Here’s an article from The Santa Maria Sun by Camillia Lanham that’s about The Mixteco living in Santa Maria. Their music is one of the things Little Village is seeking to document. Truly a fascinating read.

Cover Story

Immigrants from the La Mixteca region of Mexico face more than just the U.S./Mexico border as a barrier to entry

Phone calls to most public agencies and social service providers in Santa Maria will yield messages in Spanish and English. Local callers won’t, however, hear a language spoken by an estimated 15,000 to 25,000 people in the valley: Mixteco.

Trilingual translators are rare, and that lack creates difficult situations for people who’ve immigrated to Santa Maria from the La Mixteca region of Mexico and are trying to rent a home, fill out paperwork, find a school, go to the doctor, access health insurance, talk to the police, and interact with the majority of society.

Language isn’t the only barrier, either; there’s also a lack of literacy, and a level of discrimination that’s followed Mixtecan immigrants from their hometowns.

This may be a story that some locals have already heard. Or it may be breaking readers’ hearts. But the problems facing the Mixtecans who immigrate to Santa Maria are hard to crack—and also plague their children born in the United States.

Barriers to assimilation, especially with children, are something the community is responsible for changing, said Esperanza Salazar, who immigrated from the Mexican state of Oaxaca to Santa Maria at the age of 14 in 1994. She now has a master’s in education from Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo and works at the Santa Barbara County Office of Education.

Salazar spoke to the Sun not as a county employee, but as a representative of herself. She felt it was important to make that point clear, and to say that some of the things she saw and experienced as a teenager in Santa Maria are still happening nearly 20 years later.

“We’re a very racist community here in Santa Maria and we assume that because they’re immigrants, they’re ignorant, they’re lazy, they’re taking our jobs, and why should we help them,” Salazar said. “They are part of the community, and it’s the community’s job, the leadership, to help the people in the community.”

Salazar works with families in the Santa Maria area by reaching out to those in need through home visits; because she’s trilingual, she works mostly with Mixtec families.

“The biggest barrier is language,” she said. “It’s very difficult to get here, and not being able to speak the language—how do you get what you need?”

Many Mixtecs don’t understand Spanish or English and didn’t go to school in Mexico, either because of money issues or because they didn’t speak the language. Add to speaking the “wrong” language an inability to read or write, and the wall starts to stack up both in the United States and in Mexico, Salazar said.

The La Mixteca region of Mexico spans across the states of Oaxaca, Guerrero, and Pueblo. Mixtecs are one of many indigenous peoples in the region who come to the United States looking for better work and better money. They usually take up jobs in agricultural fields, often alongside other indigenous groups from southern Mexico, such as the Zapotecs and the Triquis.

Of the indigenous groups, Mixtecans have the largest population of immigrants in the United States, and most of them are from the state of Oaxaca.

Regardless of status

In Santa Maria, Mixtecan revenue streams are often held captive by the lull between strawberry and broccoli seasons. Some families are able to migrate to other jobs in Santa Maria; others follow the harvests to Oregon, Washington, or Florida. An unlucky few can’t secure in-between-season work, which means they can’t pay the rent, which leads to homelessness, having to move their family into a smaller space, or hightailing it back to Mexico.

Some are eventually able to become legal workers, as Salazar’s family did in 1994. It took three months for them to get their green cards. Such a transition depends, of course, on how much help the applicants have from someone who can speak both English and Mixtec or English and Spanish.

Salazar said that over the last 10 years, more has been done to help the population find its footing within the Santa Maria community, starting within the education sector and branching out to other agencies.

“ I can see the changes,” she said. “It’s a very slow process, but it’s happening.”

The Santa Barbara County District Attorney’s Office Victim-Witness Assistance Program is one of the agencies making small strides to welcome Mixtecan immigrants into the bigger community. With the help of a five-year grant from the California Emergency Management Agency of up to $120,000 a year, the office is trying to do outreach work with Santa Maria’s Mixtecan population.

Terri Zuniga from the Victim-Witness Assistance Program said the main goal of the grant is to bridge the trust gap that prevents that community from reporting crimes. She said the Mixtec population in Santa Maria is extremely vulnerable to crimes. Plus, an underlying fear of deportation prevents many Mixtecs from reporting crimes to police. Zuniga said law enforcement doesn’t care what your legal status is if you report a crime; the goal is to prosecute criminals who prey on victims.

“You can’t just say, ‘They’re illegal,’” Zuniga said. “You embrace who it is that you’re serving.”

The DA’s Office is in its fourth year of the grant and wants to build a bigger community outreach effort before funding runs out. In April, the Victim-Witness Assistance Program held a daylong conference and invited educators, social service providers, and nonprofits to attend.

Zuniga said the point of the conference was to disseminate information about Mixteco culture, community, work, and history, as well as to start a dialogue between the spectrum of people who should be interacting with Mixtecs on a regular basis.

