This story is published as part of the Global Indigenous Affairs Desk, an Indigenous-led collaboration between Grist, Indian Country Today, and High Country News.
When Cielo Magdalena Gómez López, Maya Tseltal, first arrived in the U.S. from Mexico in 2005, she was surprised at how many other Mayan people she met in her new home of Tampa, Florida. Trained to teach English as a second language, Gómez López quickly became the de facto interpreter, translator, and advocate for the Indigenous Mexican community in Tampa, many of who spoke Tsotsil and Tseltal but no English or Spanish. “It was like taking care of my little brothers and sisters,” she said. “We were all going through the same struggles.”
Now, Gómez López works at the Mexican Consulate in Orlando, where she provides translation and interpretation services in an official capacity, but she says much more support for Indigenous migrants is needed.
From the moment Indigenous migrants and refugees arrive in the U.S. they face obstacles. Border crossings rarely have Indigenous language interpretation available, leaving migrants vulnerable and often unaware of the options and services available to them. Once they make it to a new home, language challenges continue.
In an intervention delivered at the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, Rosalba Sotz, Maya Tseltal and a representative from Red de Indígenas Migrantes, called on the Mexican government to employ more Indigenous leaders at their consulates in the U.S. to help with translation, interpretation, legal advocacy, and other services. Many Indigenous people in Mexico and Central America are farmers and are particularly sensitive to climate disasters, changes in weather patterns, and drought. And as those populations continue to bear the brunt of climate change and seek refuge outside of their homelands, Sotz says the U.N. must pay greater attention to the unique challenges facing Indigenous migrants.
“Climate change is pushing people to leave their territory,” she said. “We are going to see more migration and more displacement.”
Geoffrey Roth, a Standing Rock Sioux descendant and member of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, says that the forum can make recommendations to member states to adopt recommendations like Sotz’s. He added that Indigenous migrant populations are uniquely vulnerable. “We need to address these issues on climate change and the environment the best we can so we can allow people to stay in their homeland if possible,” he said. “If not, we need to be able to provide services and support to Indigenous peoples wherever they are.”
For Indigenous people, displacement from their land and people can be particularly difficult. “Our way of life is related to the community and being isolated is a very traumatic experience,” Sotz said.
Thousands of Indigenous people from Mexico, Central America, Africa, and other parts of the world call the U.S. home, but the exact number isn’t known because they are often counted among other immigrants, rather than as Indigenous people. That means that the unique challenges facing Indigenous immigrants are often overlooked. “Language is a huge issue,” said Roth. “It’s been an issue on the borders, but it’s also an issue beyond the borders.”
Gómez López says that empowering and employing Indigenous people will help their communities access and understand services, become more comfortable in their new homes, and contribute to the community both in the U.S. and Mexico. She also hopes that her work can serve as an example for other consulates serving Indigenous populations.
After living undocumented in the U.S. for fifteen years, Gómez López secured a diplomatic visa through her work at the Consulate. Next year, however, the visa is set to expire, meaning she may have to return to Mexico, where she hasn’t lived in nearly 20 years. Sotz says that Gómez López’s situation illustrates the need for institutionalized Indigenous consulate employees. If Gómez López leaves, not only will her life be uprooted, but the Indigenous community in Florida will lose her years of knowledge and expertise.
“In our own country we have been discriminated against and excluded,” Sotz said. “That situation is exponentially worse when you migrate.”