40 years away from town: memory of a Zapotec migrant in Los Angeles | Opinion

Odilia Romero, activist for the defense of linguistic rights in the United States.
Odilia Romero, activist for the defense of linguistic rights in the United States.Damian Dovarganes (AP)

In August 1981 I was a girl who lived in the Sierra Norte de Oaxaca in a town called San Bartolomé Zoogocho. I was 10 years old and for me there was no other world beyond my town, its mountains, its river, its sidewalks, its festivals, its traditions, its colors and foods which, despite the passage of time, I have so much in mind. in my mind. The universal language was Zapotec.

In those days I was preparing to perform my dance gueya biknowr, literally “Young Woman Dance”, which today is known as La Malinche dance in honor of the town’s patron saint, San Bartolomé, which is celebrated on August 24. I was fortunate to have three costumes for dance because I was the daughter of migrants to the United States, who sent me remittances that made such a privilege possible. As the daughter of migrants, I was left in the care of my grandmother and my father’s three stepbrothers. These men sexually abused me.

My grandmother took good care of me, but one day when she went to the nixtamal In the early morning, he found one of these men on my mat on his return home. My grandmother notified my parents. They sent for me to protect me. I remember that in 1981 I danced so much and with all my strength because I knew that I would never again participate in a dance in Zoogocho. I knew that leaving town would rip a large part of my being. This is how I felt when my parents left and left me.

He had never left Zoogocho before or visited other communities. Much less had he traveled to Oaxaca. Therefore, when my parents sent to bring me from Los Angeles, California, to meet my sisters in that unknown place that I had no references, it was a not so pleasant surprise for me.

From one day to the next I had to prepare to leave without knowing where I would end up. I was about to become a migrant girl, involuntarily displaced from her village and in circumstances that were the result of being left unprotected by those who had to leave first to find paid jobs and then establish a space to receive their daughters.

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The 1980s in Mexico began with a financial crisis that devalued the peso, intensifying migration. Those who lived in rural areas were leaving to reverse the deficiencies. Migration occurred either at home or abroad. By 1981, undocumented migration to the United States intensified at an accelerated rate. Without knowing it, at that time I was part of those statistics. Neoliberalism began to be established and left its particular stamp on the lives of people and indigenous peoples.

In Zoogocho, those who emigrate do so on Thursdays, market day in the square. It was the only day of the week that a redila truck passed by, a cargo truck that brought people from afar to sell. He was making the trip to Oaxaca. I do math and memory: it was September 3, 1981, the day I left my town to go to Los Angeles. The first point of the journey was the capital of Oaxaca. Then I took a bus to go to Mexico City, where I probably took a plane that took me to Tijuana, from where I crossed the border.

Reading the above it seems that I made the trip alone. I was accompanied, however, by my aunt Martha, my father’s sister, who came to get me from Los Angeles to Zoogocho. He was with me from the time I left town until he handed me over to the woman who crossed the border for me undocumented. I don’t remember many details, perhaps because of the impact it caused on me to observe unfamiliar landscapes, new places and unfamiliar faces. What I do remember is that I was able to communicate in Zapotec at all times. This was a relief and a fortune. The woman who crossed me was from my town. Many accompanied migrant children do not suffer the same fate.

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In Tijuana, a city with an arid aspect, very different from the landscapes I was used to, I had to overcome one last obstacle before I could cross: that of my appearance. Those who would make me cross the border decided that it was important to change so as not to appear “Indian” and not to generate suspicions that would complicate the plan. They cut my hair, changed my clothes and asked me not to speak at any time. This is how I crossed by bus, through the sentry box, using the documents of the daughter of a plainclothes who pretended to be my mother.

That last journey before meeting my sisters, my father and my mother, was the strangest. The landscape changed, what I saw now were huge buildings that horrified me. I had never seen anything like it, how far it was from my town!

My first days in Los Angeles were filled with sadness. I was crying a lot, a lot. I wanted to go back to Zoogocho, be with my grandmother, eat what I was used to savoring, see the mountains again and not have to listen to strange languages ​​that I could not understand. At that time I was monolingual. I couldn’t understand English or Spanish.

My experience at school marked me. At Union Avenue School in Los Angeles, no one knew that my language was Zapotec. I only spoke my Disha. In these conditions I was falling behind year after year and I never managed to catch up with my studies. The children abused me, laughed at me and hit me. He didn’t know what to answer because he spoke neither Spanish nor English.

40 years ago there were few children who experienced the language barrier in school. Today there are several thousand in educational centers in the United States. Even today it is ignored, in school and service sites in this country, that in Latin America languages ​​other than Spanish are spoken. It was these circumstances that started my work as an interpreter.

As time went by, I adapted to my new life. I found a lot of strength in the migrant community that, for more than 40 years, had already organized to continue with our festivities and, when possible, cooked Zapotec dishes with ingredients that were difficult to find at that time such as jerky, chintesle, yerba santa and blood sausage.

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My spirits rose when I learned that the girls of Los Angeles also danced to celebrate Saint Bartholomew. I was finally able to find a space where I could feel close to what I knew. He had a long way to go.

Forty years have passed since my arrival in Los Angeles, a city that I have learned to love, where I had to know myself differently because of my origin, my appearance and the way I speak. As time went by, I came to know the injustices and racism, but also the struggle that migrant peoples and communities carry out every day. The Los Angeles Indigenous Peoples Association was my salvation.

Today I commemorate four decades of a life marked by displacement, my migrant status, my family and my community. I recognize myself as a woman who has learned to fight for human rights. I have been an interpreter for more than 30 years. There I have found my trench to support respect for the linguistic rights of those who, like me, were displaced from their communities and placed in a foreign space that we have made our own little by little.

There are still thousands of indigenous children that today their parents are forced to abandon in their communities. Thousands of children cross the border to meet their families, now strangers. Thousands of minors are detained on the border between Mexico and the United States without interpreters to allow them to communicate with dignity.

I keep dancing every August 24th. No longer the dance of La Malinche, but sounds and syrups, remembering that girl through the gaze of the woman I am. I resist, fight and have fun. Joy is also a way of fighting.


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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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