Finding Strength in Identity-The Mixteco/Indígena Immigrants of Central California

For indigenous migrants from southern Mexico, Guatemala, and other countries with prominent Indígena populations, the assumption of a monolithic Latinx immigrant experience is both inaccurate and dangerous.

In detention centers and immigration hearings at the southern U.S. border, where the default languages are Spanish and English, indigenous migrants who do not speak either language are often left to fend for themselves. As explained by “A Translation Crisis at the Border,” this has resulted in unjust separation of families and unfair asylum hearings due to a lack of interpretation services or misinterpretations.

While there is great diversity within the indigenous population, one of the most prominent identities are the Mixtecos who migrate from the southern Mexican states of Oaxaca, Guerrero, and Puebla, or what is known as La Mixteca region.

Mixtecos trace their ancestry back to the 1100s, after which they survived Aztec conquest in the mid-1400s and Spanish colonization in the 1500s. Five centuries later they remain one of the biggest indigenous groups in Mexico, but due to soil erosion in their homeland among other things, many are forced to migrate, resulting in the significant Mixtec population seen in California.

However, even in California where resources in Spanish are usually available, the state falls short of providing culturally and linguistically appropriate resources to its indigenous migrants — the majority of whom are farmworkers, and who in the time of COVID-19 have been deemed essential workers.

The Indigenous Farmworker Study estimates about 165,000 indigenous Mexican farmworkers in California — a number that is even greater when including indigenous migrants who do not work in agriculture, and those who are not from Mexico. 

In Ventura County alone, a large agricultural site about 70 miles northwest of Los Angeles, there resides a population of 20,000 Mixtec/Indígena immigrants who are a testament to the deep complexity of the immigrant experience.

For the last twenty years, one organization, the Mixteco/Indígena Community Organizing Project (MICOP) has actively worked in Ventura and Santa Barbara Counties to support and empower this community, and to mitigate the challenges they face.


The Mixteco/Indígena Community Organizing Project Team / Courtesy of MICOP


Latina Republic spoke with Executive Director of MICOP, Arcenio Lopez, who is at the forefront of this movement. A Mixteco migrant himself arriving in the United States at the age of 21 in 2003, Mr. Lopez draws on his personal experience and that of people he has worked with to amplify the voices of this vulnerable population. 

Latina Republic: Soil erosion of the Mixteca region and economic opportunity have drawn Mixtec/Indígena people to California. Can you expand on those and other factors driving this population on the difficult and dangerous journey North?

AL: Yes, I think there are ecological reasons for Mixtec immigration and immigration has become part of our human existence. We have to recognize that first. There are also economic, social, political factors. Mixtecos have always been migrating, always moving from one place to another. We must recognize that immigration is part of our history.  As humans, we are looking for opportunities or places where we believe it is more appropriate to establish ourselves and flourish; as a family, community, or society.

Now, speaking for Mixtec indigenous communities who have migrated for centuries, most of us now live in what is known to be the United States and we come from a region in southern Mexico where indigenous or native civilizations have flourished. As a person, I am Mixteco. I identify as such.  

And by that claim, I say I am part of the original inhabitants of the land of the Mixtec whom for centuries have lived in the land located within the Mexican states of Puebla, Guerrero, and Oaxaca. And unfortunately, we are forced to leave. Such exile is caused by colonization–rampant capitalist accumulation and invasion of various forms.

Mixtec migrants live in very unfortunate conditions where there are many barriers such as lack of access to education and the systematic inability to be self-sustaining. Just a few decades ago, for instance, the creation of  NAFTA, the international treaty among Mexico, the United States, and Canada, also created large inequities in Mexican society.      

The dominant elite have the power to create treaties like NAFTA that only benefit a few, and discriminate against disadvantaged communities that cannot compete with larger corporations. So, indigenous communities had the agency, and made the decision to migrate for the sake of their own prosperity. Perhaps they ask themselves: 

“Do I stay in this place where I no longer see an opportunity for my sons and daughters, and where I cannot access formal education for my sons and daughters? Or do I go out looking for a better life?” 

And so, many indigenous communities decided to migrate and follow the same history of their ancestors who also decided to leave their towns and go to larger cities in Mexico or in the United States. Migration is a well thought out decision. It stands as a resource for  better financial opportunities and outcomes and therefore, a better life.

Latina Republic: What challenges does being in the United States present to Mixtec/Indígena peoples in terms of retaining language and culture, especially through generations?

AL: I believe that indigenous communities have always been in some form of resistance. Since the first invasion that took place more than 500 years ago, we have been in resistance in our own Mexican country. For instance, against Mexico’s persistence to create a single race through the adoption of the mestizaje narrative

So when we come to this country, the United States, we bring all that fight with us, we bring all that resistance. As indigenous folk we are not widely represented. So, the challenge is much bigger for new generations. The first thing is the desire to keep something their parents are not wanting to teach them: their native language. Second, that their parents no longer want them to maintain their culture’s traditions, customs, and beliefs. 

I think that resistance comes from the blood in some way. 

And fortunately there are movements, groups, people, and organizations who are fighting to create a different perspective and a different message  to our people. For example, equating trilingualism as the means to success, and therefore, important to maintaining the use of the mother tongue. Your strength is in your identity. Your strength is in your language.

Although big challenges remain, some parents are listening to our messages and realizing that there are opportunities uniquely available to their children, such as being an interpreter. There are possibilities of having a job solely for having the ability to speak your indigenous language. 

There is an interesting situation: the first generation, those who come  from Mexico, may face more discrimination. But the second generation – their children – they question the accepted norms and begin to appreciate their roots. And I think that is where the search and the claim of their identity begins.

Latina Republic: You mentioned that the experience of being and maintaining your indigenous identity is already difficult in Mexico and is made even more difficult by being in the United States. How has the concept of race affected indigenous communities?

AL: It must first be recognized that race is about social classes. It is about power and who has that power. The elite that has power in Mexico and in the United States is white. In Mexico, problems begin in the education system where it is established that everyone is going to speak Spanish. It is believed that when you speak Spanish you are going to have better opportunities and that, thus, you have to conform to white Mexican society, but they do not take into consideration the 68 indigenous communities actually in existence in Mexico. So then acclimating to the white Mexican existence is normed and prized, and it is then that the process of mestizaje begins. 

It all starts very systematically: from instilling in the individual to belittle or even completely despise indigenous blood and their indigenous language. That definitely has a great impact on the indigenous community. Nobody wants to be indigenous because everyone wants to be mestizo or white because that is the passport to success.

Latina Republic: What is the relationship between Non-Indigenous Mexican and Central American people in the U.S. and Mixtec/Indígena people from Mexico and Central America, especially in the workplace (i.e. the fields)? 

AL: I worked in the fields. I came to this country in 2003 at the age of 21. I do not really remember working with Central Americans, people from Guatemala or people from El Salvador, but I know that since then, the number of Salvadoran and Guatemalan communities working in the fields have grown. 

My experience was primarily with Mexicans, from places like Michoacán, Guanajuato, Puebla, and Jalisco. So what is the relationship? Well, the relationship is being Mexicans, all of us are Mexicanos. But with a very interesting situation. 

The interesting situation is that people from the North – from Jalisco, from Michoacán, from Guanajuato who tend to have lighter skin and speak Spanish – distinguish themselves from the people who come from southern Mexico, places like Oaxaca, Puebla, Guerrero, and Yucatan. The fact that they may be a little taller or a little lighter and have a greater handling of the Spanish language is enough for them to perceive themselves to be different. 

And though their Spanish is not perfect, because, unfortunately, many did not have the opportunity to go to a formal school or have a formal education, because our Spanish is more limited than theirs, there is a sense of linguistic superiority.


May Day 2020 / Courtesy of MICOP.


Add to that that we are shorter and darker and the heartfelt belief that whiteness or mestizaje is better and the passport to success- again, upholding the tenets of colonialism- the manifestations of that sense of superiority is definitely felt in the fields.      

So when I speak Spanish and they hear my accent and that I don’t pronounce the words well, they say, “Hey, why don’t you speak Spanish well?” Although their Spanish is not an academic, or even grammatically correct Spanish, the mere fact that it is their mother tongue is enough to make them feel they are superior to those who speak their indigenous language and a limited Spanish.