“We now have a base to start with within the system, to talk about what the issues are,” Zuniga said.

If providers can eventually come up with a way to tackle those issues and break through the wall that prevents Mixtecan immigrants from receiving services, the thought is that Mixtecs will be more likely to trust the entire network of providers. In a roundabout way, Zuniga thinks that could lead to more crimes being reported.

Weekly radio shows and daily advertising spots on Spanish radio stations have been one of the grant-funded outreach efforts by the DA’s Office that Zuniga calls “successful.” Each week, the radio show focuses on a different nonprofit or agency. She said those providers almost always get phone calls for services after the broadcast.

Still, those shows are delivered in Spanish, on Spanish radio stations, so the population they reach is limited and doesn’t include immigrants who only speak Mixteco.

El Centro?

Zuniga said she’s tried connecting with the community directly and had meetings with leaders in the Mixtecan community three years ago, namely Jesus Estrada, director at the El Centro Binacional para el Desarrollo Indigena Oaxaqueño [Bi-national Front] office in Santa Maria, and David Jimenez of Central Coast Ministries.

“We definitely have not been as successful as we’d like to at this point,” Zuniga said.

It’s a start, though, and part of the issue is that the message of outreach and community collaboration the DA’s Office wants to relay to the Mixtecan community hasn’t been heard yet.

Jesus Estrada, director of the Bi-national Front’s Santa Maria office, wasn’t sure what the Sun was referring to when asked about outreach efforts by the DA’s Office.

The organization Estrada works for started in the 1990s, is based out of Fresno, and has regional offices around Southern California. It’s billed as an empowerment engine for the Mixtecan immigrant farmworker. It has offices in both Mexico and the United States, hence the term bi-national.

The Sun asked several people within Santa Maria’s Mixtec community what exactly it was the Bi-national Front provides for them. Not one person had solicited services from the office or could say exactly what it was. They all echoed the same sentiment, which wasn’t great.

Margarita Rojas is a Mixtec from San Juan Piñas in Oaxaca who first came to Santa Maria when she was 2 years old. Rojas is now 24 and works for Healthy Start as a trilingual family advocate. She said she only knows what her clients have told her about the Bi-national Front center.

“I’ve had a few clients that have come to me and not given very good references about it,” Rojas said. “But I don’t know too much about it.”

Marina Morales is a Mixtec who came to the area when she was 13 years old and occasionally works as a Mixtec-to-Spanish translator for the Santa Maria-Bonita School District. Through a translator, Morales told the Sun that she heard the center charged people for services—and if they were charging for services, people didn’t have the money to pay for those services.

Esperanza Salazar from the county Office of Education (who spoke earlier in this story), said the Bi-national Front is an organization that may have grown too quickly and is no longer getting the grants it needs to sustain itself. She added that it doesn’t help that the director of the Santa Maria center, Estrada, only speaks Spanish and Mixtec and doesn’t really speak English.

While there is a center providing “services” specifically to empower the Mixtecan community in Santa Maria, the director can only reach out to part of the community, and can’t connect with the English-speaking population.

Leoncio Vasquez Santos, who works out of the Bi-national Front’s main office in Fresno as second to the organization’s director, said the office in Santa Maria is open every weekday from 1 to 7 p.m. People can come in and ask for what they need, and the office can provide for them, he said. When asked if they charge a fee, Vasquez told the Sun that they do ask for a donation.

“We ask for whatever they can afford to provide,” Santos said. “Santa Maria is one of our programs that is low on funds.”

As far as outreach and programs for the Mixtec community, Santos said there are only a couple of things in the works. Estrada and 10 “health promoters” contact farmworkers and their families to inform them of the dangers of contact with pesticides and heat stroke. Santos said it’s important for people to know about prevention measures, the signs of illness, and what can be done if anything happens.

The second program Santos told the Sun about is in the planning stages: a youth program designed to pull in Mixtec teenagers and speak about the issues in the community, to pinpoint the most important challenges to address, and to come up with ideas for other programs to help.

“We know some of the issues,” he said. “We want to hear from the youth, what they see and what they want to do something about.”

The need for consistency

Whatever the issues may be, the way to tackle them centers on language and literacy.

David Jimenez of Central Coast Ministries on Newlove Drive said the pathway to fixing what’s broken lies in a push for assimilation, English-language classes, giving immigrants the tools they need to look for and access what they need, and passing on a sense of belonging to the greater community they live in.

“The people that come to work here [in the United States] are the people that don’t have any money in Mexico, they don’t have anything, they don’t have education,” Jimenez said. “It’s a lot harder for these people to become assimilated to the culture because they don’t have the tools, they don’t know how.”

Central Coast Ministries operates out of what looks like a residential four-plex in the middle of Newlove Drive. There’s nothing that sticks out about the building until you walk inside.

