Amid flood, interpreters a lifeline for Indigenous farmworkers

At an evacuation center at the Santa Cruz County Fairgrounds, Maria Adolfo-Morales and a disaster relief volunteer listened as a woman described her concerns in Mixteco.

The woman and her three children have been in the center for a week after a burst dike flooded the farming town of Pajaro, forcing residents to flee.

Adolfo-Morales, a 22-year-old community worker, translated what the woman said into English and then transcribed the volunteers’ responses in Mixteco, one of several indigenous languages ​​spoken in southern Mexico.

The woman’s questions were similar to those of other displaced persons: How do I apply for food aid? How do I apply for financial assistance?

Many of Pajaro’s farm workers are Mixteco speakers who are not fluent in English or Spanish. Adolfo-Morales and other interpreters were a lifeline to them as they figured out how to survive after losing their homes and livelihoods.

An estimated 170,000 Indigenous Mexican farm workers live in California and contribute to its booming economy. This figure does not include non-agricultural jobs or indigenous immigrants from Guatemala, Nicaragua, Ecuador and Peru. Researchers say that 6 out of 10 farm workers in the state are Indigenous.

Despite previous disasters — the Thomas Fire, the COVID-19 pandemic — state and local officials have yet to fully incorporate this growing population into their planning and often rely on nonprofit organizations to relay basic information.

With language differences and climate change likely to lead to more extreme weather, community organizers say more needs to be done.

And now, a week after many Pajaro residents have gone home, they must navigate complicated bureaucracies to get the help they need to rebuild their lives, which can be tremendously difficult even for English and Spanish speakers .

“Because of the language barrier and the economic situation they’re in, a lot of people are trying to process and understand what happened and is happening to them,” said Erica Padilla-Chavez, executive director of Second Harvest Food Bank Santa Cruz, which was among the non-profit organizations that provided language support at the exhibition center.

As evacuations began in Pajaro on March 10, a coalition of grassroots organizations well-prepared for the pandemic came together to help Indigenous farm workers, said MariaElena De La Garza, executive director of the Santa Cruz County Community Action Board.

De La Garza said her organization and others, including the food bank, created a rotation of employees, contractors and volunteers speaking Mixteco, Triqui and Zapoteco, as well as Spanish, on four to five-hour shifts at the fairgrounds to accommodate more than 300 evacuees.

Because of the differences within each indigenous language, De La Garza also recruited residents and workers from the community to help with interpreting.

Arcenio López, executive director of the Mixteco/Indigena Community Organizing Project, said there are more than a dozen variants of the Mixteco language in Pajaro. Most residents, he said, are from Oaxaca and Guerrero.

Mixteco is also spoken in the states of Michoacán and Puebla.

After the levee collapsed, community organizers worked with Monterey County officials to provide dozens of interpreters and volunteers to support families at local shelters and evacuation centers.

“Having Indigenous interpreters at the exhibition center as a priority is new to us,” said De La Garza. “We have learned through the pandemic the importance of ensuring that the systems that are put in place to be responsive can reach the most affected communities.”

Luis Alejo, chairman of the Monterey County Board of Supervisors, said the county plans to make Indigenous interpreters an integral part of the services it provides to residents, including courtrooms, police and fire departments.

“This has to be part of our delivery of emergency services,” he said. “We need to extend that to other services that the county offers as well.”

On Adolfo-Morales’ first day at the evacuation center, she explained to Maria Lopez how to get food, clothing and financial support.

Until then, Lopez had relied on her three sons to tell her what officers said. Her sons speak Spanish and little English, which makes communication even more difficult.

Lopez, 54, said she was confused by the evacuation orders. She was sad and frustrated because she couldn’t understand the fire and police officers or ask questions.

“My kids would just tell me we had to leave home,” Lopez said in Mixteco, while Adolfo-Morales translated.

Lopez wondered what was in store for her when she returned home. They had only walked with their clothes on their backs. She and her husband worried about being out of work in the flooded strawberry fields and unable to pay their $2,500 monthly rent and other bills.

