By Luis Javier Pentón Herrera, Ph.D. (2021)
This article first appeared on and is linked to the Colorín Colorado website, a bilingual site for educators and families of English language learners.
Learn more about the ways that schools can better identify and partner with Indigenous students from Latin America who speak languages other than Spanish and bring diverse educational experiences with them.
On this article
- Setting the Stage: Indigenous Latinx Students and Formal Schooling
- Improving the Intake Process
- How are we welcoming students?
- Language Support for Instruction and Translation
- Language Resources in the Community
- Video: Family Engagement with Indigenous Families from Guatemala
- Closing Thoughts
- About the Author
Latinx are the largest minority group in the United States. Although this population is often classified as homogenous, the reality is that the Latinx community represents the rich, heterogeneous mosaic of diversity found through Latin America. Within the Latinx community, we can find individuals representing a wide range of groups, including:
- Middle Eastern-Latinx
However, when immigrants from Latin America arrive in the United States, their diversity is often assimilated into common traits.
For example, it is often assumed they only speak Spanish. In U.S. schools, educators may assume that students from a particular region or country have all had similar educational experiences. These misconceptions mean that educators may be missing out on important opportunities to tap into students’ cultural and linguistic assets, as well as their personal experiences, in order to support their learning.
Indigenous communities in Latin America
This is particularly true for Latinx Indigenous students. Presently, Latin America is home to over 800 different Indigenous groups, representing a total population of over 45 million people (CEPAL, 2014). In some countries, like Bolivia and Guatemala, it is estimated that over half of their population are Indigenous and/or speak Indigenous languages. There are also many Indigenous languages still spoken in Mexico, and immigrants from Mexico may speak an Indigenous language as their primary language rather than Spanish.
In recent years, the number of Indigenous students from Latin America arriving in U.S. classrooms has steadily been increasing. One key indicator of this increase is the latest report from the U.S. Department of Justice, which shows a healthy growth of Mayan languages being used in immigration court cases.
In the Fiscal Year (FY) 2018, the list from the Department of Justice’s top 25 languages used for translation included Mam, Quiche, Konjobal, and Akateko, all Mayan languages primarily spoken in Guatemala, placing ninth, eleventh, fourteenth, and twenty-first places on the list, respectively. Yet, the silence surrounding the increase of Indigenous Latinx populations in the U.S. shows that we have much work to do in recognizing the diversity of incoming Indigenous student populations.
Although there are many challenges facing Indigenous Latinx students today, in this article, I will focus on the impacts of misconceptions about students’ language background and educational background. I also propose practical solutions teachers and administrators can use to create a welcoming school environment for their Indigenous Latinx students and serve these students more effectively based on my teaching experience and subsequent research.
Many of the unaccompanied children arriving at the U.S. border are Indigenous and speak Indigenous languages.
For more on this student population, see Unaccompanied Children in Schools: What You Need to Know.
Setting the Stage: Indigenous Latinx Students and Formal Schooling
In order to provide more effective instruction for Indigenous Latinx students, it is helpful to understand more about their educational background.