Many Indigenous students from Latin America are enrolled in U.S. schools who speak their Indigenous language as a first language, Spanish as a second language, and English as a third language  – yet the school may assume that Spanish is the first language and families may not share this information due to the stigma and oppression in their home countries. Look for ways to welcome Indigenous languages and cultures in sensitive ways that families feel comfortable with.


Henry Sales: Why Indigenous Families May Hide Their Identity
Henry Sales: Welcoming Indigenous Languages in Schools
Henry Sales: How Schools Can Partner with Indigenous Families from Latin America
Henry Sales, Mam Educator: How I Became an Advocate for My Indigenous Community
ELL specialist Manny Gomez: Why a Guatemalan student hid his Indigenous identity

More Resources

Supporting Indigenous Latinx Students' Success in U.S. Schools

Supporting Indigenous Latinx Students' Success in U.S. Schools

Children dance in Antigua in Guatemala in Central America

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.

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:

  • Afro-Latinx
  • Asian-Latinx
  • European-Latinx
  • Middle Eastern-Latinx
  • Indigenous-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

Unaccompanied children

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.

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.

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. In many cases, newcomer Indigenous Latinx students have some form of limited or interrupted formal education. This is due to the fact that in many Latin American countries, Indigenous populations continue to receive substandard education, through no fault of their own.

During my time as a high school teacher, I learned about my Indigenous students' unique formal education experiences through the stories they shared with me. For example, in some places in Guatemala, Indigenous students in primary schools learn content (i.e., science, history) using their Indigenous languages for speaking and listening, but use Spanish to read and write the information in their notebooks.

Because of budgetary reasons, in those poor, rural areas, some teachers are not adequately trained in intercultural bilingual education — a model used in Central and South American countries, see Pentón Herrera (2017) — while others may not know how to speak the students' Indigenous language. As a result, many learners complete primary school using their Indigenous language to talk and listen to information, but read and write in Spanish with various levels of print literacy in both their Indigenous and Spanish languages.

When some Indigenous students arrive in our classrooms, they may not be fully literate in all four language domains in either language (their Indigenous language or Spanish) (see Pentón Herrera, 2019a). At the same time, they may not know how to read or write at grade level in Spanish because copying from the board and memorizing lines from textbooks during primary school years is not enough to foster independent reading and writing skills.

The importance of visibility

At the same time, it is critical for us as educators to acknowledge the ways in which the U.S. educational system has engaged in practices that have contributed to Indigenous people's invisibilization and omission, including Indigenous Latinx populations (Barillas-Chón, 2018).

This invisibility has had a few different impacts in the formal K-12 school setting, including a knowledge gap about Indigenous Latinx student populations':

  • experiences, languages, and ways of knowing of these groups in favor of their non-Indigenous Spanish-speaking counterparts
  • cultural, linguistic, and schooling backgrounds.

As a result, this invisibility in the U.S. school system can introduce additional barriers to Indigenous students' academic success, such as the following:

  • Teachers, especially those in middle and high school, may not be adequately trained to teach initial literacy to adolescent students (Custodio & O’Loughlin, 2017; DeCapua, Marshall, & Tang, 2020; Pentón Herrera, 2018).
  • If newcomers' formal schooling and first language literacy are left unaddressed during intake screenings, teachers will not be informed that students may need additional literacy support, which can delay academic progress.
  • Due to a lack of visibility and knowledge about Indigenous populations from Latin America, teachers often assume using Spanish is the best approach to teach literacy and English to this population of English learners.
  • Students' languages, cultures, literacies, and identities may be marginalized within the school community.

Improving the Intake Process

When newcomer Indigenous Latinx students are misclassified as Spanish speakers and considered to have the same formal schooling background as their Spanish-speaking counterparts, this may be a result of the intake screening process that schools use.

These processes for newcomers often do not:

  • take Indigenous languages into account
  • evaluate newcomers' formal schooling background
  • assess literacy in the students' home language(s)

As schools are considering how to better serve their Indigenous students, one important step schools can take is to include detailed intake screening processes where newcomers are asked about their prior formal schooling and their native language(s) — instead of assuming a language based on geographical data. I also recommend that students are evaluated in print literacy in their native languages — these are suggestions can be looked at through the lens of Lau v. Nichols (1974).

