For the past two decades, cousins Sergio García Campos and Juan Martínez García called New York City home.
Hailing from Lomazoyatl, a town of fewer than 1,000 people deep in the mountains of the state of Guerrero, Mexico, they had come to the U.S. to earn money to send back to their families at home, with the hopes of eventually returning.
Martínez García, 42, worked as a bicycle delivery man for a Thai restaurant, and García Campos, 44, worked at a florist shop.
When COVID-19 started to spread like wildfire through NYC, García Campos said to his cousin, "I think we need to stop working, because it is too high of a risk."
His worries proved prescient. On April 6, staff at Lincoln Hospital in the Bronx, one of the city's busiest medical facilities, called García Campos to tell him his cousin had died of COVID-19 complications.
Human rights organizations who work with indigenous immigrants worry that language and cultural barriers make it harder for them to stay safe against the pandemic.
Martínez García is one of at least 28 indigenous immigrants from the mountain region of Guerrero who has died from the pandemic in New York City, according to the Mexican Human Rights organization, Tlachinollan.
Marco Castillo, from the Transnational Villages Network, estimates there are about 200,000 New Yorkers who come from these indigenous areas.
Language barriers—and discrimination
While Spanish is common in the city, the cousins' native language is Tu'un Savi, or Mixtec, part of a group of Mesoamerican languages whose origins go back 10,000 years. García Campos said he didn't understand the documents he received from the hospital, which were in English.
García Campos told NBC News that the worst discrimination he and his cousin had faced was from fellow Mexicans who shut them out from advancing beyond poorly paid jobs such as restaurant dishwashers, mainly because of language barriers.
"We don't grow up speaking Spanish and only speak Spanish that we learn on the street, which makes it hard to understand many things," García Campos said.
Odilia Romero, a Zapotec medical interpreter in Los Angeles and founder of the Binational Front of Indigenous Organizations, FIOB, says a majority of immigrants avoid medical care as they fear that services will be denied and that they will acquire debt they can't afford. Others worry that seeking help may expose them to immigration authorities; most are undocumented and worry about being deported.
In addition, Romero said hospitals rarely have interpreters for the various native languages that indigenous migrants speak. FIOB normally helps advocates for these native speakers requesting in-person interpretation or via telephone, but this has been impossible during the COVID-19 crisis.
"Not allowing people to communicate in their native language is almost a death sentence," said Romero.
Romero was hoping that the 2020 census would help indigenous people be counted, showing their growth and allowing them to advocate for more indigenous interpreters, but she's afraid the pandemic will thwart efforts to get an adequate count.
FIOB, along with CIELO (Comunidades Indigenas en Liderazgo), produced a series of videos in indigenous languages that are spoken in the U.S., Mexico and Guatemala to help educate people about the threat of COVID-19 and how to prevent the virus' spread. The videos have circulated via social networks and person-to-person via Whatsapp.
Metlatónoc, where the cousins hail from, is one of the poorest municipalities in all of Mexico. Many communities don't have high schools or phone service and few crops grow there, due to the high altitude. Families eke out a living growing corn and beans. Many travel for seasonal migrant work in the agricultural fields of northern Mexico.
This region is also one of the principal poppy producing areas in the world, with farmers sapping the flowers for opium paste that is trafficked to the U.S. for heroin production. When fentanyl, produced largely in Wuhan, China, started replacing natural opium in heroin in 2018, prices plummeted for Guerrero's poppy farmers.
Job losses in U.S. have ripple effects back home
With few opportunities to acquire land and houses, young men from the mountains started to migrate to New York City in the 1980s. New York City's influence on the region is evident in banners hung from palm trees in rural communities with the list of local products that can be sent to New York as well as the omnipresence of New York-style pizza shops in the region.
Paulino Rodriguez, the migrant advocate at Tlachinollan, said the majority of migrants send $300 to $500 a month or an estimated one third of their salary. Their families use this money for basic living costs, food, medicine, school uniforms and also to buy plots of land and build homes.
When the pandemic hit, many of the immigrants in New York City lost their jobs in the service industry and stopped sending the remittances their families rely on home. Some families in Guerrero even started sending the money back to their loved ones in the U.S.
As the pandemic's effects claim lives across Mexico, rural indigenous communities are blocking the passage of anyone from outside the region, a measure that helps detain the spread of the virus. The 400,000 people that live in these communities do not have access to health services, and a hospital with intensive care beds with ventilators is a more than 10-hour ride away.
It has, however, severely affected their already fragile economy.
Families of COVID-19 victims have turned to crowdfunding sites to help pay for the thousands of dollars in funeral and cremation costs. García Campos has been navigating bureaucracy with the Mexican embassy and migrant services in Guerrero who have offered to help pay for his cousin's cremation and he is waiting to receive the ashes. He has also made the commitment to finance his niece's college education in Mexico, now that his cousin is not able to.
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The cultural activist organization Ti Toro Miko helped arrange a fundraiser for Claudio Ortega Maldonado, 22, a migrant from Metlatónoc who died in a Brooklyn hospital. On their Facebook site, the parents are requesting help in getting their son's ashes sent home.
Sael Quizet Rivero, 28, who is also from Metlatónoc, was frustrated to see that his home community maintained the same level of poverty and marginalization as when he left. He founded Ti Toro Miko to help other immigrants overcome discrimination and be proud of their indigenous roots while supporting educational and development projects back home. Ti Toro Miko sells ecological bags and embroidered blouses from a communally run sewing shop in New York City, and it also sells crafts from Guerrero.
"When the virus hit, everyone was scared and didn't want to meet," said Quizet Rivero in an interview with NBC News. They then decided to take action, using the materials used to create eco-friendly bags to make protective masks, which they sell to help members who have lost their jobs. The group has also donated over 1,500 masks to health care workers and senior citizens in the Sunset Park section of Brooklyn.
As the death toll still continues to rise in New York City, Quizet Rivero says they are all trying to take care of themselves as best as they can as "their greatest fear is to end up in a mass grave in New York City, far from home."