Thursday, January 21, 2010

The Indigenous

Recently, I worked with my dear colleague Juliana Barbassa in San Francisco on a story about a push from Latin American indigenous groups and their immigrant advocate allies to be counted accurately in the 2010 Census.

While indigenous groups have immigrated here for decades, their numbers have ballooned to the level that they're affecting the fabric of the communities they live in.

Perhaps the best example of that change is the language barrier. Many of these groups speak their own languages. By my count there's at least eight different language groups in Washington state. Often, this multiple-language barrier has led to problems.

Many of these groups come from marginalized and impoverished rural towns in southern Mexico and Guatemala. There's even stories that some of these folks walked to the United States from Central America.

To me this migration is fascinating. I was born in Guatemala, and growing up _ even as a kid _ I remember seeing the vast societal gaps between the non-indigenous and indigenous groups in the country. My aunt's maid was indigenous.

In 2007, I visited relatives during the holidays. When I reached the exit door at the airport where all the expecting families wait for relatives, I was shocked that nearly the majority of people waiting that day were indigenous, donning their best traditional clothes.

That day, the growth of the migration hit me.

When I started at The Associated Press in 2008, I set out to continue my reporting on indigenous groups, which I had written about during internships at the Skagit Valley Herald in Mount Vernon and at The Seattle Times.

For my section of the Census story, I kept in touch with an immigrant advocate over the course of a year, bugging her periodically with e-mails asking how her efforts to reach out to a group called the 'Mam,' who came from Guatemala and have settled on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington state

Finally, after months, she notified me that they had set up a meeting about health care with them. Once cleared to go, I made contact with one of the Mam community leaders at the health care meeting, and he invited me to a holiday dance in Bremerton, Wash., a town an hour's ferry ride away from Seattle.

It was a near-perfect opportunity to capture the story visually. The women wore their best traditional dresses as did some of the men. There was marimba. Kids ran around aimlessly. Choleros showed up drunk. People danced.

Much to my surprise, I found much eagerness from one of the community leaders to share. Mariano was willing to sit down for interviews and be frank on the issues surrounding his community in Bremerton. This was a departure from previous experiences covering the indigenous. I've had episodes in which I had to work harder to gain their trust. In 2006, when I was an intern in Mount Vernon, Wash., I had to visit the migrant camps nearly every night to gain trust from the families I wanted to feature in my story. On other occasions, I've had to rely on sources to give me a peek.

Read the Census story here. Read a brief history of the migration here. Read the impact indigenous people are having on the agricultural sector here. And finally, here's a story about the language barriers they face when confronting the realities of immigration law. I was told the case from that story prompted lawmakers in Mexico to look at the issue.

Below, pictures from the dance I was invited to attend. Shot with a Canon 5D.

This picture was hard to get. While dancing the women barely smiled. Stoic faces. This was one of maybe three smiles I saw.

The Census story got good play, including a front-page treatment on Yahoo.

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