(Photo courtesy of CIELO)

The pandemic has been catastrophic for California’s Indigenous immigrant communities from Mexico, Guatemala, and other regions. Indigenous organizers have had to be proactive advocates rather than wait for Los Angeles County to provide the resources they desperately need to survive the pandemic. Their efforts have made a critical difference in creating greater access and information about COVID-19 vaccinations in LA County. 

Indigenous immigrant communities are facing not only an economic and health crisis, but also the loss of elders and other beloved community members. The loss of elders due to the pandemic is particularly disastrous. When elders pass, they’re taking with them sacred memories, stories, and pieces of languages and cultural wisdom that have been under attack for centuries, said Zaptec community organizer Odilia Romero. For these communities, access to COVID-19 vaccines isn’t just a matter of saving their loved ones lives—it’s about preserving whole cultures and oral histories already struggling to survive.

Until recently, information about vaccine access in LA County had not been made available in Indigenous languages despite the communities’ disproportionately high COVID-19 infection and fatality rates. The county didn’t even have data on the different immigrant Indigenous communities in the region. According to Romero, some 18 Indigenous languages are spoken in LA County alone, including Zapotec, Mixtec, K’iche,’ and Q’anjob’al. Romero, who is also the co-founder and executive director of the Indigenous women-led nonprofit Comunidades Indígenas en Liderazgo (CIELO), says this lack of attention reflects how little nation states like Mexico, Guatemala, or the U.S. care for Indigenous communities. CIELO has been at the forefront of visibilizing how the pandemic has affected immigrant Indigenous communities, which are often erased both alive and in death when they’re forcefully labeled as “Latinx.” 

“If we don’t exist in the statistics then our services do not exist,” Romero said. “We have to make them ourselves—from food distribution to health care. We have to be conscious of our narratives. When you make us all ‘Latinos,’ you continue to contribute to the statistical genocide of Indigenous communities.”

(Photo courtesy of CIELO)

Oscar Marquez, who heads CIELO’s vaccine outreach team, noted how many Indigenous workers play critical roles in the economy. Those roles often mean they’re also the least likely to be able to stay at home or work remotely. They are some of the people in greatest need of the vaccine, but they’ve been left behind in vaccination rollout efforts. 

“There are issues with access to technology and time,” Marquez said. “Who has time to sign up for a vaccine appointment when you have to work to pay for food, your bills, to take care of yourself, and your family?” 

The inequities plaguing the vaccine rollout in LA County mirrors similar problems nationwide that continue to leave some of the most vulnerable people at risk to the virus. White and rich people across the country are getting the vaccine at higher ratessometimes by going into low-income, Black, brown, Native, and immigrant communities, starving supplies that are already scarce to begin with. 

This exploitation of life-saving limited resources for vulnerable people reflects the lack of consideration and care typically experienced by Indigenous communities in the education system, immigration courts, clinics, and hospitals. For example, the pandemic heightened the desperate need for Indigenous interpreters in health care where medical staff may only speak English or Spanish—not Indigenous languages. This can have a negative impact on the care Indigenous patients receive, which could be deadly in the pandemic. Romero’s mother, sister, and father were all hospitalized due to COVID-19 back in November. In the case of her mom who only speaks some Spanish, having no hospital staff who spoke Zapotec added even more stress to an already difficult situation.

“Finally [my mother] got an interpreter on the phone, but what if she needed a glass of water for instance, how would she get it?” Romero said. “Just knowing what my mother went through, what are other Indigeous people who are monolingual going through?” 

It is this kind of neglect and cultural violence that inspired CIELO to launch a vaccine outreach campaign. Funded by the LA County Department of Public Health, CIELO’s campaign comes as California officials have promised to more aggressively address vaccine inequities in the state. Since the campaign began in late February, Marquez said they’ve secured first doses of the vaccine for over 350 people. CIELO is also doing outreach in rural areas of California, where many Indigenous farmworkers live. Indigenous workers make up a large portion of the food industry—from farmworkers to waitstaff to kitchen staff. These positions are often inflexible about allowing time off for workers to get vaccinated, or to stay home sick without loss of pay, making access to vaccination and health care even more difficult.

“As things start to reopen, the capitalist system will continue to choke our people,” Marquez said. “The suffering will be a lot more pronounced. Those who’ve been out of work will get a call telling them, ‘If you want your job, you have to come in right now,’ while white collar jobs usually have a plan in place and are doing things gradually. It’s crucial for our people to get the vaccine so that we can continue resisting, and have a better chance to survive.”

Romero said starting in April, CIELO is helping launch a mobile clinic where Indigenous community members will be able to get their vaccine with interpreters and advocates present. 

The organization also hopes to foster partnerships with local clinics to also secure any vaccines that are leftover at the end of each day. That’s how Romero and other members of CIELO were able to get their doses, although Romero described their first time working with California’s bureaucratic system as “difficult to navigate.”

Through CIELO’s initiative, community members have access to interpreters and organizers who help them sign up for the vaccine. The organization is also leading education campaigns to address fears surrounding the vaccine and the deeply-rooted mistrust in government entities. 

“In my K’iche’ community, there are a lot of people who don’t speak Spanish, who don’t know how to read or write,” said Alba González, a member of the four-person CIELO vaccine outreach team, who is from the region of Totonicapán in Guatemala. “I’ve helped a lot of women who lost their husbands [during the pandemic] and who are having a hard time getting resources.” 

Providing vaccination access isn’t CIELO’s only mandate. During the past year CIELO has provided community members with lifesaving mutual aid resources, including financial support and food vouchers through CIELO’s Undocu-Indigenous Fund, which raised some $1.5 million from last May to January. Romero said that for immigrant Indigenous workers in the U.S., chronic unemployment and this economic crisis not only impacts their lives here but also the lives of family members in their pueblos and home countries. 

“We sustain two economies,” she said. “We send remittances to Mexico [and] Guatemala, but we can’t expect any government to be in solidarity with us. So you’re left without food and you still have to provide food for your family far away. We’re part of two communities in two separate countries that don’t acknowledge you.”

Despite the struggles Indigenous communities still face in LA County, CIELO’s work is making a difference—from their ever-growing network of mutual aid to the recent publication of Diža’ No’ole, which in Spanish means palabra de mujer, a woman’s word. The book is a collection of photographs and testimonies of undocumented Indigenous women from Mexico and Guatemala. The proceeds are to help the women featured in the book.

“I want people to know that Indigenous people are humans, we’re not a thing of the past. We have been pushed out from our communities by capitalism, we are being criminalized, and amidst all of this, we’re dealing with COVID,” Romero said. “But there is always that resilience. We exist. We speak our language. We hold our traditions. They want to strip us of everything. This is our political manifesto that we are here.”

María Inés Taracena

María Inés Taracena is a contributing writer covering workers’ rights at Prism. Originally from Guatemala, she's currently a news producer at Democracy Now! in New York City focusing on Central America...