The relationship is divided between the indigenous and the non-indigenous. This is the legacy of colonialism. The non-indigenous person who is considered to be a mestizo, who does not speak an indigenous language,  feels they are superior to the indigenous coworker.           

From my own personal experience as Oaxacan, I have heard terms like “indio,” “Oaxaquita,” and “prieto,” which means dark-skinned. Telling someone, “Shut up, Oaxaquita” is the same as saying, “What do you know, you are ignorant.” That’s where the distinction in the relationship begins. We never stop being Mexicans – we are all Mexicans – but in the treatment towards indigenous Mexicans, I saw division.

Latina Republic: You use the communal tradition of “tequio” or community obligation, to promote a sense of togetherness. How else does MICOP draw on Mixtec/Indígena culture to aid you in strengthening and empowering these communities?

AL: Mexicans, in general, share that sense of unity. When there are situations where a community needs to come together, such as marches in support of immigration or we feel an impulse to fight an injustice, I see that Mexicans put aside their differences and unite; and there is great power in that. 

And for me as indigenous, I think that comes from indigenous culture because indigenous blood runs through our veins- 80 or 90% of Mexicans are the product of a mixture of indigenous and European. And we have been living together for more than 500 years in a culture where traditions and customs merge and come together.


Healing the Soul at “Night in Oaxaca” Event 2019 / Courtesy of MICOP.


I believe that this sense of unity and mutual support among comrades comes from the indigenous community and is practiced by every Mexican, even if he does not consider himself indigenous. If you go to a small town [in Mexico], you could not know anyone – and it may not even be an indigenous community – and you will not starve. Because if you have a need, you can knock on any door and say “Sir, Ma’am, I am lost, I am hungry, and I have no money.” 

All they may have to offer you are beans and eggs and a tortilla, but you will have something to eat. It is a support for you because you are a human being. To me, this is indigeneity in action. The sharing of resources, however meager they may be. Mutual support without expecting anything in return.      

MICOP and community leaders host annual indigenous events such as Dia de Muerto, Guelaguetza as a form of education, informing and motivating our community to continue our indigenous celebrations. We also have a Youth Group where our younger generations have the opportunity to have dialog around indigenous language, Tequio (community services), leadership, and culture.

Identifying those strengths are conversations that we have with our community. As Executive Director of MICOP I don’t see myself as a volunteer – I don’t have to volunteer to do this. This is part of my being, it is part of my community.

If I see someone who needs something and I can do something to make them have it, I will support them. So many of the programs that we have are based on those values: unity, support, empathy, and community. You are going to see many people who are not professional interpreters, but if they see a person who cannot communicate, they will support him. These are our values. 

Latina Republic: I have read that Mixtec/Indígena people primarily work in strawberry fields in California. Is that the case in Santa Barbara and Ventura Counties? If so, are there challenges presented by working in strawberry fields in particular?

AL: I think that agriculture in general is an industry that has been underappreciated. It is an industry that is still a long way from comparing to other industries that guarantee the right of the worker, labor rights. First, it is a physically demanding job.

To pick strawberries you must be bent over – the work practically depends on the strength of your waist. And you work for 6 to 8 hours in that position, on the first and second days of work, you will not be able to even sit down to eat. And over the years, if you are in that industry for 15, 20 years, you are going to end up with a malformation of a bone in your body: your wrists, your knees, your feet, your waist. And you don’t have insurance. 

You, as a farmworker, do not have that guarantee that at retirement you will have access to healthcare that will take care of the problem caused by working in the strawberry industry. Why? Because you are possibly undocumented, and therefore, do not have those job guarantees.

The farmworker was excluded for almost 80 years from the right to overtime pay after working 8 hours a day. Until the law was changed, a farmworker 2, 3 years ago, could earn overtime only after 10 hours of work a day or after 60 hours a week, when other industries pay their workers after 8 hours a day or 40 hours a week. 

There is also a lot of fear. The biggest problem for everyone is being afraid. If you are afraid, it is very difficult for you to defend yourself and here in this industry there is a lot of fear. Fear that if you speak out you may lose your job and therefore lose your ability to provide for the needs of your family.

