Let's talk Latin America

How Covid-19 took its toll on Indigenous Mexicans in the US

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Mexicans in the United States have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic. Last month, the remains of several hundred Mexicans were repatriated to their home country. Rafael Flores Zafra writes about Mixtecs, an indigenous peoples of southern Mexico. 


On 11 July, a repatriation flight from New York to Mexico transported the remains of 200 Mexican migrants who had died of COVID-19 in the US. When I spoke to my mother in Mexico City a few days ago, she told me that she recognised some of the names of the deceased people from her hometown in Puebla, in the Mixteca region of Mexico.

The Mixteca region is little-known in Mexico, even to other Mexicans. It covers the territories of three Mexican states: Oaxaca, Guerrero and Puebla. Mixtec is actually an Aztec word. The Mixtec people, in their own language, referred to themselves as the Ñuudzahui  or “Nuu Savi”, meaning “People of the Rain” in the Mixtec language. In Puebla, the state where I’m originally from, some 45 of the state’s 217 municipalities are Mixtec. Of these, the people of only five municipalities speak the Mixtec language. My mother’s hometown of Chinantla, while Mixtec, is not among those five.

Chinantla, like many parts of Mexico, has a long history of migration. People from the Mixteca region have established themselves in New York City since the 1940s, thanks to support networks that include their families. Unlike my own relatives in Chinantla, Puebla, the Mixtecs from Guerrero speak Mixtec as their first language: the language barrier and immigration status made them particularly vulnerable during the COVID-19 pandemic in New York.

The Mixtec people that I am more closely related to are my relatives from Chinantla, Puebla, even though we do not identify as indigenous because of a long history of assimilation dating back to the colonial era, which has indeed erased all traces of the Mixtec language. We build our identities as Mixtecos on three important pillars: the annual patron saint festivities, our direct or indirect links with the experience of migration, and on family. This is also the case with the neighbouring towns of Tehuitzingo, Acatlán de Osorio (in Oaxaca), and Piaxtla, all located in the Mixteca region of Oaxaca. My description, however, does not attempt to encompass all Mixtec communities in Mexico.

As of July 2020, more than a thousand deaths of Mexican nationals have been recorded in the United States. These were reported in international newspapers including El País and The New York Times which documented the experiences of immigrants from the Mixteca region who have died from the virus.

Back in Britain, I’ve spent nearly five months in some sort of lockdown after a long winter. From the screen of my phone, I saw members of my family enjoying the watermelon and pitaya season in May as I scrolled through my feeds on Facebook and Instagram. In early March 2020, I was the first of my family to experience the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic in London, as it moved east, first hitting New York City and now Mexico, the epicentre of COVID-19 along with Brazil in Latin America.


Photo Credits: Rafael Flores Zafra