Lopez was one of three Mixteco speakers assisted by Adolfo-Morales that Thursday afternoon. She said her ability to communicate is sometimes limited by the diversity of indigenous languages ​​— there are dozens of variations on Mixteco, often centered around people’s hometowns. Sometimes she struggles to interpret English words that don’t exist in Mixteco, such as medical and legal jargon.

Adolfo-Morales grew up working as an interpreter and translator for her family. But at school, some students taunted her in Spanish, calling her “little girl from Oaxaca” and traveling gibberish at each other in a Mixteco accent, she said.

“It was offensive to me, but I’ve now learned to embrace and love my culture,” she said

When she found out about the audio leak scandal at LA City Hall and what a council member was saying about Oaxacans, she was disappointed and recalled the bullying she had experienced at school.

Dori Rose Inda, executive director of Salud Para La Gente, said the pool of Indigenous translators has changed over the past few decades.

In the past, many bilingual people had no legal status and could not be employed.

Now that the children of indigenous farm workers are growing up, it’s not uncommon to meet young people in their 20s like Adolfo-Morales who speak English, Spanish and Mixteco.

“I meet young people who speak three languages,” she said. “It can’t go fast enough.”

Among them is Edward Salvador, 21, who was born in Watsonville and also volunteered at the fairgrounds. He said that evacuees are often surprised when they ask him questions and he answers in their language.

“I’m sure it’s a relief for them to be able to communicate their needs in their language,” he said.

Like Adolfo-Morales, Salvador interpreted doctor’s appointments for his parents and filled out forms for them, which were only provided in English or Spanish. After seeing firsthand the lack of resources available to families like his, Salvador decided to become a certified interpreter.

On the exhibition grounds, Maria Martinez wore the bright yellow vest that identified her as an interpreter. Above “Maria M.”, her name tag said “Mixteco interpreter” in English.

After three days, Martinez said people recognized her and reached out to her in Mixteco for help.

As an interpreter for the Pajaro Valley Unified School District, Martinez has been there to help families with paperwork related to enrollment.

But she was often stopped by people who needed help with food, laundry and the on-site clinic.

“A lot of families here need support,” she said.

Community organizers are frustrated that local governments have not done more to meet language needs in the Central Valley. Still, they say some progress has been made.

They cite interpreters at the fairgrounds as well as televised press conferences where Monterey County officials provided emergency information in English, Spanish and Mixteco.

Leonor Mendoza was the Mixteco interpreter at one of the press conferences. It was important for the Mixteco community to receive important information – and hearing their native language in an official setting made them feel visible, she said.

Still, she feared other languages ​​were not included.

“We should have done it in several [Indigenous] Languages ​​so as not to leave others out,” Mendoza said. “So I was a little frustrated, but I also told myself that this was a step in the right direction. We have a foot in the door and that was a good thing.”

Mendoza had grown up without learning Mixteco – her parents decided not to teach her because they feared discrimination, which is common in both Mexico and the US against indigenous peoples

Then, at 9, she returned to San Martín Peras, Oaxaca, unable to speak to any relatives except her grandfather, who spoke Spanish. She ended up picking up Mixteco from him.

At 13, she immigrated to the United States with her parents and chased strawberry work between Oxnard and Salinas. By then she was already interpreting for her parents, even when her mother suffered a stroke while crossing the border.

When the pandemic hit, she volunteered to interpret for indigenous families.

She said people know her from the press conference: “You’re that lady from TV,” they say.

She hopes that she and her children will see her as a Mixtec woman who is proud to speak her language.

“I think that moment served a purpose: that families should continue to pass their language on to the next generation for them to pass on,” she said. Amid flood, interpreters a lifeline for Indigenous farmworkers

Alley Einstein

Alley Einstein is a USTimesPost U.S. News Reporter based in London. His focus is on U.S. politics and the environment. He has covered climate change extensively, as well as healthcare and crime. Alley Einstein joined USTimesPost in 2023 from the Daily Express and previously worked for Chemist and Druggist and the Jewish Chronicle. He is a graduate of Cambridge University. Languages: English. You can get in touch with me by emailing

Related Articles

Back to top button