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Rodrigo Perea, 17, was ridiculed by classmates for being an indigenous Mexican. He now leads Tequio, a group whose members launched a successful anti-discrimination campaign last year.Carlos Puma/The Center for Investigative Reporting

OXNARD, Calif. – Rodrigo Perea, an indigenous Mexican teenager, vividly recalls crossing the border as a boy – the bogus papers with a girl’s name, the dress he wore to hide his gender, the sleeping pill from the smuggler, waking up alone in a dark room.

For Perea, whose parents speak Mixtec, an ancient language from Oaxaca, the ability to straddle disparate worlds long has been a matter of survival.

“I didn’t want trouble,” he said of grade-school classmates in California who derogatorily called him “indito” and “Oaxaquita” because of his short frame and dark skin. “I just had to suck it up and cry.”

Today, at 17, Perea is an energetic leader of Tequio, a group of indigenous Mixtec teens who launched a successful anti-discrimination campaign last year. Their initiative, called No me llames Oaxaquita – “Don’t call me little Oaxacan” – resulted in a resolution by three local school districts prohibiting the terms “Oaxaquita” and “indito” from being used on school grounds. (A similar resolution modeled on Tequio’s recently was adopted by the California Strawberry Commission.)

The group calls itself Tequio after the community service expected in Oaxacan villages. Many are the sons and daughters of farmworkers, their parents isolated by language and considerably poorer and less educated than their mestizo counterparts. Together, these youngsters are navigating rocky cultural shoals among indigenous traditions, Mexican mestizos and the challenges of being a teen in the U.S.

California’s indigenous Mexican population is estimated at roughly 165,000 and growing (some scholars have dubbed the migration phenomenon as “Oaxacalifornia”). The fertile Central Coast between Oxnard and Watsonville is home to some 20,000 indigenous Mexicans, many of whom speak Mixtec, Zapotec or Triqui with a smattering of Spanish. Their work is among the most backbreaking, stressful and least remunerative jobs in agriculture. It is largely Mixtecs who pick the strawberries and raspberries of summer pies.

Here in Oxnard, where the young Cesar Chavez lived and began organizing labor, indigenous farmworkers earn minimum wage or less. Precarious finances and linguistic separation make indigenous field laborers, many of whom lack authorization to live and work in the U.S., more vulnerable to fraud, housing discrimination and sexual abuse, said Jeff Ponting, a staff attorney with the California Rural Legal Assistance Indigenous Program.

Spanish-speaking contractors are in the position of hiring, firing and sometimes harassing these newcomers, who are ever-fearful of deportation or termination.

“They are the exploited of the exploited,” Ponting said.

Discrimination runs deep: In Mexico, attempts to eradicate pre-Columbian languages, cultures and religious beliefs date back centuries; what followed was “a caste system silently engraved in society,” in the words of Gabriel Martinez, a Zapotec-language instructor at San Diego State University.

Oscar Hernandez, principal of Hueneme High School, where lunch-hour Tequio meetings are held over pizza, compares attitudes to those in the South before the civil rights movement. “It’s like 50 years ago here, but without the (segregation) signs,” he said.

“If your own society says you’re inferior, you fulfill a prophecy,” he added. “So in the classroom, you’re silent.”

Until recently, many indigenous students were reluctant to identify themselves, said Denis O’Leary, a sixth-grade teacher and a trustee of the Oxnard school board, which oversees 16,500 predominantly Latino students in 21 schools serving kindergarten through eighth grade. Teachers would be told that a new arrival – contemptuously called “cheddars” by classmates – was Spanish-speaking, only to realize that the student spoke Mixtec, he said. There were reports of teachers punishing students for speaking indigenous languages, which are historically unwritten.

Because of discrimination, many parents of young Oaxaqueños adopted “silence as a strategy” and elected not to pass their language on to their children, according to a recent report on Oaxacan youth by the University of California’s Center for Collaborative Research for an Equitable California.

But O’Leary has noticed a shift since the No me llames Oaxqauita campaign began. Trilingual indigenous students “started speaking Mixteco to each other,” he said. That in turn piqued curiosity. “Then it became, ‘How do you say hello in Mixteco?’ ”

From the classroom to the fields

Rodrigo Perea’s double life is revealed in his sneakers, the white soles permanently streaked with berry juice.

As a ninth-grader, Perea left school for a year for agricultural work, carrying stacks of heavy, unwieldy steel tubes for hoop houses or tunnels – long caterpillar-like berry greenhouses that are a ubiquitous presence on the Oxnard plain. His parents were in Mexico caring for an ailing relative.

“Nobody was going to buy me clothes,” Perea recalls. Finding work was not difficult, he adds: “Everyone here knows Oaxacans will work their booty off for money.”

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Alondra Mendoza, 16, lives in a two-room house set into dirt in El Rio, a predominantly Latino neighborhood. She has spoken to the school board as part of Tequio’s No me llames Oaxqauita campaign.Carlos Puma/The Center for Investigative Reporting

Like many of his friends, Perea – who is trilingual – is torn between family demands and his desire to achieve. His family is $70,000 to $80,000 in debt, he said, most of it for a house in Oaxaca, the first in the village with plumbing. He spends vacations in the tunnels, his hands bleeding from cutting roots.

Now a senior, he wants to attend community college and transfer to a major university. His father is adamantly opposed, because he wants him to work and earn money. His 16-year-old sister, Avela, recently moved from Oaxaca to work in the fields. (The enforcement of state and federal child labor laws in agricultural settings is “sporadic at best,” Ponting said.)

So Perea wrestles with the dilemma within himself. “Do I go to college or help my parents?” he wonders out loud. “That’s really hard.”

