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Indigenous Farmworkers and the Unique Barriers They Face

This past week I started class at the Yucatec Maya Summer Institute, a 6 week-long intensive language program to learn Yucatec Maya. When I tell people that I am spending my summer learning Mayan I usually get two questions: first, “Is that still spoken?” and “Why?”. First, yes, it is a living language spoken by one million people living in the Yucatán Peninsula and northern Belize. Secondly, I, too, have wondered why, as I have struggled with a language that is like nothing else that I have ever heard or spoken. Seriously, though, I want to learn Yucatec Mayan because of the experiences I had this past year working at the Farmworker Advocacy Network. All of the other students in the summer program are graduate students in linguistics, anthropology or archaeology. As a dual degree student at Duke Divinity School and the UNC School of Social Work, I feel like the odd person out. Most people, however, do not consider that within marginalized populations such as farmworkers, there are subgroups including people from indigenous backgrounds who are further marginalized linguistically and culturally.

While farmworkers are generally an invisible population whose work is often forgotten and undercompensated, indigenous farmworkers are a group that is even more marginalized. Farmworkers from indigenous communities are more likely to be exploited due to language barriers and the difficulties of finding interpreters. Language barriers often prevent farmworkers who do not speak English from knowing their rights, becoming educated about safety and pesticide precautions, and from locating service providers. Consider the fact that warning labels are always written in English and less frequently in Spanish. Indigenous farmworkers who do suffer abuses (especially sexual abuse against women) are not able to seek out services if they do not have family or friends to act as interpreters, or they are forced to remain silent. Besides language barriers, there are also cultural barriers such as indigenous spirituality that does not conform to modern medicine and a lack of recognition of discrimination against indigenous peoples within the Mexican community.

To bring home the prevalence of indigenous farmworkers, consider the community of Morganton located west of Raleigh.  When several hundred Guatemalan-born workers arrived in Morganton over 20 years ago, they began working in poultry plants. Concerns about safety and fair pay led the workers to strike and eventually organize a campaign against Case Farms. While the labor disputes have been settled, a small diaspora of Mayans are still trying to retain their sense of community amidst a changing global marketplace. This community demonstrates why it is necessary for advocates and service providers to be respectful of indigenous beliefs and be able to communicate openly with indigenous communities, who are frequently living in our backyard.

Mexico is a diverse and dynamic country, not only linguistically, but also geographically, culturally and ethnically. The Mexican government recognizes 68 distinct indigenous languages (from seven different families, and another four isolated languages) as national languages in addition to Spanish. While I realize that learning just one indigenous language is merely a drop in the bucket in terms of communication, it could one day serve me in allowing me to listen to someone and provide assistance. Likewise, every day I am reminded of how difficult it can be to communicate without the ability to speak the same language and to deal with the frustrations involved in learning a new language. As I leave for the Yucatan in a week, I am excited to learn more about the immigration situation in the Yucatan and about communities of Mayans living and working in the United States.

Jennie Wilburn is a graduate student working towards a dual masters degree in Divinity and Social Work at Duke and UNC-Chapel Hill. She interned last year at the Farmworker Advocacy Network.

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