Farmworker Harvesting Strawberries
Photo © David Bacon, used with permission

Not Everyone Speaks Spanish!

The Need for Indigenous Language Interpreters in California’s Agricultural Workforce

For most of us, language is a way to connect with others, express our identity, or preserve our heritage. For many farmworkers however, language determines opportunities to work, to be safe, healthy, and free from discrimination. In California, home to the largest population of immigrant farmworkers in the nation, a third of farmworkers are members of Indigenous communities from Southern Mexico. Many speak only an Indigenous language like Mixteco, Zapoteco, or Triqui, and research suggests they are denied access to trained interpreters and face discrimination. 

One Third of California Farmworkers are from Indigenous Communities in Southern Mexico

In Ventura County, a vibrant community of 20,000 Mixtecos work in the region’s famous strawberry fields. The Mixteco/Indígena Community Organizing Project (MICOP), an Oxnard-based nonprofit, has a staff of 22 Mixteco interpreters and contracts with health providers, school districts, and legal services organizations to provide interpreting. However, Mixteco speakers still undergo everything from pesticide safety training to giving birth without an interpreter, even though they have a legal right to language access. 

In Agriculture, Mixteco Speakers are Trained in Spanish, though Language Interpreting Services May be Available

We launched a joint study to find out why Indigenous farmworkers still face severe language barriers and what can be done to change this. With the support of the Western Center for Agricultural Health and Safety (WCAHS), our study investigates how to improve language access for Indigenous farmworkers. We practice community-based participatory research (CBPR), which means that academics and community partners work together to produce research that benefits communities. Our project collaborates with Indigenous farmworker communities to produce tools to improve language access. 

As a CBPR researcher, academic and community partners collaborate closely during each phase of the study. Our statewide advisory committee includes representatives of MICOP, California Rural Legal Assistance, the Binational Center for Indigenous Oaxacan Development, and the Oaxacan Indigenous Binational Front. Together we conducted local focus groups with Mixteco speaking farmworkers, interviews with experts, and surveys of agencies that serve Mixteco communities in Ventura, Kern, and Madera counties in California. 

Lack of Interpreting Services Puts Indigenous Farmworkers at Risk Every Day

Our findings show that the health and safety of farmworkers who speak only an Indigenous language is at risk every day. Study participants described how farmworkers sign contracts they cannot read, attend safety trainings they cannot understand, and handle chemicals without comprehending warning labels. They report experiencing discrimination because they speak an Indigenous language. They are forced to work longer hours, experience sexual harassment, and they are obligated to do more hazardous tasks. One Mixteco farmworker said: 

“My coworkers and I started chatting in our language, and people started to make fun of us... The general manager arrived and told us to speak Spanish, because ‘people speak Spanish’. [...] Sometimes they send us into the freezer for three hours to clean vegetables, and they make us suffer more because we don’t speak Spanish.”

Raising Awareness of Risks and Language Interpreting Can Support the Health and Safety of Indigenous Farmworkers

As recommended by farmworkers in the study, we are developing a radio program to inform Indigenous language speakers about their rights. We will also use our findings to create a guide to language access laws and improve trainings for service providers and employers about best practices for working with Indigenous farmworkers. As a CBPR project, our goal is to use research as a vehicle for positive change. We hope that raising awareness about the risks faced by Indigenous farmworkers will help support increased use of trained interpreters and bring more attention to the discrimination they face. 

Alena Uliasz is a graduate student completing her M.S. in Community Development at UC Davis. This project, in partnership with Mixteco/Indígena Community Organizing Project (MICOP), was funded by the WCAHS Graduate Student Funding Program with Faculty Advisor, Dr. Natalia Deeb-Soss, Department of Chicana/o Studies.

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