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UN Special Series: Borderlands

(Editor's Note: At the second annual Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, held in May, participants spoke with ICT about the relationship between language and health in Native communities. This multi-part series is a forum of their perspectives, reaching from the Americas to Australia.)

Two months ago, a Native elder quietly died of cancer at a hospital in Ensenada, Mexico. Paulina Vega Poblano was a traditional singer who taught young people the songs of the Kumiai ancestors. Her community, in northern Baja Calif., went into mourning with news of her death. Now that Paulina was gone, they feared, the songs might disappear with her.

It didn't have to happen that way. "When she first sought help," says Patricia Rivera Reyes, a professional colleague, "[the cancer] wasn't terminal at all, there was still time to help her." But Paulina hardly spoke Spanish. Living in a remote community, she couldn't afford regular visits to a doctor. A ride to the hospital, a paved road, an early X-ray - all can mean the difference between life and death in Baja.

Rivera is president of the Consultor?a of Native Pueblos in Northern Mexico, based in Tijuana, Baja Calif. A non-profit founded in 2001, the Consultor?a lobbies for the education, health services, and human rights of Baja's native people and their relatives across the border in the United States.

Born and raised in Sonora state, Rivera doesn't identify herself as Native. But "Indianness" is never far from the surface in Mexico. Her father's parents were Huichol Indians from Nayarit, she says proudly in her native Spanish. Not everyone is so forthcoming about their roots in a country where nine out of 10 people are granted to have indigenous blood, but only 10 percent are officially counted as "Indian."

The non-profit is designing a clinic, near Ensenada, that will combine traditional and modern healing methods. Still in its early planning stages, the clinic will be built by Native people and run by women familiar with medicinal herbs and plants. The clinic will become independent of oversight by the Consultor?a, says Rivera, because the locals intend to "develop their own dynamic to find solutions to their own problems."

The base constituency of the Consultor?a consists of five groups: Pai-Pai, Kumiai, Cucap?, Kiliwa, and Cochimi. While the Spanish fathers once estimated the peninsula's Indian population at over 50,000, today the Native pueblos number barely 1,200, clustered in small rural communities on a shrinking land base, most of them far from urban social services.

Baja Natives typically live in communities without sewers, running water, or electricity. Overcrowding is endemic. Women lack access to family planning. People die of diseases that, in urban areas, have been controlled for decades. Hepatitis and tuberculosis have been treated by state authorities, says Rivera, but only after local clinics have unaccountably failed to act.

Now the desert land of the Baja pueblos is under siege. Just across the border from wealthy San Diego County, northern Baja has become a magnet for poor Mexican migrants from the south, many of them Indian. An enormous internal migration is shaking Mexico, fueled by falling crop prices, lack of arable land, and staggering unemployment, an exodus that recalls America's darkest days in the Great Depression.

The borderlands are a rest-stop. Truckloads of Mixtec, Zapotec, and Maya Indians roll in to toil in the Baja fields for $5 a day. There they wait to sneak over the heavily guarded border and earn a season or two of American wages - if they're lucky. Six of every 1,000 who attempt the crossing will die - of fatigue, hypothermia, dehydration, suffocation. Hundreds more will be detained and deported.

Many Native migrants, especially women, don't speak Spanish. Displaced and frightened, explains Rivera, they are ripe for discrimination. It makes little difference in their eyes whether the men wearing badges, uniforms, and guns speak English or Spanish. For an Indio from Chiapas, the border can be a foreign place no matter which side he is on.

Migrant communities have different problems than do the pueblos. The farmers use "fungicides and chemicals for the crops," says Rivera. "The planes come in and spray while the men and women are working in the fields. They develop skin problems, eye infections, strong headaches. They try home remedies on their ailments, but they just aren't enough."

Most at risk are children. Poor nutrition inhibits physical and mental development. Youngsters play in areas where toxic agri-chemicals have pooled. Migrant children, at work in the fields, are denied schooling. Without Spanish, their aches and pains are hard to describe to doctors who, in turn, give diagnoses that are incomprehensible.

The Consultor?a offers services to the newcomers, many of them only passing residents, on principle. "Even having abandoned their place of origin," Rivera explains, "they're still Natives."

But migrant and local Indians don't get along. The people from the south are "fighters," says Rivera - aggressive, savvy, and politically organized. As many as 50,000 of them now reside in Baja, dwarfing numbers in the Native pueblos. The government throws what social programs it has to the migrants, she explains - what happens to be a large bloc of potential voters. Rivera says she's tried to bring together the two sides, but with little success.

Field workers want better health services and jobs. But pueblos have an ancient legacy to protect. The Cochimi have lost traditional territory to a local winery while the government looked the other way. The Pai-Pai of Jamau had 50,000 acres stripped by presidential decree in 1969. When they refused to give up the land in 1982, their houses were burned and their cemetery bulldozed.

The new regime of President Vicente Fox promises little better. The government is still trying to sell Indian land, says Rivera. "Things are getting worse every day."

The international line looms large in everyone's thinking. While poor migrants cross over the border looking for work, Baja natives often go in search of family. The Kumiai are related to the Kumiyaay of southern California. The Pai-Pai are cousins of Pai people like the Havasupai and Hualapai in Arizona. They speak Yuman languages on either side, tongues now endangered in northern Mexico.

Their proximity recalls a time before desert borders were militarized. Separated millennia ago by migrations, border tribes have had their movements severely curtailed in the past 50 years. What once were easy day-trips have turned into awkward excursions complicated by passports, vehicle searches, and interrogations.

South of the border, at least, some things may not have changed so very much. The hunter-gatherers who first met the Spanish 500 years ago in lower California have become today, the fruit pickers of modern Baja - restless, poorly paid, and homeless by almost any standard. The Pai-Pai, Kumiai, and other pueblos, meanwhile, struggle to hold on to a piece of their ancient birthright - including their songs.

"The clamor of all Native peoples in all parts of the world," says Rivera, "is about the failure [of others] to listen." It has always been hard to remind Mexicans that Indians exist in the north. But shrinking numbers in the pueblos are reason for concern. "We should pay more attention to them," urges Rivera, as groups of Mixtecs and Mayas crowd the border. In the shadow of a major Indian exodus, she cautions, the people of the pueblos are "disappearing."