It looks like a mini-schoolhouse. There’s a computer room, a room with schoolbooks and a whiteboard, a big room with games and tables, an office, and a space Jimenez uses to address his congregation.

This place is not just another church; it acts as a community center. Children swing by after school for homework help and to play on the computer. Jimenez teaches English classes there and gives out donated food and clothing to community members who need it.

Jimenez immigrated to California from Oaxaca when he was in college. He’s worked in the Newlove community since 1996 and first started teaching English in 2003, when the church he was with, First Christian Church, bought a four-plex in the community.

He’s not Mixtec, and he speaks Spanish and English, which works for the community he serves because it’s almost all Spanish-speaking. He said there are a some Mixtecs who come to him for help, but they are few and far between.

Maybe he isn’t a Mixtecan community leader like the DA’s Office thinks he is, but he is a leader in the Newlove community, entrenched in the middle of those he wants to help.

He speaks as a man who’s irritated and has experience with people who swoop into his community to try to help and disappear when the grant money runs out.

“Sometimes I feel that everyone wants to help, but nobody wants to do anything about it,” Jimenez added.

A good example of this is a grant the city of Santa Maria received in the early 2000s to help reach out to the Newlove community—and, more specifically, Mixtecs in the community. The Sun wrote about the grant in 2001, about how the city wanted to build a community center, which did happen, and work with the community to make sure they knew their rights and what the city could provide for them.

In other words, the reason for the outreach effort was very similar to what the DA’s Office is trying to do now—make a bridge between two very different cultures and communities to build trust that will enable the underserved to get what they need.

Whatever the city’s good intentions were in 2001, there’s no sign of that now, Jimenez said: The once-brand-new Newlove Community Center doesn’t get used as much as it should, and whatever ties Santa Maria tried to make simply don’t exist.

“This community needs someone here constant[ly]. It takes time; it’s a long process,” Jimenez said. “It’s tedious, it’s ugly, and sometimes you think ‘what am I doing here?’ Making an impact in the community, it’s hard work.”

The issue, Jimenez said, is that trust takes time to build. It’s like any relationship; they don’t become steadfast overnight, and a friend needs to prove their value before gaining the confidence of another.


The trust that builds a communal relationship is something the Santa Maria-Bonita School District seems to have a grasp of—or at least is valiantly pushing toward.

Zuniga from the DA’s Office said the way the school district reaches out to the underserved through its Thrive community program is a model both the city and the county should use.

Marina Morales, who used a translator to speak to the Sun, said when it comes to the city, there’s no connection, but she feels a strong connection with the school district through its migrant program.

Mark Muller, director of Pupil Personnel Services for the district, said that’s the kind of stuff he likes to hear about the district’s programs. That connection to the community makes the district stronger and the students better equipped for attending school and being successful.

“A lot of it has to do with trust,” he said. “The parents trust the school and school officials.”

Every third Thursday of the month at the Veterans Hall, Santa Maria-Bonita puts on sort of a health fair through the Thrive community program. There’s a translator on hand for both Mixtec- and Spanish-speakers and booths for services: Healthy Start, First 5, Community Health Centers of the Central Coast, mental health services, transitional youth services, the food bank, and the district’s migrant program.

About 250 families attend the event each month, and although the program isn’t geared specifically to the Mixtecan population—which makes up only about 7 to 8 percent of those served—Muller said the number of Mixtec families they serve is growing. Grant money for the Thrive program doesn’t just cover the monthly health fair, it also covers parent meetings and home visits for families with children 5 and younger.

Muller said that although the grant money is earmarked specifically for helping families within the Bruce and Fairlawn Elementary School enrollment boundaries, the goal is that the program and grant money will grow.

That program is just one of several community-directed pots the district is stirring. The migrant program is another. It works with families that move with the harvest season—within the district and across school boundary lines, from state-to-state, or out of the country and back.

It’s not just education or after-school help the migrant program provides, but the ability to access health and public services through a translator as well. Muller said the school district sees its job as one of building up the community, not just students.

“It’s just a part of the commitment to our kids and to helping the community. It’s just the right thing to do,” Muller said. “We wanted to help our families and children to grow up and be successful.”

Esperanza Salazar from the county education office said that what she sees from the school district is great, but more outreach needs to be done, especially with educating children 2 to 3 years old.

“If you survey 500 [Mixtec] families, maybe at least 300 will have a kid that needs to be in a Head Start program,” Salazar said. “By the time they go to school, they’re already 5 years old. They’re already behind. How are you supposed to make that up?”

Outreach and a call for change can’t just come from one agency or one group of interested parties; Salazar said it needs to be a group effort and from the community as a whole. She said it’s our assumptions about “the other” that prevent communities from serving who they need to serve and seeing what needs to be done to implement systematic change.

“When we stop assuming, then that’s when we can start doing something about it,” Salazar said. “Those babies that are born in the U.S., it is our responsibility to help them—and then hopefully in the future things will be better.”