CIELO was founded by two Zapotec women, Odilia Romero and Janet Martinez.
“We provide interpretation to about 500 native migrants here in the United States,” Martinez said.
They help courthouses, non-profit organizations and hospitals.
When Romero arrived in the United States from Mexico as a 10-year-old, she spoke only Zapotec, a language native to Oaxaca.
“No one knew there were languages other than Spanish in Mexico,” Romero said. “I became an interpreter of distress.”
As Romero learned English, people in the community began asking her to translate paperwork. Decades later, she is still working to meet those needs – and is now teaming up with her daughter to establish Comunidades Indígenas en Liderazgo (CIELO.)
“I’m really grateful to everyone who has trusted CIELO who has turned to us for help,” Martinez said.
CIELO trains and empowers interpreters to serve indigenous communities from across Latin America.
Their research fills gaps in government data like the U.S. Census.
Cartographer Mariah Tso at the UCLA Bunche Center and CIELO created an interactive map currently on display at LACMA. It identifies more than a dozen native languages spoken in LA County alone.
“These data are historical. It has created some changes at the city and county level,” Romero said. “Once you have the data, you exist.”
With CIELO’s help, the LA County Board of Supervisors unanimously passed a proposal aimed at helping the Department of Children and Family Services better identify and support indigenous families.
“I have personally interpreted for families that their child was taken away because of the language,” Romero said. “When a child was given the medicine in the wrong amount, they assumed it was like a danger to children, but it was a language barrier.”
There is also great effort in places like hospitals. Romero urges the institutions to ask the right questions.
“Many people assume that anyone coming from south of the imposed border, they only speak Spanish,” she said. “People do not recognize that in Mexico 364 languages are spoken out of the 68 indigenous language families,” adding that there is also a diversity of indigenous languages in countries like Guatemala and across Latin America.
CIELO is expanding its reach beyond language services. During the pandemic, they launched a solidarity support fund that provided $ 500 to $ 1,000 to people affected by the pandemic. Many of them are restaurant workers.
“Most of it was for rent. A lot of people would say, ‘Thank you so much, I paid my rent.’ But then there was still the issue of the food insecurity that many families experienced,” Martinez said.
So they took a holistic approach, became a food bank, a COVID-19 resource and vaccine center, and even opened their offices at the Mexican Consulate in Los Angeles. Through the temporary mobile site, hundreds gained access to important resources like getting an ID card every week.
CIELO also offers workshops and conferences on the revitalization of the original language.
“Many people who may not have had their parents taught them their language or share much about the cultural background – we created the original literature conference to be a bridge where we bring different generations together,” Martinez said.
These two Zapotecas have just begun.
“We serve a large population, but we know there is a larger population out there,” Romero said.
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