addition to the differences in customs and word usage in Indigenous communities, the justice system in the United States is also quite different from the Mexican system. The team Odilia works with is currently developing a glossary to help people express ideas in Indigenous languages, because in both the medical and legal fields, complex terms that come up can be very challenging for interpreters.

“In the hospitals, there are illnesses like muscular atrophy. What is that? Sometimes you don’t even know how to say it in Spanish. The cases that come to Children’s Hospital are sensitive.” Odilia reminds me that because of patient confidentiality, she cannot go into detail about specific patients. “And you realize there are people who don’t understand, they don’t even know what the diagnosis is. The worst thing that I’ve ever seen happen there was seeing how someone’s son died, and they never had an interpreter; they never knew why he died. They never knew why a resuscitation team of twenty doctors came into the room to try to revive him. No one could explain what they were doing to their child.”

For years, the issue of interpreting for non-English-speaking parents has come up not only in hospitals and courts but also in schools and government offices. Often, children who grow up speaking English at school and Spanish at home act as interpreters for their parents, helping them fill out official forms, translating instructions from operating manuals, and sometimes serving as interpreters in their own cases at schools and hospitals, which can of course be problematic.

When our conversation touches on this subject, Odilia recalls an incident from her own childhood. When she was in middle school, a boy was picking on her, and she responded by hitting him with a stapler, injuring him. The school suspended Odilia for a week and called her parents. But her parents did not speak English, and the school’s principal did not speak Spanish or Zapotec, so it fell to Odilia to translate for the principal. Instead of reporting her suspension, Odilia told her parents that because of her outstanding work, the school had given her a week’s vacation.

“These things still happen today. I see it at the hospital; I see it [in] the courts; I see it at school: the child is the interpreter, and of course that is not the best person to ask to be your interpreter, especially at school!” Odilia says with a laugh, remembering her own example. “Imagine what can happen with doctors. You can’t say to a kid, ‘Tell your mother she has cancer and she’s got six months to live,’ but that is what is happening on a national level, in Spanish and even more with Indigenous languages, because there’s no alternative.”

Paradoxically, the access these children have to bilingualism and even trilingualism, in Odilia’s case, as well as the level of responsibility they assume from a young age, means they have far greater academic and professional opportunities than their parents’ generation. During her speech to Bernie Sanders, Odilia underscored this point.

“We have integrated into US culture. We vote. We have graduates from Berkeley, Harvard, Stanford, and UCLA, not only with bachelor’s degrees but also with master’s and PhDs. We contribute economically and culturally to the social fabric of the United States. We are proud to call ourselves Americans, because we are the original owners of the American continent, yet we are also proud to be a part of this great country. We also have the right to be treated equally.”


About the Author 

Originally from Mexico, Eileen Truax is a journalist and immigrant currently living in Los Angeles. She contributes regularly to Hoy Los Angeles and Unidos and writes for Latin American publications including Proceso, El Universal, and Gatopardo. Truax often speaks at colleges and universities about the Dreamer movement and immigration. Follow her on Twitter at @EileenTruax.