Endangered Language Alliance


Xilonen program at LSA Health Center in East Harlem

Beginning with discussions in 2016, ELA partnered with the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene for the first study focused on the demographics, communities, communication, and health of Indigenous Latin American communities in New York.

In the wake of the much publicized Health of Latinos in New York City, an initiative entitled Proyecto Comunidades Florecientos (PCF), was launched by Thelma Carrillo and Krystal Reyes of the Division of Family and Child Health. The initiative sought to better understand and serve traditionally neglected segments of the Latino population in NYC. Among the most marginalized and misunderstood segments of this population are Indigenous peoples of Mexico, Guatemala, Ecuador and Peru, who settled in New York in considerable numbers during a period of mass migration beginning in the 1990s. Despite their large numbers there is still no basic demographic information on these communities, nor can we find information about their livelihoods, experiences and challenges in the city, outside of anecdotal remarks and informal observations. Remedying this was seen as an urgent priority given that Indigenous Latin Americans appear to occupy some of the most precarious niches of the local labor market – construction, take-out delivery, and food preparation in kitchens and delis – and appear to be disproportionately underserved in areas of health, education, and other social services.

An initial period of research, consultation, and piloting of an in-depth interviewers’ guide for the use of ELA-trained community experts fluent in the relevant Indigenous languages, followed by 30 qualitative interviews with members of 6 major Indigenous Latin American ethnolinguistic groups (Garifuna, K’iche’, Kichwa, Mam, Mixtec, Nahuatl) now living in New York. These were some of the key findings: (i) Indigenous Latin American communities in the New York area are substantial and growing, but often remain dispersed, invisible, and without access to services, including translation and interpretation; (ii) Speakers of Indigenous languages are maintaining their languages in NYC to a degree, including through digital communication tools and transnational ties, but intergenerational transmission is faltering; (iii) Reported health challenges in this relatively young population, many with children, include diabetes, alcoholism, a worsening diet, and pervasive marginalization. Hundreds of pages of interview transcripts have been transcribed and translated, and a 50-page report prepared for NYCDOHMH.

We also successfully ran a health and nutrition program at the LSA Health Center in East Harlem that involved Indigenous mothers and their children. This also involved interviews to better understand the demographics and challenges facing this community.

More information about this work and key findings — and other related work, connecting food, health, language, and community — will be made public when possible.

Part of ELA’s mission is to help give ignored communities a larger voice in the public sphere, putting our knowledge to work in helping reach the hardest-to-reach New Yorkers. Given our focus on endangered languages, we commonly work with communities that are virtually invisible, lumped together with larger groups for various reasons and not recognized as the very distinct populations they are.

ELA is proud to be a grantee of the NYC Census 2020 Complete Count Fund, an unprecedented city-led effort to boost census response rates among the city’s most marginalized groups — particularly critical because fo the role of the census in the allocation of political and economic resources. One focus, together with our partners at the American Indian Community House and the Red de Pueblos Transnacionales, will be to maximize the representation of indigenous people living within the five boroughs by reaching out to communities and individuals in their own languages. In this, we will focus our energies on creating audio-visual promotional materials which can be shared through social media and facilitating in the larger indigenous languages of Mexico and Guatemala at the pop-up events produced by our two consortium partners.

Two of the biggest challenges in reaching out to the communities described here are fear and suspicion in the current political climate. As a consequence, many of those in the communities we are trying to reach have essentially gone clandestine. To overcome this, it is crucial that we reach out to communities not just in official state languages like Spanish but in the mother tongues that these communities use at home and with family. This is not only a matter of improving comprehension but of building trust.

We will hire facilitators from the Mixtec, Tlapanec, Nahuatl, K’iche’, Kichwa/Quechua and Garifuna-speaking communities to create promotional materials in their languages that explain the importance of the census and the privacy of the information that is shared. As most of our target populations live in underserved neighborhoods, our messages will make the case that an accurate count can improve resources for schools, libraries, infrastructure, services and political representation. Our facilitators will also be given tablets so that they can increase census participation within their local communities, through their social networks and neighborhood events. As several of our collaborators have active followings on social media and internet radio programs which they produce, we will be able to amplify the message through a wide range of means, in addition to in person meetings. We aim to have all of our outreach workers and outreach captain hired by the end of the year and to start distributing the first of the materials in January 2020. Between January and June, we will follow the pop-up event schedule of our consortium partners and prepare for large community gatherings such as the street festivals on 116th st., Cinco de Mayo celebrations, church related festivals, the inti raymi celebration, and various other public events that bring together large numbers of indigenous Latin Americans.

Everyone should have the right to critical services, from the hospital to the courtroom to the classroom, in their own language. While language access for speakers of larger languages like Spanish and Chinese has improved markedly in recent decades — although there are still substantial gaps — provision for speakers of smaller languages is often non-existent. ELA is working with city agencies, policymakers, researchers and communities to improve access to translation and interpretation services for vulnerable communities who speak smaller languages.

We frequently reach out to neglected immigrant and Indigenous populations in their own languages. We have been producing some of the only audio-visual materials in languages of Indigenous Latin American immigrants in New York, most recently, a series of short ¡Conozca sus derechos! (Know your rights) messages in Nahuatl, Mixtec, Me’phaa (Tlapanec), and K’iche’, which were the first of their kind and widely shared across legal aid organizations and other peer to peer groups. We have also been the only NYC-based organization, as far as we are aware, to study the issues faced by monolingual speakers of Indigenous Latin American languages in New York. We have carried out extensive interviews with various Indigenous communities on which means of communication are used most commonly for obtaining news and information.