From Isolation to Inclusion

A conversation with Arcenio Lopez, Executive Director of the Mixteco/Indígena Community Organizing Project.

By By Leslie A. Westbrook

Photo by Michael Moore

Executive Director Arcenio Lopez and Associate Director Genevieve Flores-Haro (center) with MICOP staff at their Downtown Oxnard headquarters

MICOP, the Mixteco/Indígena Community Organizing Project, is dedicated to serving the 20,000 indigenous people from southern Mexico who live and work in Ventura County, often on local farms. Many are Mixtec and Zapotec in origin, and face linguistic and cultural differences, health concerns and other challenges. For 17 years, MICOP has tried to address the needs of this immigrant community, while helping to strengthen its ties to both the indigenous culture and the local community. Executive Director Arcenio Lopez talked to Ventana Monthly about his own path to community activism, bringing Mixtec values into the nonprofit’s work and building “a bridge from isolation to inclusion.”

How did you become a community activist?

I am from San Francisco Higos, Oaxaca. I grew up seeing my father for just two months a year — when he came home to visit on breaks from working in California’s agriculture fields. In 2003, when I was 21, I decided to travel to Oxnard to work in the fields. I became aware of the unfair treatment toward farmworkers. I was also treated differently because I am from Oaxaca. It was the first time that I heard the derogative word “Oaxaquita.” Experiencing unfair working conditions, poor treatment and discrimination gave me the courage to start doing something for my indigenous community.

How do Mixtec values merge with MICOP’s work?

At MICOP we pride ourselves on the merging of our indigenous practices and Western systems. We frequently think of our approach to nonprofit management as decolonizing the current system. We begin each meeting with conocimiento, or a check-in question. We prioritize conocimiento as a way to ground ourselves and to share space with one another before diving into a meeting. It also puts everyone on an equal level, without titles, etc. . . . We also view MICOP as a vehicle for professional development for our indigenous immigrant community. Over 80 percent of our staff are indigenous, and many are former farmworkers who are given the opportunity to grow and learn professional skills within a nonprofit setting that will help expand their future job opportunities.

Tell us about some of MICOP’s programs, and explain a little bit about the promotoras who help with outreach.

MICOP serves over 8,000 indigenous immigrants, 90 percent of whom are farmworkers, annually. Our programs include health and community access, community organizing, education, direct assistance and cultural promotion, as well as our community radio station, Radio Indigena. MICOP’s heart and soul is the promotora model that we’ve used since our founding. We reach thousands of individuals with information and workshops on topics such as early childhood education, family wellness and domestic violence. Our promotoras come directly from the community we serve, as we value life experience over formal education. Our promotoras receive in-house training and are our eyes and ears on the ground. They are often our community’s first interaction with our organization. Due to the variations of Mixteco that exist in Ventura County, we rely on our promotoras to navigate and be nimble in their linguistic skills so that our community can understand the information being shared with them.

Do you have programs that address non-English and/or non-Spanish speakers?

Plaza Comunitaria is our adult literacy program that we offer with the support of the Mexican Consulate. Community members learn to read and write in Spanish and can earn elementary or secondary school diplomas. We’re often asked why we provide this program for Spanish literacy, instead of English literacy. This seemingly simple question touches on the complexities of the intersection between lack of educational opportunities as well as the lived reality of our community members that continue to operate in predominantly Spanish-speaking places in the U.S. We’ve been interacting with the Spanish language for more than 500 years. Cultural and language barriers are even more exacerbated among indigenous immigrant communities from Mexico than among other Latino immigrants. Many service providers assume that they are meeting community needs by providing services in Spanish for the general Latino population when, in fact, many indigenous immigrants don’t speak Spanish at all. Part of our work is raising awareness about indigenous communities to these providers.

How else do you help children and families?

Our PUENTES Program hosted 35 informative and educational workshops on parenting and family wellness. Our Tequio Youth Group develops leadership skills of indigenous Mexican youth to promote indigenous pride, encourage academic achievement, and advocate against bullying. . . . The group meets weekly and has worked on issues including pesticide awareness, reproductive justice and health advocacy. MICOP also offers the Tequio Scholarship. This year we awarded more than 29 scholarships ranging from $250 to $2,500 for youth headed to universities and community colleges.

Community activism is an important component. How does MICOP teach people how to lead and organize?

Organizing indigenous community members to uphold the rights of indigenous people and farmworkers is another core tenet of MICOP’s work. We use the house-meeting model that was also used by César Chávez, where we bring our message directly to our community in their homes.

Do you have other approaches to community outreach?

We are really proud about our radio station, Radio Indigena. It took us over four years to get KIND-LP 94.1 FM started as a low-power FM station that can also be streamed online or listened to via app. This was important because we wanted to be able to reach other indigenous communities outside of the immediate Oxnard area. Our radio station is 100 percent community-run by our indigenous leaders. They have been trained to be citizen journalists and provide programming in Mixteco, Zapoteco, Purepecha, Spanish and English.

Voz de la Mujer Indigena . . . provides a unique opportunity to discuss the issues of domestic violence in an accessible, yet discreet manner for our community. Voz also uses the promotora model for community outreach, person to person, in order to build the trust needed to have difficult conversations around taboo issues like domestic violence. Voz further engages indigenous survivors of domestic violence with art workshops and a safe-space support group for our women.

What are some of the challenges serving this community?

The breadth and depth of community needs, the migratory nature of farm work and current national narratives impacting community trust. Most urgent concerns include immigration issues, public [assistance] (SNAP and medical), workplace violations and housing.

How can people help?

We predict 20 percent to 30 percent organizational growth for the next five years. Facilities continue to be one of the biggest needs for our organization. We also need more resources. While we have been growing, we also have additional goals of having full legal immigration, mental health and cultural preservation programs that all indigenous immigrants in the community can access. Of course, we welcome donations, but also would like to invite the community to spend some time with the organization, the youth that are so incredibly accomplished and engaged. You will feel inspired by the resilience of our community!

What are you most proud of?

I am thankful for partnerships we have built, and look forward to growing our network of supporters. I am proud to be part of an indigenous immigrant movement in Ventura County and ensuring that our voices are heard. We still have a long way to go to ensure equity and justice for our community, but I am proud to say that due to our efforts, we see happy and proud trilingual children speaking their indigenous language, Spanish and English. Our families have language access. We are a bridge from isolation to inclusion.

Mixteco/Indígena Community Organizing Project (MICOP)
520 West Fifth Street, Oxnard


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