Odilia Romero was ten years old when she left her home.
She left the foggy highlands of Oaxaca, Mexico and was brought to California. Finding a sense of belonging was a difficult feat, as Odilia navigated a new culture and lack of resources in her native language.
Today, Odilia is a fierce Indigenous Zapotec leader advocating for Indigenous migrants through the non-profit, Comunidades Indigenas en Liderazgo (“Indigenous Communities in Leadership”).
She is the Co-founder of CIELO, alongside her daughter, Janet Martinez, whom she actively involved in activism at a young age. Odilia is also a trilingual interpreter of Zapotec, Spanish, and English.
Her personal experience as an Indigenous migrant has shaped her steadfast commitment to serving others who similarly struggle to find their place.
CIELO, which translates to “Heaven,” is an LA-based organization providing holistic support to over 30 Indigenous groups in the area.
Founded in 2016, the organization is at the forefront of creating tangible solutions to the challenges that Indigenous communities confront daily. Not only do they provide translation services, connecting migrants to translators for border documentation, but they address social, economic, and cultural needs.
CIELO has quickly become the main organization that many depend on to direct them to valuable resources. Running the organization has pushed Odilia to master her understanding of the advocacy sector, the mechanics behind a non-profit, and securing funding opportunities.
“I have learned most about the processes and how to navigate the system and the rules of an ONG (Non-governmental organization). There’s constant pressure to do every effort possible to get the funds that we need to pay the staff and keep serving Indigenous communities.”
The staff at CIELO is equally as passionate about the work they do, and for many, the cause is close to home. Some of the workers at CIELO have used its services in the past.
One example of someone providing their expertise is Anna (not her real name) who fled the violence in her hometown.
“She ran away because her life was threatened by the gangs from her hometown. She was detained and spent time in a detention center. Today, [she] is one of the few Indigenous interpreters that speak K’iche, and she provides help to people that are going through the same perils and struggles as she did,” shares Odilia.
CIELO is unique in that it is an Indigenous led organization, and it continues to expand the roster of languages in which it provides translation services.
As an Indigenous woman with a migrant story, Anna understands the anxiety of not being heard or understood in the K’iche language.
Understanding is especially important in asylum cases, in which a migrant seeks protection from the US instead of being deported to the country in which they are fleeing from violence.
With the linguistic diversity existing within Latin America, interpreters serving Indigenous communities play an important role. In Mexico alone, there are 68 different Indigenous languages. In Guatemala, there are 23. Furthermore, within each of these languages exist dozens of dialects.
Indigenous migrants often navigate schools, hospitals, legal systems, or detention centers in fear that they will be left voiceless due to the lack of interpretation in their native language.
It is often assumed that migrants from Latin America will speak Spanish, and this can lead to a community locked out from important resources.
CIELO also intervenes in family-separation cases, often impacted by language. These cases are extremely emotional. Odilia has helped several families re-unite and she recalls serving one specific family whose native language was Zapotec.
“We helped to bring home a couple of children that social services took from an Indigenous family because of the language barrier. We talked to judges and lawyers and reunited the family one day at 5 PM.”
After navigating the legal system and dealing with the logistics of the case, Odilia had a word with the father of the children.
“What the father of the children told me really moved me: he thanked me and said that when social services came to take their children nobody said anything to him and that they grab them like little animals. Then he told me that when the family was reunited, his wife cried as much as the summer rain (because in Oaxaca it rains a lot during August), that he tried to be strong like the mountains but when they arrived at the bus stop to see his children the tears came out as hail. He told me this in Zapotec, and I will never forget that moment. Everybody was crying.”
CIELO works to be a liaison between migrants and legal structures. This story offers a glimpse into how she must act quickly to serve the uniqueness of each case as well as the families that she supports. It is one of Odilia’s most cherished memories. It also demonstrates the centrality of language in immigration cases.
Making COVID-19 Information Accessible To Indigenous Communities
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Odilia immediately acknowledged that Indigenous communities would be extremely vulnerable, largely due to the lack of information distributed in Indigenous languages.
Knowledge on the unraveling of COVID-19 would need to be made accessible, and CIELO spearheaded these efforts.
Firstly, the organization raised over $4 million in funds as well as food cards for the community. These funds were a crucial safety net to support Indigenous families who lost their jobs during the pandemic and were struggling to protect their families.
Over 30 different unique Indigenous communities from Mexico and Central America were represented in those that applied for support during this time.
Additionally, CIELO distributed educational videos in over 30 Indigenous languages that discussed the pandemic, COVID-19 symptoms, and preventive measures.
This information was distributed through all CIELO social media channels including Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter, and Instagram and was a successful effort in distributing significant information to keep the community safe.
Odilia expresses caring deeply for the community she serves. In reuniting families and initiating funding efforts through a pandemic, she fills the gaps in the system to serve Indigenous peoples. She also attends social gatherings within the community, and it’s one of her favorite aspects of working at CIELO.
“I like to be close with the community, to be at their events and parties,” says Odilia.
CIELO itself creates spaces of community and connects Indigenous communities to the relationship to music, culture and food that are integral to developing a sense of belonging in the US.
These events celebrate Indigenous culture, educate non-Indigenous people on Indigenous culture, and revitalize Indigenous language. CIELO hosts the Annual Indigenous Literature Conference, a conference for people of color to showcase their literature.
Additionally, CIELO hosts concerts with artists that integrate Indigenous language into their music. These events are spaces to strengthen the community and allow for CIELO staff to engage with the community it serves.
Being the first organization of its kind, CIELO’s work has received increased support. Recently, Odilia was approached by Lightbeam, a streaming company dedicated to content that inspires, who hoped to create a portrait of Odilia as an activist and leader, bringing her story onto the platform. Lightbeam sought to celebrate Indigenous culture as well as raise awareness about the challenges that migrant communities face.
Lightbeam produced Cielo, a short film that centers on the organization through Odilia’s eyes. Odilia’s story was distributed to over 200K viewers and a reach of 1.5 million.
Odilia also attended the screen launch of the film at a restaurant in Los Angeles, an event that received a large showing from the Indigenous community and participated in a panel facilitated by Women Under the Influence, where she shared more about her work and back story.
“This documentary has helped to bring resources because what we do in CIELO is now visible to an audience that we normally wouldn’t have access to” says Odilia.
“It has been very helpful in bringing awareness and visibility to CIELO’s work and to the existence of the Indigenous communities in the US.”
Odilia’s message will continue reaching more people. She is an eloquent speaker that disentangles the many reasons Indigenous peoples migrate to the U.S., reminding us that the communities are not monolithic.
Her vision for CIELO has not changed. Creating substantive solutions to the social, economic, and cultural challenges the Indigenous community faces as an Indigenous women-led organization is the focus.
“I’m proud that CIELO can exist because it is not common to see an Indigenous female-led organization. And I’m also proud that I could do this with my daughter as the cofounder,” says Odilia.
Working alongside her daughter, Odilia is a pillar of strength for the Indigenous community. She’s created the very organization she needed at ten years old, and is a voice for the community.
“I like to have the chance to speak and say that the Indigenous communities are very much alive.”