Laura is a Mexican immigrant who lives in East Harlem, a neighborhood with one of the largest Latino populations in New York City. Yet she understands so little of what others are saying around her that she might just as well be living in Siberia.
Laura, 27, speaks Mixtec, a language indigenous to Mexico. But she knows little Spanish and no English. She is so scared of getting lost on the subway and not being able to find her way home that she tends to spend her days within walking distance of her apartment.
“I feel bad because I can’t communicate with people,” she said, partly in Spanish, partly in Mixtec. “I can’t do anything.”
Laura, who asked that her last name not be revealed because she does not have legal immigration status, is among hundreds if not thousands of indigenous people from Latin America living in the New York region who speak neither the dominant language of the city, English, nor the dominant language of the broader Latino community, Spanish.
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These language barriers, combined with widespread illiteracy, have posed significant challenges to their survival, from finding work to gaining access to health care, seeking help from the police and getting legal redress in the courts.
The phenomenon, sometimes called linguistic isolation, affects many immigrant populations to varying degrees. But its prevalence among the fast-growing population of newly arrived immigrants from Latin America, many of working and childbearing age, has made them an increasing concern to local service providers and government agencies.
Partly as a result of this population’s isolation, there are no reliable estimates of its size, experts said.
In recent years, the Mexican Consulate in New York, seeking to learn more about the local indigenous Mexican population, has surveyed the Mexican citizens who seek the consulate’s services. As of the end of 2013, more than 17 percent of respondents spoke an indigenous language, with Mixtec and Nahuatl being the most popular among a total of 16. (Scores of indigenous languages with hundreds of variants are spoken in Mexico alone.)
According to the latest data from the Census Bureau, about 8,700 immigrants from Central America and over the age of 4 in the United States speak an indigenous language and do not speak English very well or at all.
But the Census Bureau’s major surveys do not gauge Spanish proficiency, an equally critical measure for the community of indigenous Latin Americans.
Indeed, for many, not knowing Spanish is as big an impediment as not knowing English. Spanish is the lingua franca among immigrants from Latin America and dominates conversation in neighborhoods like East Harlem; Corona, Queens; and Hunts Point, in the Bronx.
After arriving in New York, most indigenous Latin Americans will learn Spanish before they learn English — if they ever learn English at all. The need has driven demand for Spanish language classes around the city. About a decade ago, the staff at Little Sisters of the Assumption Family Health Service, an organization in East Harlem that provides services to the poor, noticed that an increasing number of the students enrolling in its English as a second language classes were not only indigenous language speakers from Latin America but were also illiterate.
Reasoning that it would be easier to teach the newcomers Spanish, which they were beginning to pick up at home and on the street, the organization turned the English classes into Spanish classes.
Beyond the critical language and literacy instruction the classes provided, they also helped the newcomers build “a much-needed social support network,” said Rosemary Siciliano, head of communications for Little Sisters of the Assumption. In 2012, however, the organization had to cut the program because of budget shortfalls.
For those immigrants who have less than a working knowledge of Spanish and English, even basic services can often remain out of reach. While New York City has a progressive language access policy, it guarantees the provision of interpretation and translation services for city business in only the six most-used non-English languages, which do not include any of the indigenous languages spoken by Latin American immigrants.
Sometimes the struggle of these immigrants is simply to get others to recognize that they are somehow different from the Latin Americans who speak Spanish. They are often mistaken for Spanish speakers because of their nationality and appearance and are addressed in Spanish, but may be too shy or confused to interrupt, advocates said.
“They may nod when they don’t know what’s going on,” said Lucia Russett, director of advocacy at Little Sisters of the Assumption.
Several years ago, Juan Carlos Aguirre, executive director of Mano a Mano, a Mexican cultural organization based in New York, received a call from a hospital official in Manhattan. The official was having trouble communicating with a Mexican family. “She said, ‘I need your help,’ ” Mr. Aguirre recalled. “ ‘I think they’re all mentally challenged.’ ”
Mr. Aguirre asked the caller if she had asked the family what language they spoke. “They’re Mexican, so they speak Spanish,” the woman replied matter of factly. It turned out that the family spoke Mixtec.
The isolation, their advocates said, is particularly widespread among women, many of whom stay at home with young children while their husbands go to work on construction sites and in restaurant kitchens, where they can pick up Spanish more quickly.
“Monolingual women can end up completely dependent on their husbands for communication with the outside world,” said Daniel Kaufman, executive director of the Endangered Language Alliance, a nonprofit organization based in New York.
In the seven years she has lived in New York, Carmen, who is from the state of Guerrero in Mexico and speaks Mixtec, has learned a smattering of Spanish. But, she said, beyond running simple errands, she is not able to do much without the help of her husband, Juan Manuel, who learned Spanish from co-workers at a restaurant where he works as a prep cook. Neither attended school in Mexico as children.
The power imbalance in their relationship was evident in a recent interview with the couple in the East Harlem headquarters of Little Sisters of the Assumption, where they participate in parenting and childhood development programs. He answered most of the questions posed to them, even those directed specifically at Carmen. “If she goes to the store to buy clothes or whatever, she doesn’t know how to buy,” Juan Manuel said in Spanish. “I always go with her.”
Laura, the woman who avoids the subways, arrived in New York in 2010, joining her husband, who had emigrated from Mexico. They had a son, now 2 years old.
But recently, she said, their marriage took a downward turn. Her husband assaulted her, she said, and a neighbor, hearing the noise, called the police. Her husband was imprisoned and is now facing deportation, she said.
His absence has thrown Laura’s linguistic challenges into sharp relief. Insecure about her ability to navigate the city using her rudimentary Spanish, she has relied heavily on her cousin, Catalina, to accompany her to her appointments, including meetings with the prosecutors who are handling her husband’s case. But Catalina, who has a family of her own, is not always available.
Laura, who has not been able to find a job, said she wished it had not come to this. “He’s not a bad person,” she said. She now fears being left entirely alone, with her young son, in New York City.