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Difference Maker

Juan Castillo teaches immigrants who speak obscure languages how to make it in New York.

Some immigrants from Mexico don't speak Spanish or English but native languages. Juan Castillo helps them learn.

By Amy Lieberman/ Contributor / November 21, 2011

Juan Castillo runs language classes for adult immigrants in New York from a church in lower Manhattan. They can learn both English and Spanish.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff

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New York

All of Juan Castillo's adult students have had little or no formal education. But that isn't always the main impediment to them tackling their classes, taught in Spanish or English.

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It's the fact that they don't speak either of these languages.

Many of Mr. Castillo's approximately 400-plus students do come from Latin AmericaMexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Ecuador. But they are from indigenous communities where idiomas de la tierra, local native languages, are spoken.

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Ethnic communities like the Mixtecos, from southwestern Mexico, often live isolated lives in New York. Those who cannot speak Spanish avoid shopping trips or other ventures around the city, and routinely refuse invitations from Hispanic social organizations to attend meetings.

"It's hard to approach them and difficult, even for us, to get into these communities," says Gabriel Rincon, president of the Mixteca organization, which provides health and educational services to Hispanic immigrants in Brooklyn. "It's a major problem.... There's an element of fear that exists."

At El Centro del Inmigrante, or Center for Immigrants, in Staten Island, about a third of the adult students identify as indigenous. "There's always a hesitancy for them to go into any type of organization if they are not proficient in Spanish," explains Gonzalo Mercado, El Centro's executive director. "They feel very vulnerable.... They might all be indigenous, but they are from very different parts of Latin America and speak different dialects."

Nearly 20,000 Mexican nationals in the New York metropolitan area come from indigenous communities and consider a local dialect to be their first language, according to the Mexican Consulate in New York.

Castillo, from Veracruz, Mexico, where he worked as a civil engineer, has earned the trust of many undocumented, indigenous people in New York. Now a construction worker who recruits his students through church connections, Castillo isn't entirely sure why he has their confidence.

"Why do they trust me?" considers Castillo outside a Sunday morning literacy and math class at a Staten Island church. "I've been doing this for 17 years. They know I won't hurt them."

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