Oxnard Group Trying to Make 'Oaxaquita' Epithet Illegal

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: A school district in California is in the news after it banned a derogatory term used to demean immigrants from Oaxaca, Mexico. Officials in the city of Oxnard, in the Los Angeles area have made it illegal to use the term ââ?¬Å?oaxaquitaââ?¬ . The move was prompted by a campaign organized by students and parents in the Oxnard school district. Gaspar Rivera-Salgado is a researcher at the UCLA Labor Center. He has written about indigenous Mexican migration. Explain to us how and why this term oaxaquita has been used in schools there in Oxnard.

Gaspar Rivera-Salgado: This is largely the legacy of racism and prejudice against indigenous people in Mexico that is carried over in the migratory process. We noted that a lot of the kids were using terms such as oaxaquita or indito to refer to some of these indigenous youth. This is a reminder of one of the hidden facts of Mexican immigration. Mexico is really a multicultural, a multilingual country. There are 62 indigenous groups in Mexico. The Mexican indigenous population is the largest indigenous in the entire Americas. But given the fact that Mexico is such a big country percentage-wise its not as evident as other countries such as Bolivia, Guatemala. We know for a fact within Mexico there's a very strong sense of racism and prejudice against these indigenous population. This is embedded in the culture in the everyday speak of people.

Werman: So were you finding that it was Mexicans using this derogatory term for Mexicans from Oaxaca or was it everybody?

Rivera-Salgado: First, largely used by Mexican immigrants themselves I guess is how came this but then it spread very fast to other groups. We have to remind ourselves that this is not just a bullying practice. This is not a random word that is used to make fun of some kids but actually it has very racist connotation. It really sort of reproduces these idea that the Indian is uncivilized, barbarian human being. This is the legacy of colonial Mexico. When this is an issue that has not been confronted head-on until now. This internal introspection about the prejudice and racism within the larger Mexican migrant community.

Werman: It also happens that 30% of the farm workers in California are from Oaxaca. This epithet also targets class as well as ethnicity.

Rivera-Salgado: It is true. It is not only a racist term but also it represents to you that these oaxaquitas farm workers. Some people say well, oaxaquitas are used to work hard, bent over, so this farm work is really ideal for them. So lets remind ourselves that farm work is among the toughest and worst paid jobs in the United States and that 30% is a huge percentage of this population and many times they do not have other opportunities and of course they suspect the world is not going to end these racist attitude. I think there has to be a sustained effort on the part of other Mexican immigrant institutions to really develop cultural sensitivity campaigns to realize that Mexico and Mexican immigrants come from different cultures and they speak different languages.

Werman: Gaspar, where are you from in Mexica.

Rivera-Salgado: I'm originally from Oaxaca and I came to this country about 20 years ago.

Werman: So this issue is very close to your heart I imagine?

Rivera-Salgado: It is very close to my heart and this is something that I've been working with for the past ten years.

Werman: I mean, do you see this as a teaching moment? I mean are the schools and teachers coming forward with creative ideas to teach about indigenous Mexican culture now?

Rivera-Salgado: I think that's one of the challenges in moving forward, this policy to ban these racist words now I suspect -but I think there has to be more leadership development for indigenous people to really be able to navigate their new circumstances here in the United States. There has to be curriculum to develop this cultural sensitivity among not only teachers but also among parents. So teachers need to be trained about the diversity within the Mexican community and also the Mexican community has to embrace this campaign and start talking about these issues.

Werman: Gaspar Rivera-Salgado is a researcher at the UCLA Labor Center. Gaspar, thanks very much for telling us about this campaign and about the Mexican state of Oaxaca.

Rivera-Salgado: Thank you, Marco, for having me on your program.