Asking students about formal schooling background and assessing their print literacy in their native languages is particularly important for high school students as they arrive with limited time to acquire literacy, English, academic vocabulary, and graduate from high school. (Some states allow students to enroll until they are 21, but this policy varies from state to state. You can learn more about how graduation rates are calcuated and the impact of four-year graduation rates on ELLs in this paper from the Migration Policy Institute.)

At the same time, keep in mind that arriving families may have low levels of print literacy or little previous exposure to print in their native or any other language. Even in cases where families read their Indigenous language and/or Spanish, the level in which they are able to read may be different from that provided in school materials. For this reason, having in your school full-time staff individuals who are able to communicate orally in the Indigenous families' languages is increasingly important.

Note: Sometimes Indigenous students are automatically enrolled in bilingual Spanish-English programs without further investigation into their language backgrounds. Such a placement is not appropriate without a thorough, culturally sensitive review of students' language backgrounds and educational experiences.

Overcoming stigma

At this juncture, it is necessary to underscore that newcomer students and their parents/guardians may not wish to disclose that they are Indigenous or that they speak an Indigenous language as a first language. They do this not to deceive school personnel and the institution, but as a practice for self-preservation. In many cases, arriving Indigenous populations of students are escaping persecution, stigma, and dangers caused by the mere fact that they are Indigenous and speak an Indigenous language.

As Dr. Luis Urrieta, Jr. shares, many Indigenous communities from Latin America are survivors of "bio–psycho–social–cultural–spiritual intergenerational trauma" (Urrieta, Jr., 2019, p. 1); as such, many may not feel comfortable or safe to disclose right away their Indigenous ethnicity and language.

Video: Partnering with families who speak indigenous languages

Dr. Karen Woodson shares some valuable lessons she learned about partnering with families from Guatemala who speak indigenous languages.

How are we welcoming students?

To help Indigenous students and families overcome this uncertainty and unease about disclosing their ethnicity and native language, school welcoming centers need to think very carefully about how they can earn their families' trust. In working with schools that serve indigenous students, this is the piece of advice that surfaces most frequently. Bilingual staff, family members, or community members can play a key role in this process, as described below.

In addition, there are some welcoming tools they can use to emphasize students' safety and security in this new environment. Some questions school counties and school welcoming centers can think about:

  • How are we reflecting that we are welcoming Indigenous newcomer students and parents/guardians into this new environment?
  • What visuals (i.e., pictures, flyers, flags, messages in Indigenous languages, etc.) do we have for Indigenous students and parents/guardians to see as they walk into our offices or school?
  • How are we emphasizing and sharing the benefits/services Indigenous students can receive if they speak an Indigenous language?
  • Do we even have these services and benefits? If the answer to this question is no, I highly encourage newcomer centers and schools to work on offering these services and benefits to students as required by Lau v. Nichols (1974).
  • What Indigenous Latinx organizations have we partnered up within our community to support our Indigenous students and parents/guardians?
  • Do we have pamphlets about these organizations supporting Indigenous communities in our city/state available for incoming Indigenous students and parents/guardians?
  • Do we have employees in our offices and schools who speak Indigenous languages from Latin America who can support this incoming population in their native language?
  • What diagnostic assessments do we have in Indigenous languages to evaluate students' literacy?

In addition to asking the questions shared above, I strongly encourage schools to:

  • incorporate diagnostic assessments in different Indigenous languages. Ask incoming students and parents to choose the language of the test from the list provided. In some cases, providing a list of languages available for testing (i.e., students and parents can visibly see their Indigenous language represented in a piece of paper) instead of asking a direct question of "Do you speak an Indigenous language?" may prove a useful tool to help students and parents feel more comfortable in disclosing their native language.
  • create detailed academic plans to support students' literacy and English language growth. For example, incoming middle and high school learners with limited or interrupted schooling will benefit from intensive, sheltered classes focused on all four language domains to expedite their academic progress.
  • create programs or courses tailored to support these students, at least, during their first 2-3 years of school. This can be particularly impactful depending on the number of arriving Indigenous Latinx students.

