On September 16, police action stopped a Latino celebration of Mexican and Central American Independence Day in Worthington, though organizers had a permit for the party in Chautauqua Park. The event—and the debate that followed—highlighted continuing tension between new and old residents, as well as efforts to work together.
About 500 people from Worthington’s Latino community gathered in Chautauqua Park September 16, to celebrate Mexican and Central American Independence Day as part of the Hispanic Heritage Month. On a beautiful sunny day, children and parents enjoyed food and family-friendly activities, with many dancing to Latin music of three bands invited to perform. Minnesota State Senator Patricia Torres Ray, DFL Minneapolis, invited to share with the community, came ready to give them her support.
Participants were excited at the prospect of a well-deserved holiday celebration. After all, this is the same Latino community that only nine months before, on December 12, 2006, suffered dislocation, family separations, terror and pain when federal immigration agents raided the Swift plant to detain and deport undocumented workers. At that time, on another Latino holiday, the Day of Our Lady of Guadalupe, immigrants were pulled from their workplace and homes, families were separated, children were terrified, and an entire community suffered what a human rights worker would describe as a “man-made human disaster.”
On September 16, all this community wanted was to have a good time. And then police cancelled the party, after neighbors complained of the noise level. Roberto Ramirez is the chair of the Nobles County Hispanic Community, the group that organized the event. Ramirez says that when the police asked them to turn down the music, they complied. They went on with their party at lower decibels. But the police came once again, this time with reinforcements, and told them to completely stop the music.
The organizers then asked participants to go home. Most people left sad and disappointed, while others surrounded the police to express their frustration at what they believed was an act of discrimination. Why, they complained, other groups have festivals with music all the time, while their event was being cancelled? Was it because they are Latinos?
According to Roberto Ramirez, the event organizing committee had asked for permits from the City Council, including permits for music. Just a day before, the City of Worthington had celebrated “Turkey Day,” a local festival, without any incidents, and many other festivals with music are not cancelled. To the Latino people of Worthington, the cancellation of their event was an act of great injustice. They felt the message was that they are not liked in the city. Even Senator Torres Ray expressed her frustration and disappointment about the cancellation of the Latino Heritage festival.
On September 17, many Latinos participated in a march of protest for the cancellation of their fiesta. In the following days, a local radio station aired a series of calls and responses from people on both sides of the issue. Many people of Worthington said the issue was not about discrimination or injustice, but about regulations and noise levels. Some townspeople who called the radio were indignant that anybody would think that they do not appreciate Latinos, or that they discriminate, while others believed it was just a matter of lack of communication, disregard of laws and lack of respect. For Latinos, the issue still was about being able to celebrate in their own way without being asked to stop the music.
On September 30, representatives of Nobles County Hispanic Community met with the Mayor, City Council and police department. The members of the Latino community wanted an explanation and asked for a public apology. They complained about the money spent on the event. According to Roberto Ramirez, the meeting was amicable and the representatives of the Latino community felt very satisfied with the results. Next year’s celebration will be at a different park outside the city. A committee with representatives from the Latino community and the City Council will plan the festivities, so that these problems do not happen again.
Just a few years ago, the city of Worthington was predominantly white, with only a few Latino seasonal migrants working in the fields. In the 1990s many Latino immigrants started to move to the city to work in the Swift plant. Today, Latinos are one-third of the population of Worthington, and other immigrants from Africa also work in the plant. The makeup of the city has changed drastically, converting a small rural town into a multicultural city.
No Latinos serve on the City Council and they have no voice in the city’s official decision-making. Many Latinos believe that if they want to have their voice heard, now is the time to start organizing and getting prepared to fill out positions of leadership. “We need to be united,” said Roberto Ramirez, “This is a beautiful city where we want to raise our children, where we have our work. We want to get along with all the people of Worthington; we want to be accepted.”
Teresa Ortiz is a writer and organizer living in St. Paul.