With New Driver License Law, Indigenous Groups May Be Left Behind

Dec 23, 2014

The Binational Center for the Development of Oaxacan Indigenous Communities offers driver's education workshops specifically for those who speak Mixtec.
Credit BCDOIC

Starting in 2015, the Department of Motor Vehicles expects about 1.5 million undocumented immigrants to apply for a driver license. For many, this will be their first time legally driving in the state.

Immigration advocates applaud this change but also say there's a big concern. Some are worried they will fail the behind the wheel test since it won't be offered in the native languages many immigrants speak.

“That’s what we’re trying to look into," says Leoncio Vasquez with the Binational Center for the Development of Oaxacan Indigeneous Communities. "To have the driver there, to have the person from the DMV and probably in the back side the interpreter."

"Those of us coming from the indigenous communities we still speak our indigenous language and not many people are fluent in Spanish let alone English."

Vasquez says some people are discouraged from applying because the driving test will only be offered in English.

"Those of us coming from the indigenous communities we still speak our indigenous language and not many people are fluent in Spanish let alone English."

Vasquez estimates there's about 20,000 indigenous families living in the Central Valley. He says those who speak Mixtec form the largest community, followed by Zapotec and Trique.

Even though the DMV doesn't provide handbook information in these languages, spokesman Artemio Armenta says they're taking steps to ensure that  indigenous communities aren't left out.

“We’re definitely aware of the need by the greater non Spanish speaking population of Mexico that are settled in the Central Valley," he says.

As far as the "written" exam, there will be interpreters available if individuals request them. But for the behind the wheel test, it's a different case.

"The drive test is administered in English and no one else can be in the vehicle just the DMV employee," Armenta says.

Despite this, local advocates are still hopeful that indigenous communities will overcome this fear and prepare for the exams. In order to help, they've created workshops specifically for this community. I visited one in downtown Fresno, where organizers first read the DMV handbook in Spanish and then translated it to Mixtec.

Advocates aren’t the only ones trying to help. Locally, the Consulate of Mexico is also aware of the needs of their citizens. Vicente Sanchez is the consul of the Mexican Consulate in Fresno.

"We are ready we have a group of people who speak Zapotec, Mixtec and other kind of languages," Sanchez says. "And we're going to have some meetings sending the message about driver licenses and immigration."

But he says finding interpreters is often a challenge, not only for the consulate.

"Every authority in the social area, police departments, different judicial systems they are struggling to have more people who can translate in the indigenous language."

Back at the workshop in downtown Fresno, organizers tell the group in Mixtec what they need in order to apply for the driver license. While talking to the group, two men shared their concerns. They spoke in Spanish but their native language is Mixtec.

The men say they're worried because they don’t think they'll understand the DMV staff during the driving test. Despite this they're still going to try. But they also say many of their family members who only speak their native language are choosing not to apply because they don't think they'll pass both exams.

To prepare for the busy start of the year, the DMV hired 1,000 more employees and opened four new offices throughout the state.