I also recommend readers become familiar with the work of Brenda Custodio (2011) noted in the references, specifically chapter five, for more information about literacy-based sheltered courses for newcomers. 

Language Support for Instruction and Translation

Although some newcomer Indigenous Latinx students speak an Indigenous language in addition to Spanish, others do not speak Spanish at all. For this reason, it is crucial for schools to keep a record of their student population's native languages and ensure appropriate language support is given to all students during instruction time and to parents in school meetings. It is also critical to build a team that can figure out how to best address students' language needs, including ESL educators and speakers of students' languages.

In my experience, students may be shy to request or ask for support in their Indigenous languages or do not even know this is a possibility, but they do benefit from it. This shyness of asking for assistance in their Indigenous mother tongue is a consequence of growing up in Latin American societies that associate being fluent in Spanish with being educated and holding societal prestige while devaluing Indigenous cultures and languages associating them with illiteracy and poverty.

The sudden growth of Mayan-speaking immigrants in the United States has made translation services a particular topic of interest in recent years (Nolan, 2019). The growing demand for Mayan language translators in immigration court cases and educational institutions are signs that our students need and are entitled by law to receive translation services and academic accommodations in their Indigenous languages, not Spanish. You can learn more about these trends from the articles below:

Special education evaluation

For Indigenous Latinx students, appropriate language support in their native language, not Spanish, is essential to academic literacy acquisition, language learning, and suitable accommodations.

An example of how using Spanish instead of the student's Indigenous language may prove harmful is in evaluations for special education accommodations. Schools often use Spanish to evaluate Latinx English learners who are suspected of having special learning needs. Using Spanish may hinder communication or may create misunderstandings, which yields inaccurate results in the special education evaluation and may result in inappropriate or harmful, accommodations.

In my experience, when using Spanish in special education evaluations, Indigenous Latinx students who do not understand will not request Indigenous language support but will feel guilty of not understanding Spanish and will blame him/herself for this. Also, they may use abstract or short phrases in Spanish (Sí, no, no sé – yes, no, I don’t know) to answer the questions in Spanish, but these short answers often reflect their language level in Spanish, not their special education needs.

Video: Discovering a hidden language in our school

To learn more about a school that discovered that many of their families spoke Mixtec after noticing some surprising special education data, take a look at these videos from Principal Mark Gaither and special education teacher Katrina Kickbush. Mr. Gaither and Ms. Kickbush also share strategies they used to create a positive culture around Mixtec in the school.

Providing appropriate language support

An additional instance of where using appropriate language support in schools is essential is in English language classrooms. Although some Spanish words have been incorporated in some Mayan languages, the reality is Mayan languages are distinct from Spanish. For example, most Mayan languages do not have the sounds /b/, /d/, /g/ or /z/, which will require English for speakers of other languages (ESOL) teachers to plan differently to teach these sounds in English from a Mayan-speaking perspective, not Spanish.

Another interesting fact about Mayan languages is that they have few to no prepositions, and, in some cases, articles are used as additive elements to nouns instead of being written as independent words, like in English and Spanish. The grammatical intricacies of Mayan languages are different from English or Spanish, and only through appropriate, differentiated language support, Indigenous students can expeditiously and effectively learn English. Efforts made to understand how students' languages work will have a significant impact on understanding the way they are expressing themselves in English, as described by Mr. Gaither and Ms. Kickbush above.

Language Resources in the Community

In the U.S., schools have the power to play a significant role in shifting to an asset-based mindset while also appropriately supporting the language needs of Indigenous newcomers. How can we do this? By looking into our communities and universities to incorporate Indigenous languages as academic support for Indigenous Latinx newcomers and by using translation services in the students' and parents' Indigenous languages.

The Guatemalan Ministry of Education includes some resources in six Indigenous Mayan languages that can be incorporated into our literacy and English classrooms to support our students. Other resources can be found on Pentón Herrera (2019b), on pages 172-174. For translation services, groups such as Maya Interpreters, Mayan Language Immigration Law, and Asociacion Mayab offer translation services in different Mayan languages across the United States.

Other Indigenous organizations such as Comunidades Indigenas en Liderazgo (CIELO), Comunidad Maya Pixan Ixim, and Kichwa Hatari offer services, advocacy, language support, and additional information about the Indigenous Latinx communities they serve in the United States.

