Fighting for Justice for the Indigenous Community

Published in California Rural Legal Assistance (CRLA) publication In the News

Irma Luna knows the power of language. As a Community Worker in CRLA’s Fresno office, she can speak with her clients—most of them farmworkers from Mexico—in their native tongue. Their shared language is not Spanish, but Mixteco Bajo.

“When people hear me speaking their language and know I’m from their own community, I can see a trust there,” she said. “It can take a bit more effort to reach into a community of people who are new arrivals, and if they know I’m from their own community, it makes it a little easier.”

Irma was born in Oaxaca, a region of Mexico with 16 different indigenous languages. When she came to the United States at 10 years old in 1983, she learned both English and Spanish in school. “Because we’re from Mexico, it’s assumed most of the time that we speak Spanish,” she said. “Often people insist that people who speak Mixteco Bajo don’t need an interpreter and that they of course they understand Spanish. But Spanish is not their language at all.”

The language barrier can make members of the immigrant Mixteco community especially vulnerable to exploitation. “They experience a lot of abuse and isolation and live under the worst conditions,” Irma said. Most of her clients are farmworkers who have come to CRLAbecause they haven’t received their full wages, have received a verbal notice of eviction, need translation or interpretation services, or require assistance with administrative hearings.

Irma began working with CRLA in 1998, attracted by a chance to continue her career in social justice. She was already experienced in conducting educational outreach to clients, and continues to lead community meetings about issues such as labor rights that are of importance to farmworkers. “The difference was that at CRLAI would be working with attorneys as well,” she said. “Educating people about their rights is really important, but having an attorney who can provide legal remedies means you can really better the situations of the clients. And because CRLA is a nonprofit, all our services are free of charge.”

As the first line of support for her clients, Irma can often solve problems herself with a phone call to an employer who isn’t paying on time or a landlord who is trying to unlawfully evict a tenant. But for those situations which require an attorney, she has seen gratifying results.

Recently CRLA attorneys worked on a case involving an unlawful eviction from a dwelling that was barely habitable to begin with. The housing had originally been a labor camp and a new owner had taken possession. The bathrooms were a distance from the dwelling, there was no heat, the kitchen consisted of a gas grill on a table, and the building flooded in the winter. When the family asked the landlord for a cooling system in the summer, they were told they complained too much and were given a three-day verbal notice to vacate the premises.

“Our attorneys wrote a letter stating that the landlord didn’t have permission to run a labor camp and that the site was not habitable,” said Irma. “By the end of the week, they had negotiated for him to return all the rent the family had paid—which was $2500—as well as their deposit.” The family used the money to move into better housing.

“The injustice that I see can really make me angry,” Irma said. “I hear people’s stories and say to myself ‘I’ve got to get back to the office right away to work on this.’ In one case, a family had been working for a whole season and were not going to be paid until the crop was finished, and then they didn’t get paid. I can’t even imagine what it must be like. I get so happy when we can call the family and tell them that we’ve been successful and their check is waiting in our office.”

The work of Irma and her colleagues helps more than just individuals. “The indigenous community I work with is a very united community,” she said. “It’s not just one individual benefiting from the service or information I’m giving. That little community as a whole has learned something that the migrant workers will take with them to other areas or states as they follow the crops. I know it will be useful to them wherever they go.”

Copyright © E.G. Communications, Inc. 2014