Endangered Language Alliance

Language and Health

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.