A contentious link in the food chain
On a crisp night in early fall, Victor Contreras guides his van along corn-lined back roads near the southern Minnesota community of Owatonna. Suddenly, he pulls into a driveway and parks in the midst of a group of low-slung, barracks-like buildings, which are surrounded by a chain link fence. Pickups, vans and other road-worn vehicles sit outside the buildings. Texas seems to be the state of choice on the license plates. Contreras walks into one of the buildings, which turns out to be a communal bathroom for the people living in the barracks. He gestures toward a row of shower stalls. “It took us two years to get curtains put on these showers,” he says. “When I lived here I used to bring my son in at midnight so he could have privacy while taking a shower.”
Welcome to the world of the migrant worker, where getting a little privacy while taking a shower after a long day toiling in the food system is a major victory. It is Contreras’ job to make sure such victories are attained. He is the cofounder of Centro Campesino, which roughly translates as “Farmworker Center.” Centro Campesino was launched in the fall of 1998 by migrant workers like Contreras as a support system for the tens of thousands of Latinos/Latinas that work on Minnesota’s farms and in its food processing plants. It’s headquartered in a second-floor rabbit-warren set of offices in downtown Owatonna, a community that’s at the heart of southern Minnesota’s vegetable packing industry.
The group recently opened a branch in Austin, Minn., a meatpacking town.
Centro’s eight staff members work with two groups of Latinos: migrant workers who come to the area, mostly from Texas, in June and go back in October or November; and year-round Latino residents. Centro works to improve working conditions in companyowned migrant camps such as the one Contreras used to live in. It also organizes workers, investigates charges of mistreatment, negotiates with employers for better conditions and advocates for promigrant/immigrant government policy. In addition, Centro Campesino conducts basic education: it informs workers of their rights and responsibilities, and, just as importantly, it teaches the general public about who these migrants and immigrants are, and are not.
“It’s like you’re bringing in machines to work,” says Centro Campesino Youth Organizer Jesús Torres of the attitude industry and government seem to have sometimes when it comes to migrants and immigrants. Torres, 20, came to southern Minnesota from Mexico himself when he was 16. “You’re not. You’re bringing in human beings. These are human beings we’re talking about.”
Migrants, immigrants & Latinos
As it approaches its 10-year anniversary, Centro Campesino’s work has taken on a renewed sense of urgency in the supercharged atmosphere of immigration politics. This summer, Congress is in the midst of trying to “reform” immigration policy yet again, and the issue has come to dominate discussions from the White House to the state house to local town council meetings. Midwestern states like Minnesota are grappling with the relatively recent influx of huge numbers of Latinos. The U.S. in general, meanwhile, is coming to grips with the fact that a major part of our agricultural economy is dependent on Latinos who are willing to do work others won’t do.
The number of immigrants living in America increased 16 percent between 2001 and 2006. The vast majority of those people came from Mexico, according to the Census Bureau. In the past, those immigrants would settle in “gateway states” like California. But as those states have become more crowded with cheap labor, immigrants have been bypassing them and settling directly in places like the Upper Midwest.
The first record of Latino residents in Minnesota dates to 1860 and migrant workers have been coming to the area since at least the early 1900s to work in the sugar beet fields. But if it seems like there has been a flood of Latinos in recent years, it’s because there has been. Since the 1990 U.S. Census, the state’s Latino population has more than tripled, increasing from 54,000 to over 175,000, according to the Minneapolis Foundation. By 2030, the state Latino population will swell by 118 percent, says the Minnesota State Demographic Center.
It’s no accident that this huge influx coincides with the establishment of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), a trade pact that, among other things, opened Mexico up to a flood of cheap Midwestern corn. Corn is a staple of the food system and farming economy in Mexico, and subsidized imports have been devastating for rural communities there. From 1.5 to 3 million rural Mexican families have been driven out of business since NAFTA was implemented, according to the Resource Center of the Americas.
We send our corn to Mexico, and it sends its people to us. The number of immigrants from Mexico decreased by 18 percent in the three years before NAFTA went into effect, says the Pew Hispanic Center. During the first eight years of NAFTA, the annual number of Mexican immigrants increased more than 60 percent.
“Once NAFTA started, it basically wiped out the farm economy,” says Torres.