April 5, 2002

The Maya Are Coming

By Milan Gagnon

Centuries ago, the Maya, one of the worlds’ most advanced civilizations and architects of some of the hemisphere’s most magnificent cities, abandoned their urban lives and took refuge in the jungles and forests of Mexico and Central America. Today many Maya are returning to city life far from their historic homes, putting down roots from San Francisco to Toronto.

Latin America’s indigenous people are arriving not only in U.S. farm fields, where tens of thousands already work as migrant laborers, but in cities where they are a new force in the urban service industry — especially janitorial and restaurant work, and housecleaning. Few new arrivals speak English, and many do not even speak Spanish, but rather one of more than two dozen Maya tongues. Yucatecos, Chiapa-necos, Guatemaltecos and others have left suffering economies behind. Where once rural Maya looking for work might have gone first to their own national big cities, increasingly they are coming directly to the United States, crossing borders legally or not. Soon, they send back for brothers and other villagers.

In l990, for the first time, “Latin American Indian” was a box to check on the U.S. Census, alongside “Caucasian,” “Hispanic,” “African American,” Native American” and others. Few checked it then — indeed it is doubtful the forms reached many Maya — and 2000 census numbers are not yet available. But experts estimate that since the 1990s, some 35,000 to 40,000 Latin American Indians — mostly Maya — come to the United States annually. Many now are choosing city work over agriculture.

Luis Cham Yah, a 37-year-old cook at a San Francisco restaurant, spoke of his hometown of Oxkutzcab in the Mexican state of Yucatan. “Almost half the men” are gone from that town of 45,000, he said. Many can be found in California cities such as San Jose and Oakland, but communities also exist in farther-flung places with colder climates, like Portland, Ore., New York, even Toronto.

Cham’s co-worker Rosendo, 25, agreed that “at home we are poorer.” Illiteracy can be a huge problem for indigenous newcomers, who often had no chance to attend school at home. Rosendo never learned to read or write, and could not spell his surname. Cham learned to read at 20, but still can’t write, although he has picked up some English in eight years here.

In many big U.S. cities an immigrant might get by with Spanish fluency, but Maya may speak it poorly or not at all. Even though Spanish is the official language of their home countries, they speak their own ancient languages in home villages. It is not uncommon for a Maya immigrant to learn Spanish in the United States, at least enough to get a job done or make a successful trip to the supermarket.

Across the Golden Gate Bridge in San Rafael, David Escobar runs public service announcements for the Maya community on a weekly half-hour radio program, “La Voz de los Maya” (“The Voice of the Maya”), in Yucatec Maya and Spanish.

Recently, announcements have advertised Spanish literacy programs. The goal is to get the Maya to read and write, using the Spanish with which many are more familiar, and then carry the skill over to classes in English as a Second Language, “so they go from an Indian language to a European language to another European language,” Escobar said.

Another announcement focused on domestic violence, including consequences for abusers and services for the abused. An abused Maya woman hearing the radio spots, Escobar noted, would nevertheless still require someone to translate for her into Spanish or English when she sought help.

Escobar, whose family has Lenca indigenous roots in El Salvador, says his new program is meant to serve thousands of local Maya, and to tell the rest of the community, “Look, we’re here.” Part of their invisibility, despite their numbers, might be chalked up to the habit of keeping a low profile at home, he said, where being Indian meant being a second-class citizen. It is a deep-rooted sentiment — “not classism, but racism” — stemming from Latin America’s colonization by white Europeans, whose descendants often still run the political and economic life in countries of the Americas.

Tomas Bermejo Escobedo is a success story among Maya immigrants. He rose from picking row crops — tomatoes — in Yuba City in the l960s, to tree crops — oranges in Santa Ana — to dishwashing, and finally became the owner of a popular San Francisco restaurant, Tommy’s. He said he “helps out” new Maya arrivals looking for jobs and other Maya.

Bermejo returns frequently to visit his home village in Mexico’s Yucatan. His life here is a far cry from his early village days, Bermejo said, when he sold water from a horse-drawn carriage at a penny a bucket. But the biggest change he has witnessed in his years of coming and going is that the village is empty of men, gone to find work. “Everybody came here,” he said.

Gagnon (mkg477@yahoo.com) is a journalism student at San Francisco State University.

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