Amid a disastrous flood, interpreters are a lifeline for Indigenous farmworkers
Published in News & Features
WATSONVILLE, Calif. — Inside an evacuation center at the Santa Cruz County Fairgrounds, Maria Adolfo-Morales and a disaster service volunteer listened to a woman describe her concerns in the Mixteco language.
The woman and her three children had been staying at the center for a week, after a broken levee flooded the farming town of Pajaro and forced residents to flee.
Adolfo-Morales, a 22-year-old community health care worker, interpreted what the woman said into English, then rendered the volunteer’s responses into Mixteco, one of several Indigenous languages spoken in southern Mexico.
The woman’s inquiries echoed those of other displaced residents: How do I apply for food assistance? How do I apply for financial assistance?
Many of Pajaro’s agricultural workers are Mixteco speakers who are not fluent in English or Spanish. Adolfo-Morales and other interpreters have been a lifeline for them as they figure out how to survive after losing their homes and livelihoods.
An estimated 170,000 Indigenous Mexican farmworkers live in California, contributing to its booming economy. That number does not take into account non-agricultural jobs, nor does it include Indigenous immigrants from Guatemala, Nicaragua, Ecuador and Peru. Researchers say 6 in 10 farmworkers in the state are Indigenous.
Despite previous disasters — the Thomas fire, the COVID-19 pandemic — state and local officials have yet to fully include this growing population into their planning, often relying on nonprofits to communicate basic information.
With different languages in the mix, and climate change likely to spur more extreme weather, community organizers say more needs to be done.
And now, a week after many Pajaro residents have gone home, they will need to navigate complicated bureaucracies to get the help they need to rebuild their lives, which can be monumentally difficult even for English and Spanish speakers.
“The language barrier, coupled with the economic situation that they’re in, you’ve got a lot of people trying to process and make sense of what has happened and is happening to them,” said Erica Padilla-Chavez, executive director of the Second Harvest Food Bank Santa Cruz, which was among the nonprofits providing language assistance at the fairgrounds shelter.
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