Indigenous peoples with roots in Latin America have long gone unrecognized in California government datasets. Here’s what advocates plan to do after Governor Gavin Newsom’s vetoed a bill that aimed to change that.

On the afternoon of Oct. 13, Aurora Pedro spoke on a panel at the Latino Coalition for a Healthy California (LCHC) Latinx Health Policy Summit, an annual gathering of health care providers and health equity advocates in Sacramento. 

Pedro, the coordinator of the Indigenous interpreters program at Comunidades Indígenas en liderazgo (CIELO), began her speech in Akateko, one of the thousands of indigenous languages spoken in California. The room was quiet after she spoke.

“Did anyone understand me?” she asked in English. Most of the people in the audience said “no.”

The point Pedro made appeared to resonate with the other panelists: Indigenous people with roots in Latin America are often considered Latinos in government surveys, erasing their identities and, in turn, ignoring that they may have different health needs.

“Indigenous people are constantly being lumped into a category that we ourselves don’t identify with, for instance like Latinx,” Pedro said. “If we don’t exist in data, our human rights are violated.”

The panel was at the summit to discuss SB435, a bill that was recently vetoed by California Governor Gavin Newsom but would have required two California government agencies—the CalFresh program, within the California Department of Social Services, and the California Department of Public Health—to collect specific demographic and health data on Latino and Indigenous groups anonymously. After a year of lobbying by the LCHC and other health equity advocates, the future of SB435 is uncertain, but LCHC staff say they will continue to try to build on the momentum of the past year to push for health equity for California’s Latinos and Indigenous Mesoamericans.

From right: Mar Velez, Director of Policy at the Latino Coalition for a Healthy California (LCHC), and Aurora Pedro, coordinator of the Indigenous interpreters program at Comunidades Indígenas en liderazgo, speak at the LCHC Latinx Health Policy Summit in Sacramento, Calif. on Oct. 13, 2023. Credit: Courtesy of Latino Coalition for Healthy California

LCHC and the bill’s legislative sponsors hoped that the disaggregated data could offer more insight into the specific health needs and outcomes among Latino and Indigenous groups. For example, a two-day community COVID-19 testing event in the Fruitvale neighborhood of Oakland in 2020 found that the virus had been present at more than double the rate among Indigenous Mayans than among people who identified as Latinx. 

Newsom vetoed the bill on the evening of Oct. 8, a day before Indigenous Peoples Day, despite its popularity among California state legislators (the Assembly passed the bill 79-0, with only one abstaining vote, and the Senate passed the bill 34-0 with six abstaining votes). 

“We’re not going to stop advocating for disaggregated data for Latinx and Indigenous Mesoamericans just because this bill is dead,” says Mar Velez, Director of Policy at LCHC. 

The future of data disaggregation

In Newsom’s veto message on Oct. 8, the governor said it was “premature” to pass SB435. 

The federal government’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB) is working towards an update to federal standards for collection and reporting of race and ethnicity information. 

“California is required to submit data to the federal government using these federal standards, and programs that receive federal funding must also use these standards,” Newsom wrote. “As such, implementing a different framework for data collection in California prior to the release of updated federal standards is premature. For this reason, I cannot sign this bill.”

That federal update is expected in Summer of 2024, but it will still require a final approval from the U.S. Congress, and “we all know Congress is, um, volatile, to put it lightly,” said Esteban Camarena, Field Manager of Census and Data Equity at The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, a national nonprofit, during the LCHC Latinx Health Policy Summit.

Whether or not OMB’s updates would include the kind of disaggregation LCHC was fighting for—specifically data collection on Indigenous communities—is unclear. 

Building trust takes time

There is a strong possibility, Velez says, that LCHC will attempt to reintroduce a version of SB435 in California. But Velez adds, LCHC is on track to move forward on a few plans that could help improve trust between Latino and Indigenous people and the government agencies that would collect demographic data. Down the line if OMB’s updates are approved or if a version of SB435 is passed in California, LCHC wants communities to feel like they can and should participate in anonymous data collection.

“Let’s just say, in an ideal world, SB435 did get signed into law,” Velez says. “We would have to start letting our community know that new categorizations, new tabulations will be present in certain [government] forms.”

Building that trust, however, is a challenge. “The reality is there are some people who are afraid to put down that they might be transgender, or bisexual, or a certain race because they don’t know the consequences,” Marko Mijic, undersecretary at California Health and Human Services, said at the summit. 

The Trump Administration’s changes to the U.S. Public Charge rules in 2019 threatened to impact immigrants’ legal status if they received an expanded array of certain public benefits such as Medicaid. Though the Trump Administration’s attempt to change those public charge rules was ultimately blocked in court, the attempt “really put fear in people, and rightfully so,” Mijic said, “and so we are having to walk back and really bring people along with us to tell them this is what we are going to do with that information.”

Now, the LCHC and other community organizations will continue to work to encourage Latinos and Indigenous people to feel comfortable sharing their demographic information with the government whenever the option is made available in the future.

“As advocates, we also need to let our communities know that this is okay and that it’s for us…so that we can count,” Velez says.