If you speak or try to defend your rights, you fear that you will be deported because those are your employer’s threats:

“If you talk, if you defend yourself, I will call la migra, and you will leave because you are disposable,” – they remove you and bring in someone else. Workers are very vulnerable in the strawberry and agriculture industry. 

This is exacerbated by the fact that your employer does not give you information in the language that you speak. It is available in Spanish, but it is not available in Mixteco, in Zapoteco, in Triqui, in Huave, or in Purépecha; it is not in Mixe. So people half-grasp information with what little they can understand in Spanish.

Latina Republic: Have Santa Barbara and Ventura local governments been accommodating and receptive to the needs and requests presented on behalf of Indígena communities?

AL: We’ve been in Ventura County for 20 years and we have been working with local government representatives with much success. Unfortunately, we have not been in Santa Barbara County as an organization for very long and haven’t had the same impact as an organization.      

There are many needs and demands that we have for our community in Ventura County. I am not saying that we have solved all our problems – they have put a band-aid on some of the problems, and we haven’t achieved long-term solutions yet, so there is still a long way to go in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties. But, we continue knocking on the doors of local and state governments so that they are aware and informed so they can work on the problems indigenous communities face.

Latina Republic: At the federal level, what work can be done to better support the Mixtec/Indígena population, especially those in detention centers or those being held at the border? 

AL: The immediate need right now is: Release our children from detention centers and eliminate this inhumane for-profit system called “detention centers”. Also, provide language access in a culturally and linguistically appropriate way. There is a need to have people in the system that reflect the community they are serving.

In the Central Coast, the majority of people in human services are white and English-speaking, serving an 80% Latino community in a place like Santa Maria, for example. It does not reflect what the community is. It is necessary to make county, state, and federal systems understand that the economic survival of Ventura and Santa Barbara counties  depends on the strength of agriculture.      

Often it is claiming that workers’ rights enforcement is the responsibility of the state or federal government agencies, but we want the Board of Supervisors to get involved in ensuring that labor rights, in this case in the agriculture industry, are enforced. Because there are laws, but what is needed is the reinforcement of those laws – and enforcement many times cannot come from the state or the federal government. The local government has to intervene. 

Schools should not only provide language access for children, but also ensure children have the academic support they need in order to achieve the educational goals that school districts set. It’s easy to take the first step and say, “I’m going to hire an interpreter,” but it’s not just that.

We must ensure that these students have the support they need to prepare them to be engaged learners. They need tutoring before and after school, help with their lessons and homework, and support with the socioeconomic situations they are facing. They need more inspiration!                     

For example, they need to be taken to museums and have schools bring in inspirational speakers that look like them. There are role models for them – very successful indigenous academics that could inspire youth so they can say to themselves, “Yes I can! It will take effort, but I can.”  Linguistic access is the first necessary step, but the greater work of reinforcement of all these types of services that our community needs is still missing.


Tequio Youth Graduate (Class of 2019) takes graduation pictures with her mother, a farmworker in Ventura County / Courtesy of MICOP.


Latina Republic: What has the COVID-19 pandemic meant for the Mixtec/Indígena community?

AL: In general, they have all been impacted by COVID-19. There are many people who have lost their jobs. Fortunately for the indigenous community that worked in the fields during the start of COVID there were not many positive cases in the farmworker community, indigenous community, and Latino community. 

Recently, however, in the two counties the number of infected people in our communities has grown to very large numbers. Many do  not have access to COVID testing. People are also afraid to get tested because they fear losing their jobs. Or worse, they fear being admitted to the hospital and being separated from their loved ones whom they may never see again if they die. 

When they test positive, they do not really have a full understanding what it means to be positive. What does that mean? People who do not have severe symptoms look for another job out of necessity. Therefore it is more difficult to stop the pandemic because not everyone has the resources to stay home. If they are really sick to the point where they can’t even move, they stay at home and do what they can to survive. COVID-19 made us recognize who the privileged class and the underprivileged class are. 


MICOP Team distributing food during COVID-19 pandemic/ Photo Courtesy: MICOP.


The privileged class has their unemployment benefits; they have their savings; they can be at home and they can afford to stay one or two months at home without any problem. The underprivileged class is classified as essential workers, but they are not entitled to any social services they need such as the unemployment benefit or the benefits of some kind of economic stimulus support because they are undocumented. But they are considered essential. That has been the case for our indigenous people. 