At a Tequio meeting last spring, Maria, who asked that her last name not be used because she is living in the U.S. illegally, got teary as she recalled the day she brought home a college application – only to have her mother rip it up.

“Because she didn’t finish school, my mom says, ‘Why should you?’ ” she explained.

Generational divides between illiterate parents and their more educated children can affect academic performance, according to a 2009 study of Mixtec youth by UC San Diego’s Mexican Migration Field Research Program. The study found that documentation status was a key predictor for completing high school. Nearly 77 percent of documented youth finished, compared with 31.3 percent of undocumented Mixtec youth.

Many parent-teacher conferences lack interpreters, so students wind up translating.

“They tell their parents an F means ‘fabulous,’ ” said Elvia Vasquez, a promotora, or health care promoter, and mother of three.

Nevertheless, students like Alondra Mendoza, 16, who lives in a tiny two-room house set into dirt in El Rio, a predominantly Latino neighborhood, excel despite the odds. She, too, was ridiculed for being Mixtec, the pain still palpable in the tremble of her voice.

Mendoza was 12 when she crossed the border, old enough to remember the desert cold. The family lived in a garage for a while, where Mendoza did her homework under a guava tree.

Her parents, Gilberto and Margarita, work in the fields and encourage their daughter as best they can. Tequio has further bolstered her resolve. “I was very nervous about talking,” she said. Today, she speaks eloquently to the school board as part of the No me llames Oaxqauita campaign.

Cultural barriers

At the height of picking season, strawberry workers like the Mendozas make $1.70 per flat – or eight clamshells – running a relay race to the punchadora, who tallies boxes and earnings. Agriculture permeates daily life here – the very air is infused with the scents of strawberries and diesel fuel.

In the Skagit Valley of Washington in July, about 200 indigenous pickers, mostly Triqui or Mixtec, twice went on strike against a berry grower, Sakuma Brothers Farms. A major issue was a set piece rate of 30 cents a pound, making eking out minimum wage difficult, especially for those struggling to pay for child care. The workers also were upset about disrespectful language and treatment by their supervisors and the smaller paychecks compared with more highly paid guest workers. The dispute remains unresolved, with berry pickers now calling for a consumer boycott of Sakuma Brothers Farms.

In California, indigenous migrants speak 23 languages from 13 Mexican states, according to a comprehensive 2010 Indigenous Farmworker Study. The chasm between their collective experience and the U.S. one can seem impassable, especially for those from isolated mountain villages.

“Some clients don’t know how old they are,” said Sabina Cruz, one of two Mixtec interpreters at the Las Islas Family Medical Group, which serves a largely poor Latino population of roughly 60,000. “Some don’t even know their full names.”

Tequio grew out of the Mixteco/Indigena Community Organizing Project, a never-a-dull-moment Ventura County nonprofit that has become a hub of community life. The group was founded by Sandra Young, a family nurse practitioner and community activist who pads around the clinic in hoop earrings, neon sneakers and a stethoscope.

More than a decade ago, Young began noticing a cultural dissonance among new arrivals who spoke neither Spanish nor English. There were no Mixtec interpreters – a language that has no words for asthma, tuberculosis, diabetes and other medical conditions. Consent forms for cesarean sections would be signed unknowingly, she said, and a lack of communication in emergencies resulted in the death of at least one child whose airway was blocked. Traditional childbirth practices such as sweat baths were little understood, causing families to avoid care.

Young’s response was the Mixteco project, which sponsors well baby classes, counseling for victims of domestic violence and help for families seeking food stamps or social services. In an evening adult literacy class, a father who never learned to read or write struggles to learn English so he can help his daughter with her homework.

Most significantly, the group has trained some 38 interpreters – mostly Mixtec-Spanish-English but also Zapotec-Spanish-English – who fan out across Ventura County to work in schools, courtrooms, hospitals and clinics.

Young learned in her health care job that trust is cumulative. Half her patients are Mixtec, and she does not require them to undress and wear a paper gown for their first visit. “Life is not going to end if you do a Pap smear a month later,” she said.

Tequio, which now has a college scholarship fund, has been joined by similar high school efforts in Fresno, Santa Maria, Watsonville and Madera.

Elizabeth Gonzales, who is completing her doctorate at UC Santa Cruz in indigenous youth, considers the movement transformative.

“We used to speak only when asked,” she said. “Now in public, our voices have finally been heard.”

The movement was given a considerable boost last month when the Binational Front of Indigenous Organizations, an advocacy group, opened a branch in Oxnard. The group has started offering microloans of $500 to indigenous families, including farmworkers and young people needing financial assistance to apply for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which gives a reprieve from deportation to people who were brought to the U.S. as children without legal status.

Odilia Romero, an adviser for the Binational Front who was born in a Zapotec village, said the emotional reverberations of standing in front of a classroom and being ridiculed by classmates never truly goes away.

“In the past, we faced this individually,” she said. “But we are all actors contributing to the economic, cultural and intellectual life of the society.”

This story was edited by Robert Salladay and copy edited by Nikki Frick and Christine Lee.

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Patricia Leigh Brown is a long-time writer for The New York Times and a contributor to California Watch. For 13 years she was a staff feature writer in New York, and since 2000 has been a contributor based in the San Francisco Bureau. She began her newspaper career as a staff writer for The Philadelphia Inquirer. In 2009-10, she was a Loeb Fellow at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. Her work has been published in numerous book collections as well as many national magazines. Brown has been a visiting lecturer at the UC Berkeley School of Journalism, and is the Barach Teaching Fellow in Non-Fiction at the forthcoming Wesleyan University Writers Conference. She grew up in Highland Park, Ill.