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New Map Shows The Diversity Of Indigenous Languages Spoken Across Los Angeles

Los Angeles may be located on unceded Tonvga lands but the city is home to dozens of other Indigenous languages with origins from across Mexico and Latin America. All too often Indigeneity is erased in the im/migrant narrative of the United States, including in Los Angeles. Thanks to a recent partnership between UCLA and CIELO, a local organization whose Spanish acronym stands for Indigenous Communities in Leadership, we now have clearer data on just which native languages are spoken across Southern California.

From Oaxacan Zapotec to Guatemalan Quiché, native languages are widely spoken across Los Angeles.

Thanks to a biased census and the erasure of Indigenous cultures, Indigenous language-speakers have long been undercounted and underrepresented. So often Indigenous communities get grouped in with Latino-Hispanics when it comes to census data and there is rarely an option aside from English or Spanish on most community surveys.

“We do exist,” said Odilia Romero, co-founder of CIELO, who came to L.A. at age 10 from the Oaxacan town of San Bartolomé Zoogocho. “There’s an assumption that everyone south of the border is Latinx and they speak Spanish, and that is not true.”

About 20% of Mexico’s population considers itself Indigenous; in Guatemala, more than 40% of residents identify as Maya. The languages they speak can be as different from Spanish as Chinese is from English, and can contain dozens of variants. There are 32 Mayan languages, for example, according to Danny Law, a linguist at the University of Texas at Austin.

According to recent data, most Central American Indigenous groups are severely underrepresented in the U.S.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, approximately 15,000 – 19,000 indigenous speakers from Latin American reside in the United States. Although “American Indian or Alaska Native” is included as a racial group in census surveys and is intended for use by Central and South American Indigenous groups, research shows that Indigenous participants from Central and South America associated the phrase with tribal enrollment exclusive to Indigenous groups in the U.S.

As a result, many identified simply as Hispanic which leads to a substantial underreporting of Indigenous Latino populations in the United States. With this challenge in mind, language has served as a proxy for Indigenous migrant presence from Mexico and Latin America in the United States.

From Long Beach to the San Fernando Valley, there are thousands of households that speak a native language.

Zapotec, Chinantec, K’iche’, Mixe and Q’anjob’al are among the most common of more than a dozen languages represented, said Mariah Tso, a Navajo UCLA cartographer who worked on the CIELO project.

Most Zapotec speakers were concentrated in the Pico-Union and Koreatown areas, west of Downtown Los Angeles. While most Mayan K’iche’ (which is originally from Guatemala) speakers are located in the Westlake area. Of those surveyed, 44% said they worked in the restaurant industry, followed by 29% in the cleaning sector and 11% in clothing factories.

Raúl Hinojosa-Ojeda, a professor at UCLA’s Department of Chicana and Chicano Studies, has estimated as many as 200,000 Zapotecs live in L.A. County based on interviews with hometown associations and their corresponding villages in Oaxaca, as well as consular data on where migrants who have left Mexico live.

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