NEW YORK — Cornelia Aguilar needs help when she goes to the doctor or when her co-workers at a nail salon call her on the phone.
A Mexican who has lived in the U.S. for two years, she only speaks a variant of Mixteco, an indigenous language from the states of Oaxaca, Puebla and Guerrero in southern Mexico.
“It is hard sometimes,” whispers the 28-year-old, who was born in San Miguel Grande.
She is one of a sizable number of Latin American immigrants who have settled in New York in recent years and speak only indigenous languages — ancient tongues that existed long before Spanish conquistadors arrived in the Americas.
Speaking neither the primary language in their adopted homes nor the most common language of their fellow countrymen, many say not knowing Spanish is a barrier akin to not knowing English. Experts say that’s fueling an increase in the number of Spanish classes attended by indigenous Latin American immigrants.
Arnulfo Gonzalez, an older brother of Aguilar’s husband, still remembers the mockery from his Mexican co-workers when he first arrived to the United States in 1993 speaking one of the many kinds of Mixteco. He said he worked at a restaurant and did not know what broccoli was because he had never seen one in his hometown of San Marcos, in Oaxaca.
“I learned Spanish here. It was very hard, because I worked with people who spoke to me in Spanish and they insulted me,” he said.
According to the 2000 Census, the latest data available, more than 400,000 people living in the U.S. are of Hispanic American Indian origins.
In Staten Island, many Mexicans speak Chinanteco. In South Bronx and Astoria, some speak Otomi. Nahuatl can be heard all over the city. A community speaking primarily Trique lives in Albany. In Trenton, N.J., some Guatemalans speak Quiche. Peruvians who speak Quechua live in Queens and Paterson, N.J. Hondurans and Nicaraguans speaking Garifuna live in the Bronx.
There about 150,000 members of the Mixteco community in California, according to a study done by Radio Bilingue, a radio company. Latin American immigrants who speak indigenous languages can also be found in North Carolina and Texas, among other areas, experts say.
Between 2005 and 2009, the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey pegged the number of Central and South American Indian language-speakers in the U.S. at about 13,500.
But college professors, consulate workers and community activists say the numbers are much, much larger. Many of the newcomers are illegal immigrants who don’t report to the census. Others simply don’t admit they speak indigenous languages.
In New York, the Mexican consulate says there are approximately 500,000 Mexicans in the city and immediate surrounding areas. Of that number, about 35,000 speak indigenous languages, officials say. Leslie Martino Velez, a sociology Ph.D. student at City University of New York who studies the Mixteco community, says there are 25,000 to 30,000 Mixtecos alone in New York City.
The Garifuna Coalition USA says about 200,000 Garifunas from Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala and the Caribbean islands live in the city.
Spanish classes for Latin American immigrants are growing. The Unit of Volunteers for Adult Education receives learning materials from the Mexican government and has two centers in Manhattan, one in Brooklyn and one in Staten Island.
Juan Castillo, its director, is trying to open two centers more in Queens.
“The necessity is huge,” he said. “Many of the people who come to improve their Spanish don’t tell you they speak a different dialect. They just tell you, shyly, that they speak little Spanish.”
In Mexico or Honduras, many of the indigenous language speakers worked in the fields. In New York, some end up in construction sites or the kitchens of restaurants, peeling vegetables and slicing potatoes. Others work in the agriculture sector, like a Mayan community from Chiapas who works in the fields of Dunkirk, in western New York.
“They are the most marginalized,” said Joel Magallan, executive director of Asociacion Tepeyac, a Manhattan-based organization that helps immigrants. “They are the ones who have more problems with the people they work for. They are day laborers and their bosses take advantage of them because they seem mute. Unfortunately, they are who suffer the most.”
The most dramatic language barriers are found in courts and prisons.
Apolinar Flores Salgado, a 44-year-old Mexican immigrant was robbed last year in Manhattan and recalled not understanding his lawyer, who spoke to him in Spanish during court proceedings. The man who mugged him ended up in prison.
“I speak Mixteco at the kitchen of the restaurant where I work,” said Salgado, who was born in Coicoyan de las Flores, Oaxaca. “We all speak Mixteco. I manage in Spanish but I have difficulties with the language sometimes.”
Salgado, who works at Saigon Grill on the Upper West Side, attended English classes recently.
Carlos Sada, Mexican consul in New York, said communication in prisons is sometimes impossible.
“If they don’t have legal documents and they don’t speak the language, their situation is twice as critical,” he said.
Laura Avila, an interpreter at Queens Supreme Court, said the challenge is acute when defendants don’t understand the charges against them.
“Court officers see their last names and assume they speak Spanish,” Avila said. “Also, these people are shy and they don’t say they don’t understand. We face more responsibility because we need to figure out if the defendant is understanding what’s going on.”
Laura Secundino grew up speaking Tlapaneco at home, in the Mexican state of Guerrero. The 24-year-old said she mostly learned Spanish here while delivering food in a restaurant. The Mexican consulate has called her three times to ask her to help immigrants in court who don’t speak Spanish.
When Secundino goes to her gynecologist or pediatrician at the Metropolitan Hospital Center in Manhattan, she hears other mothers speaking Nahuatl.
“The doctor does not understand them,” she said. “I speak a little Nahuatl, so I help when I can.”