Importantly, school counties should also consider hiring Indigenous translators and parents/guardians as county-wide translators and full-time school personnel (paraprofessionals, administrative support, teaching support and staff, etc.) when possible. Indigenous translators and parents bring rich cultural and linguistic experiences that benefit the school county as a whole. However, many times translators and parents cannot use their language to support their communities because, although there is an increasing need for Indigenous language and translation services in schools, there are limited opportunities for full-time employment currently available for them.

Language resources at the university level 

Indigenous languages from Latin American are also becoming increasingly visible in universities across the United States. Below I share some programs that school counties and teachers can further explore. Most of these university programs are housed within the institution's Center for Latin American Studies, Department of Anthropology, or Department of Linguistics. Whenever possible, a partnership with higher education institutions and Indigenous language experts should be established for the benefit of Indigenous students.

Networking with other educators

Finally, it is important to learn from other educators doing this important work. You may be able to find educators or school leaders in your district, region, state, or other regions of the country who are serving similar communities. Ask your professional networks what they are doing, what lessons they have learned, and what resources have been most helpful in this work.

Lesson plans

You may be able to find curriculum resources that draw in Indigenous students' cultures as well. For example, the Smithonian National Museum of the American Indian offers a Math in Action: Maya Numbers virtual field trip.

Video: Family Engagement with Indigenous Families from Guatemala

Manuel Gomez Portillo is an ESOL resource teacher in Fairfax County, Virginia who is currently pursuing his doctorate from Shenandoah University. His areas of research include family engagement with Indigenous families from Guatemala and his dissertation focuses on family engagement perceptions, experiences, and factors among Indigenous Guatemalan families living in the United States, many of whom speak Ixil and Mam.

Closing Thoughts

When schools become more familiar with all of their students' linguistic and cultural assets, they can tap into those assets to create stronger partnerships with students and families. They also create a more welcoming environment and establish a network that can support additional families in the community.

For Indigenous students, that process may not be linear, and it may take additional time and effort. Yet when schools see the kinds of success and engagement that are possible, the results will speak for themselves. I wish all of you well on this important journey of discovery and collaboration on behalf of your Indigenous Latinx students.

About the Author

Dr. Luis Javier Pentón Herrera has taught Spanish and English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) at the K-12 and university levels. He currently serves as a Dissertation Core Faculty at American College of Education and as Adjunct Professor at two universities — University of Maryland, Global Campus, and The George Washington University. Previously, Luis earned the rank of Sergeant while serving in the United States Marine Corps (USMC) as well as worked in administrative and legal roles for both the USMC and the Department of Defense.

He holds three master’s degrees and earned a Ph.D. in Educational Leadership: Reading, Language, and Literacy. Recently, TESOL International Association acknowledged Pentón Herrera as an emerging leader (30 Up and Coming) of the next generation in research, teaching, publishing, and leadership.

During his time as a language teacher, Dr. Pentón Herrera was privileged to learn from his Maya and Kichwa students in K-12 and at the university level. Since then, he has devoted his efforts and scholarship to advocate for Indigenous students and communities from Latin American in the United States.


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Custodio, B. (2011). How to design and implement a newcomer program. Pearson.

Custodio, B., & O’Loughlin, J. B. (2017). Students with interrupted formal education: Bridging where they are and what they need. Corwin.

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Nolan, R. (2019, December). A translation crisis at the border. New Yorker Magazine.

Pentón Herrera, L. J. (2017). Educación Intercultural Bilingüe (EIB). Key Concepts in Intercultural Dialogue, 86.

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Pentón Herrera, L. J. (2019a). Learning, language, and literacy as entities for empowerment and equality: A case study of three adolescent Indigenous Ixil ELs. In A. Babino, N. Cossa, J. J. Araujo, & R. D. Johnson (Eds.), Educating for a Just Society: The 41st Association of Literacy Educators and Researchers Yearbook (pp. 31-49). Association of Literacy Educators and Researchers.

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Urrieta, Jr., L. (2019). Indigenous reflections on identity, trauma, and healing: Navigating belonging and power. Genealogy, 3(2), 1−14.



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