For indigenous students, their lack of privilege means they did not experience distance learning the way other youth did. Many live with several people at home and the internet they have at home is not enough for the three or four computers to connect to virtual  classes.

Or they don’t have internet access at all, or the necessary materials or space to study, so instead they prefer to go to work, and begin to deprioritize their education – not by their own decision but by the external factor of the need to be able to support themselves and their family during hard financial times. 

It is a very very difficult situation, which for me, a person who has been in our community, in this work, does not surprise me because I am part of a family who lived in a two-room unit with my seven brothers, my parents and my grandmother – 11 people living in such a small space.

I understand very well and if the pandemic had fallen when I lived in that garage, I could not imagine how it would have been. And that is the reality for many of our people right now.

Latina Republic: What is the role of your radio station, Radio Indígena, in uniting, empowering, and bringing vital information and cultural resilience to your community?

Since its inception, Radio Indígena has been utilized as the strongest and most effective outreach and organizing tool for the indigenous, immigrant, and farm working community. Due to their long hours in manual labor, farm workers rely heavily on radio for information and entertainment. Radio Indígena attempts to merge the two to provide programming that is easy to understand and digest by our community. 

Radio Indígena’s unique value proposition lies in the additional programming that it is able to provide in at least 7 variants of the Mixteco language, Zapoteco, and Purepecha. As we train farm workers that speak other indigenous languages as volunteer DJs, we expand our language base and reach, connecting other isolated indigenous families to services and programs that they would otherwise know very little about. Radio Indígena has been led by community for community.

Radio Indígena is the only communication tool for the indigenous community in Ventura County to have a voice, develop their content to educate and inform the indigenous people who historically have been excluded from getting relevant and updated information in their indigenous languages. Being able to communicate among ourselves in our own language is also a healing, empowering and justice action.

Latina Republic: How can everyday people in the United States support and empower the indigenous immigrant population?

AL: I think it is time to create a new narrative. I would say that people should start with doing a “check in” with themselves and begin to understand where they are with their values and their ideals when it comes to Latino communities and indigenous communities in general across the world. How would you define the issue of discrimination against indigenous communities? Discuss prejudices. How much do you know about the histories of genocide that has happened against our communities? Learn about the decisions, the international policies that have marginalized us. I think that’s where to start. 

Then you can take the second step in deciding whether to donate to the organizations that are in this fight. Or approaching our community and approaching me and not seeing me as a person who you want to study – from a perspective devoid of personal interest – and instead say “How can I support you? How can I help you?” Because I believe that people who approach us in some way have not checked in on themselves first. And they come with a lot of prejudice and a lot of internalized discrimination.


Arcenio López with the first Disaster Relief Assistance for Immigrants (DRAI) card distribution in CA Central Coast / Courtesy of MICOP


That does not help us. I think we have enough work in moving through our own decolonization and internalized discrimination that we should not have to also be responsible for the decolonization of other people. People can start there, start by decolonizing themselves, understanding history, knowing who our communities are so as not to make the mistake of wanting to help, but at the same time, or internally, saying “Well, it is your fault you are poor.” Because it is very easy to blame the poor for being poor instead of looking for the deeper reasons why indigenous communities are marginalized.

To connect with MICOP, follow them on social media, InstagramTwitterFacebook  and YouTube:  @MICOP805


Laura Vences | Claremont McKenna College
Laura is a rising junior at Claremont McKenna College majoring in Government with a sequence in Legal Studies. Laura first began to understand the immigrant experience in the U.S. through the stories of her two Mexican immigrant parents and other relatives. Those stories were not only instrumental in sparking Laura’s commitment to immigration work, but also in her appreciation for storytelling. In an effort to continue spreading awareness of the immigrant experience, Laura embarked on a summer-long research project to better understand the intersection of immigration, labor, and Latinos across the country. Bringing together anecdotes of nine people she met during her travels into a short story, she was able to bring together both investigative research, real stories, and creative story telling. As an Immigration Writer for Latina Republic, she looks forward to continuing to shine a light on the Latino immigrant experience in these ways, both in her local community in Southern California, as well as communities across the U.S.