Back in Minnesota: Worthington

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Worthington, Minnesota, like many small rural towns, has worked hard to make adjustments to a rapid change in demographics over the last two decades. Residents there will tell you that it hasn’t always been easy but that most folks recognize that this change is permanent, not a passing phase. As with so many other places I visited across the northwest and into the Midwest, the growing pains have been slow but most community leaders have recognized that the present and future well-being of the community depends on the quality of government and institutional leadership provided during this time of change. In the meanwhile, the local economy has flourished under with the influx of workers and numerous entrepreneurs. One has only to go down 10th st. (formerly Main St.) to see visible evidence of this change as the many restaurants, tiendas, video stores and other business serve as a visible manifestation of Latio economic power. n

Across the country, Latina/o labor power has helped industry giants like the Swift meat packing plant (see above pic) become one of the global leaders in food processing. Last December 12th, on el dia de la virgen de Guadalupe, ICE (Immigration Control and Enforcement) conducted a raid at Swift meatpacking plans around the country. The terrorizing and polarizing effect on the local communities and families was harsh and long lasting. (See one story here: http://minnesota.publicradio.org/display/web/2006/12/13/swiftraidupdate/)

The morning after arriving I called some friends with the Minnesota Immigrant Freedom Network (Alondra Espejel and Mariano Espinoza) to ask the to help me identify contacts and I discovered they were in Worthington for a series of meetings. I left 10th St. and decided to take a slow ride on the sidewalks to the union offices where they were. A few blocks up the road, a police car pulled into the street and the officer stepped out and hailed me down. He proceeded to tell me that I Minnesota law required I ride on the road and that if I was going to be on the sidewalk I needed to go with the flow of traffic. He then asked if I was a cross-country bike rider and I said yes, but that I was currently living in Minnesota and had just returned on my way back for a rest in the Twin Cities. This piqued his interest so I asked him about the relationship between law enforcement and the local immigrant communities. Sergeant William Bolt then proceeded to speak very proudly of the efforts that the police dept. had made to develop a strong and trusting relationship with the local Latino community. He made a point of crediting the police chief with developing policies and incentives for this. When he saw a colleague pass by, he contacted him by radio and asked him to stop by and talk to me. I then met Bob Fritz, the officer responsible for developing relationships with youth in the schools. They made it clear to me that though there was not a formal written policy to this effect, it was their practice not to formally cooperate with ICE because they felt it was important for local police to have a trusting relationship with immigrants so silence and fear did not prohibit communication regarding local law enforcement issues. Sergeant Bolt gave me a few names of others people I could speak with and they sent me on my way.

After meeting with Alondra and Mariano and meeting some of the union organizers for a while I got a sense of the local situation with workers. Since the raids, Swift has had trouble holding on to workers–this is both a labor issue as well as a chilling effect on workers who did not want to be vulnerable to deportation or harassment. I went and met with a local reporter who published a nice story on my trip a few days later in the local paper, the Worthington Globe. The reporter, Amanda Walljasper, was a part-time reporter and full time teacher with the Integration Collaborative, a multicultural initiative of the school district funded by Minnesota’s Department of Education. I had heard of this program through several people by this time and took her up on the offer to call the office and see if I could speak with people there.

They invited me over and I had a powerful conversation with four employees. Nancy Landeros, young Mexicana who had moved from Iowa via Texas, Antonio Colindres, an agricultural worker originally from El Salvador, a college student Mr. Lopez y Sebastian, a refugee from the Guatemalan civil war, and Carrie Adams, a long time resident of Worthington of German-Scandinavian descent. They shared with me the vision and extensive work of the collaborative and its cultural initiatives, including an annual international festival. They also explained how their work varies according to circumstances and that in the immediate aftermath of the raids the offices served as an informal clearinghouse for many support efforts. Each of them acknowledged that there were many people involved in trying to foster positive social relations among different ethnic groups, but that this was a long process. Of course this is only a brief overview of our conversation, but they made it clear that change had to be deliberate and that the overall climate of the country and the recent debacle around immigration reform had only served to arouse suspicion and fear against Latinos without regard for immigration status. They also bemoaned the tension and the lack of deep roots between Latinos and mainstream America. For instance, according to them, active recruitment of workers to the region continues unabated and thus strong mixed signals result in a fragmented sense of belonging. Carrie acknowledged that change was slow but that she saw a generational shift occurring towards more acceptance.

Worthington is no utopia, but that place doesn’t exist. Change is slow, but with hearts and minds working to build stronger cross-cultural relationships built on justice and a common sense of humanity, change can occur.