Imagine what life would be like if you had no form of documentation. No birth certificate. No driver's license. No Social Security number. No official proof that you even exist (to a government, at least).
This is the reality faced by many natives of the southwestern Mexican state of Oaxaca. Divided into 571 municipalities, Oaxaca is a mountainous state with many indigenous communities that have remained isolated from Mexican society. At least one-third of Oaxacans speak one of 16 native languages in the region; many women give birth in their isolated communities and never obtain birth certificates from the government for their children.
"You have to go to the head of municipal government, and you have to travel [long distances] sometimes without roads," said Carlos Sada, the New York-based Consul General of Mexico. "So what people do is they do not register their kids, so they go around their lives without their birth certificate."
Inaccuracies, inconsistencies, and typos in birth certificates are also common in the region, because birth certificates were all once written out by hand. Any error in a birth certificate makes obtaining an official passport or identification nearly impossible. Because of all of these barriers, some Oaxacans resort to buying counterfeit birth certificates for hundreds of dollars on the black market.
An estimated 300,000 Oaxacans reside in the greater New York City area, according to Sada, and hundreds lack any real documentation from Mexico or the United States. Due to the unique birth certificate dilemma in the region, the Mexican government last week arranged a week-long visit by the Oaxacan Civil Registry to the United States to fix errors and provide birth certificates to people who can prove they are from the region.
More than 500 Oaxacans registered and received new birth certificates this year in Mexico's second annual drive in its Philadelphia and New York City consulates. Last year, 420 Oaxacans gained documentation through the program.
Abelado Rojas, a 47-year-old construction worker from Oaxaca, has been living in New York City for 22 years. But an error in his original birth certificate has prevented him from obtaining any form of official Mexican identification his entire life.
Last Thursday, Rojas received his first accurate birth certificate. Smiling with the document in hand, Rojas said that piece of paper would give him peace of mind.
"It's a very good service, I'm very thankful," Rojas said in Spanish. "I'm very happy to have this worry gone in my life. To finally know I have this, it's a blessing."