Mis Ángeles: They Raised $1 Million in COVID-19 Relief To Help LA's Indigenous Communities. Here's Why It's Not Nearly Enough

Janet Martinez, left, and Odilia Romero of CIELO (Photo illustration by Chava Sanchez, LAist/Photo by June Canedo, CIELO)

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I was sitting on a stoop in South Central a few days ago when I saw a guy take his mask off, pull out a can of spray paint, and tag the side of a wall.

He was tagging in a sea of signage: Lalo's Birreria, Ochoa Tires, a 24-hour lavanderia, construction signs and a big blue sign from the Department of Public Works boasting about improvements in the area. The bottom half of that sign was covered in red spray paint.

The importance of language, I thought.

I was on that stoop waiting for Odilia Romero and Janet Martinez, two women who have dedicated their careers to the idea that language is a basic human right.

They run the nonprofit Comunidades Indigenas en Liderazgo, better known as CIELO (spanish for sky), which works closely with local indigenous communities and, among other services, has provided cultural awareness training for police. CIELO recently raised close to $1 million to provide coronavirus relief aid to L.A.'s hard-hit Meso-American indigenous communities.

Native communities all around the country are being hit disproportionately hard by the pandemic. But it's particularly difficult for indigenous people who are part of the Latin American diaspora.

To begin with, they do not have a centralized tribal system to help with the most basic communication. Meso-American indigenous communities are often erased or overlooked by being lumped in with Latino populations, according to Odilia. This further complicates getting government assistance or traditional forms of aid.

The money raised by CIELO sounds impressive but, as I would soon find out, it's a drop in the bucket to help some of the region's most disenfranchised people. In the case of Meso-America's indigenous — most of whom are immigrants from places like Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras — many are undocumented and are struggling economically without government aid.

As it was explained to me, at $400 for each family, $1 million only helps 2,500 families, which the organization estimates is a small fraction of L.A.'s Meso-Americans.

Just over half-a-million of the money CIELO has raised has already been put into "the hands of Zapotec, Mixe, Chinanteco, Chatinos, Quiches, Kanjobales, Akatekos, Maya Yucateco, Mam, Chontal Akatecos, Amuzgos, Nahuatl, and Totonacas," according to Janet.

"Dude, people are really struggling," she said.

The struggles are more than financial. One in three Meso-American indigenous people living in Los Angeles has experienced coronavirus, or knows someone close to them that has, according to a community survey by CIELO.

But there are obstacles to getting good care, especially this: Many of them cannot read, write or speak English or Spanish, or any "mainstream" language.

"I wish when these communities go to hospital because they have COVID-19 symptoms, that there were someone there that speaks their language," Odilia said. "When they make critical decisions, like intubating someone in their family, someone should be there that speaks their language. It is a basic human right."

A few days ago, Odilia and Janet arrived together, relieved me of waiting on the stoop, and let me into the CIELO offices in Historic South Central.

We were all wearing masks and sat six feet apart. Odilia was wearing a face covering styled after a traditional tribal mask from the Mexican state of Guerrero. Janet was wearing a mask with a map made of Mexico's 68 recognized languages.

Their masks are more than style choices. Odilia said they were political statements and hopefully an example to the communities CIELO serves.

Getting indigenous people to believe that COVID-19 is a real threat has been a challenge, she said. Aside from the language barriers they face, many look up to Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, known as AMLO, who recently said he'd wear a face mask "when there is no corruption."

"It's a problem because people really believe in AMLO," Odilia said. "And he's out there saying there's no scientific proof that masks prevent the spread of COVID."

"But there is," Janet interrupts. "There is scientific evidence that masks help to stop the spread."

AMLO's skepticism, even as Mexico has the third most confirmed coronavirus deaths, is only part of the problem.

With so many dialects — there are 350 estimated variations of Mexico's indgenous languages alone — Janet said the organization relies on bi- and tri-lingual stakeholders to communicate within small subsects of these communities. These include organizers, tiny business owners, and the DJs who often throw parties for Meso-American community members. But some of these stakeholders have also been a problem.

"There was a DJ who threw these parties and he was a real non-believer, a total AMLO supporter," Odilia said. "He kept saying, 'It's not real.' And he just announced that he is positive."

Odilia says large gatherings are also a problem, primarily funerals.

"Something that is very sacred to the Zapotec community is death. So a lot of people continue to have rosaries, having people over. And I think that is where a lot of the infections happen," she said.

Janet pointed out that the skepticism has waned as the pandemic has gone on, but they also have to deal with the capitalism of it all.

"A lot of people in the community are essential workers," she said. "Many work in restaurants. Many also work in the garment industry. There is a high demand for masks. Well, they are usually the ones making the masks."

According to Odilia, the owners and managers in the garment industry "are still making them work while being sick with COVID, risking the rest of the communities that are working there. So they're not speaking out because they are told, 'If you speak up, we're gonna close the [warehouse] and all your friends are gonna be jobless.'"

Last month, L.A. County's health department closed down one Garment District business that had more than 300 confirmed COVID-19 infections.

If you take all these obstacles and circumstances into account, $1 million is barely scratching the surface of a humanitarian crisis in the making. Even if a vaccine does come, how do you disseminate information in hundreds of beautiful languages that have been in existence since the dawn of civilization?

Despite all they've seen, Janet and Odilia are optimistic that they'll continue to find a way to reach folks. They also find beauty in how those who they have helped have in turn offered to cook, sing and dance for them. Some people have been calling and leaving messages in Zapotec, Mixe, Chinanteco and other native languages to thank Janet and Odilia.

Musicians have even offered to play for them.

"One of things that's really unique about this is that they would say, 'No worries. When you have an event and all of this is over, we're going to come play for your event.' It's a reciprocal relationship. And I think it's important to make that distinction," she said.

Janet also noted that the idea of reciprocity is ingrained in Meso-American traditions.

"This is solidarity," she added. "I mean, obviously, we don't operate with that expectation, but we know that it's like a cultural norm in the pueblos. That's practice. 'Hey, if you bring sodas to my party, I will bring sodas to yours.'"

I asked Odilia if I could hear some of the messages they've been getting. She played one by a Zapoteco man who just wanted to say hi and make sure they were doing well. I don't understand Zapotec, but he sounded sanguine.

As the words bounced into the air from Odilia's iPhone, I thought about how each ancient syllable was being kept alive by this modern technology and these incredible women.

"The importance of language," I said. And then I got up and walked out the CIELO offices back into the L.A. sun.

About the Mis Ángeles column: Erick Galindo is chronicling life in Los Angeles for LAist. He took on this role after serving as our immigrant communities reporter. Erick came to us last year from LA Taco, where he was the managing editor of a James Beard award-winning staff.

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