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(en) The Utopian #3 - Reaching out to a Challenging Community (Update), by Sandy Young

From Worker <a-infos-en@ainfos.ca>
Date Sun, 2 Feb 2003 09:10:42 -0500 (EST)

      A - I N F O S  N E W S  S E R V I C E

"Reaching Out to a Challenging
Community," in Utopian No. 2, described
the author's work in Las Islas Family
Medical Group in Oxnard, CA, in providing
medical services to Mixtec immigrants, and
how that work gave birth to the Mixteco
Community Organizing Project. This is a

How do you organize a grassroots community meeting? Easy,
right? Make a few phone calls, send out some notices, pass
out some flyers. But what if the "community" have no
phones, can't read, spend part of the year in another city, and
change addresses often?
These are a few of the challenges we have faced in building
the Mixteco/Indigena Community Organizing Project
(MICOP). MICOP was started 18 months ago to assist the
Oaxacan immigrant community in Oxnard, California (a
small farming community 50 miles north of Los Angeles).
We still largely use word of mouth to draw over 60 people a
month to our monthly meetings.
Mixteco Project began when a couple of Ventura County
nurses decided to try to increase the usage of health care
services, particularly pregnancy care, by the Oaxacan immi-
grant community. A series of small community meetings
were held to explain how to access health care and other
social services. These meetings succeeded because they spoke
to immediate, concrete needs of the people, and because peo-
ple were encouraged to communicate in their own language.
Mixtec is one of 16 different indigenous languages spoken in
Oaxaca, and is the language of the vast majority of Oaxacan
immigrants in the Oxnard/Ventura County area.
At the core of the project today is Catalina Navarrete, a
Oaxacan immigrant and former farmworker who works as a
Mixteco translator at Las Islas Clinic, a large county-funded
Family Practice Clinic where hundreds of Mixtec farmwork-
ers and their children receive medical care. Having had to
learn to navigate the social service bureaucracy herself several
years ago, she talks to a daily stream of Mixtec immigrants
who file into her office for help with paperwork, medical,
housing and personal issues.
Over the past year, a secondary layer of leadership has also
been built. A number of Mixtec women come every month
to volunteer their time in the Project's activities. Most of
these women are also farmworkers, perhaps here a little
longer, somewhat better established and eager to help the
more recently arrived immigrants.
One of the biggest successes so far is the Literacy Project.
Thanks to a small grant and the cooperation of the Mexican
consulate in donating workbooks, two-hour classes are
given every Sunday to help Mixtec adults learn to speak,
read and write in Spanish. Most have never had formal edu-
cation prior to the classes. Despite long commutes on public
buses, 30 adults have attended the classes, and we plan to
expand to new times and locations. Mixtec volunteers assist
the teacher with the classes.
At first, we considered conducting
the classes in English, the language
the immigrant children learn in
school. But in the course of the dis-
cussion, it became clear that Spanish
is the more important second lan-
guage. It is the language of the agri-
cultural community in California--
the foremen, the other workers, the
union leaders. It is also the language
of the vast majority of people rent-
ing living quarters to the agricultur-
al community. All throughout
Oxnard, Spanish is the primary lan-
guage. Adults may live there for 20
years and never learn English--it's
just not necessary.
This phenomenon can be seen
throughout Southern California,
and no doubt in many other regions    Distributing food at MICOP meeting. (MICOP)

as well. In Los Angeles, when Asian small business owners
arrive, they often learn Spanish before they learn English.
It's more important to their survival. Ultimately, then,
we decided on Spanish as the language of instruction.
Food distribution is another important ongoing activity of
the MICOP. Non-perishable USDA surplus food is ordered
once a month, and reorganized for pickup by families in
need. Some emergency food is always available, and a
mobile food pantry is being planned to meet the ongoing
problem of lack of transporatation. Over 20,000 pounds
of food has already been distributed.
Mixteco Project's goal is building (rebuilding, really, since
Mixtec tradition emphasizes social responsibility) a strong
community structure. Meetings are run by Mixtec members
themselves. English and Spanish speaking supporters come
to meetings to lend support and make presentations on top-
ics such as health care, safety, housing, education, domestic
violence and legal issues. Each month, more community
members speak out on the issues they feel are important.

For instance, last month two representatives from the
Mexican Consulate came to explain how people could obtain
Mexican ID cards, and how committed the Consulate was to
helping people out. But rather than simply nodding in grati-
tude, members wanted to know why they had to wait all day
at the Consulate, why they were denied ID cards for not hav-
ing forms of identification such as birth certificates which
don't even exist for most Mixteco people, why there are no
Mixteco translators at the Consulate. The Consulate has
already made some important changes in their procedures
due to this community pressure.
The social upheaval the Mixtec people have experienced in
coming to the United States is enormous. They have lived in
the same area of Southern Mexico since at least 100 AD. Their
way of life based on subsistence farming changed little over
the centuries despite the invasion of Aztec and Spanish con-
querors and the American tourist. Their language and culture
remain strong. But severe soil erosion has made even a mar-
ginal existence impossible in many native communities.
Children routinely marry and leave for northern Mexico or
the U.S. at 13 or 14--often having only the name of a relative
in a town like Oxnard. They arrive with nothing more than
strong backs and a determination to survive. In place of
small, cohesive communities based on generations of family
associations, communities with shared traditions, language
and beliefs, they arrive by twos or threes. Isolated even from
other immigrants from their same Oaxacan towns, they are
dispersed into a town of 100,000 people, most of whom share
none of their previous way of life.
It is a brutal transition, and yet what is most striking about
these people is their strength of character, their strong com-
mitment to their families, their humor, grace and dignity. We,
the non-Mixtec supporters in the project, are struggling to
help them rebuild their community and succeed in their
adopted homeland.

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