“Excavating the Future” is a series produced by Capital & Main in partnership with KCET that explores what life could and should be like post-pandemic through conversations with leading writers, artists and activists.
By now, most Angelenos are familiar with the local community of Oaxaca, largely through its cuisine. Tlayudas, much like an Oaxacan-style pizza, are increasingly popular and the regional libation, mescal, comes in designer varieties these days. The burst of general interest in Oaxacan food simultaneously reveals and erases the powerful presence of the indigenous community in Los Angeles [BB1] and its transnational cultural and economic structures. Oaxacan natives in Los Angeles speak several different languages - Zapoteco, Mixe, Mixteco, Mazateco (and of course, English and Spanish). The community is also heavily overrepresented in restaurant jobs and other parts of the service industry in Los Angeles — concentrated, in other words, in jobs that faced devastating layoffs during the pandemic, or else in high risk of exposure to COVID-19. But the natives of Oaxaca also know how to organize themselves. Drawing on traditions that date back to before the Spaniards arrived in the Americas, they have developed strong networks that provide a safety net in times of pandemic.
Odilia Romero is a Zapotec organizer and interpreter who came to the United States at the age of eleven. Since the early 1990s, she has been at the forefront of advocating for culturally sensitive public services for Indigenous immigrants. When the pandemic hit, she and other community leaders were perfectly placed to organize direct aid.
Rubén Martínez: Los Angeles has a large indigenous Oaxacan population, visible in some ways and invisible in others. What were the specific impacts on the community when the pandemic hit, and how did you respond?
Rubén Martínez: Your organization CIELO (the Spanish acronym for Indigenous Communities in Leadership) has mobilized for direct assistance and advocated for access to services in indigenous languages. You say that access to an interpreter is a human right — how so?
Rubén Martínez: Could you tell us about the community practices that indigenous communities in Oaxaca have relied on as the pandemic made life precarious? How does this ancestral knowledge give hope for the future?
Odilia and her compañeras from CIELO, the Spanish acronym for Indigenous Communities in Leadership, helped make visible those reeling from the pandemic and also helped pool resources with the solidarity of allies. CIELO’s work has caught the attention of English-language media, including a glossy article in Vogue magazine last year, which made the community all the more visible – and brought in more resources. Odilia defines the traditional Oaxacan festival of Guelaguetza as communal sharing in good times and bad, the indigenous version of “helping each other”. Los Angeles has the second highest population of Alaskan Natives and Native Americans in the country – a number that would be even higher if it weren’t for the fact that indigenous communities in Mexico and Central America are under -esteemed, considered simply “Latinos”.
Indigenous immigrants are often referred to as “outsiders” and representation, when it does occur, tends to focus on their historical heritage. But there is a strong argument to be made that indigenous community knowledge is just as important for the future as it was for the past; these communities are illuminating the way forward.
“Excavating the Future” is hosted and written by Rubén Martínez and produced and directed by Marco Amador for Capital & Main, an award-winning news publication that reports on inequality, climate change and other issues.
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