Language Access as Barrier for Indigenous Communities to Access Heat Resources

Veronica Wood
May 9, 2024

Language Access as Barrier for Indigenous Communities to Access Heat Resources

By Veronica Wood

Indigenous communities, like other frontline groups in the Los Angeles area, are vulnerable to the effects of extreme heat that is affecting the region but have a harder time accessing public resources available for heat relief because of language barriers. 

CIELO, an Indigenous women-led nonprofit organization that works with Indigenous communities in Los Angeles, provides language services and resources to those communities and last year were asked to translate responses for a research study by the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA), regarding heat inequities. 

Experts at CIELO provided interpretations for native speakers of K'iche', Q'anjob'al Zapotec, and Yucatec from participating members of the focus groups. The study, conducted by the Labor Community Strategy Center at UCLA. 

During one of the focus groups in the study, one participant said: “When you’re talking about disparities across neighborhoods, you can tell where the people of color and white people live just by looking at the tree coverage.” - Participant, Labor Community Strategy Center. 

Trees and shade are known to protect communities from extreme heat, but low-income communities have traditionally had less tree cover and less access to parks. Even staff at CIELO, with offices located in South Central LA, can feel the disparities as their offices do not have air conditioning for the summer nor a heater for the winter. 

With ever increasing heat in the Los Angeles area, where according to the California Healthy Places Index, parts of the San Fernando Valley and Highland Park are expected to have the highest number of extremely hot days over 90 degrees in Los Angeles by mid-century, there’s a growing momentum for regional leaders to act. 

But the communities served by CIELO have not felt reached by Los Angeles heat resource information.  “This is our first time getting any resources or conversations about these things in K’iche’.” - Participant, CIELO.

These communities have long been under-served, because of the erasure caused by systemic undercounting on Census forms. Often, they are categorized under ‘Hispanic/Latino’ which erases the Indigenous identity. This poses significant obstacles to their access to fundamental human rights such as language access. CIELO works to illuminate this data bias and create visibility for Indigenous communities.

Aurora Pedro, a manager at CIELO, speaks about her experience creating the focus group for the study. She explains that most of the Indigenous participants did not know about cooling centers or heat resources provided by the government for heat relief. 

The Los Angeles’ Climate Emergency Mobilization Office (CEMO) has a program, #HeatRelief4LA which provides cooling centers, hydration stations, and splash pads on extreme heat days. They provide a Cool Spots LA app, which can help direct people to their nearest resource. CEMO also leads heat education initiatives and sends communications to Angelenos, warning them of forecasted heat waves. 

On CEMO’s website, the Climate Equity LA series provides most webinars in English only. As a participant of LA’s Green New Deal Neighborhood toolkit, they showcase partnerships with many nonprofits, such as TreePeople, LACompost, and FoodForward, and more. However, each of these document downloads only appear in English. 

This is a problem for Indigenous communities, says Pedro. “Languages Indigenous immigrant communities speak are often oral, so they listen to the radio or community news radio and TV. When the city prints fliers or sends letters in the mail, there is no full comprehension”, she says. 

Pedro says many Indigenous im/migrant communities have ‘Marketplace Spanish’ which is how they have a basic comprehension to get around and to work. However, by not having resources in their native language, there is more harm than good by having only the resources in Spanish. 

She cites one example of how this could be detrimental. “An Indigenous woman with a family applied to CalFresh using the documents she could not understand. However, when other messages came in and she could not understand them, she missed deadlines she did not understand, and ended up owing money to the program, more than she received. Until this day they have not received services, and have continued distrust for these programs”, she related. 

When the full program messaging, including all the documentation and steps required and all the steps required is not accessible, this creates a barrier for future resources, and the trust needs repairing, she adds. 

CIELO employees comment that whether the communication is about heat or other services, they feel that LA County often just adds Mixteco or Zapoteco to just check off a box. Pedro states, ‘You have to do more than just that. Systemically it's been part of the workflow and it's challenging to disrupt that and get people to understand the need.’ 

Pedro says that If we want Indigenous frontline communities to be able to access the structures and the information provided by the city, we need to be able to look first to language justice. Language justice is a commitment to recognizing sociopolitical barriers constructed against those who do not speak English as a first language, and providing opportunities for those individuals to access conversations and resources in their first language. 

Although this year there was another offer made to CIELO to participate in a similar study, they are not able to participate because of lack of resources (adequate time and budget). They have not seen follow-up from last year’s study.

Indigenous peoples work in some of the most heat-impacted industries, such as garment, restaurant, and meat (as well as agriculture here in California). “Yet, resources are still not available that are accessible in these languages” states Pedro. 

To learn more about CIELO, visit

For more digital resources such as the Cool Spots app, visit: