(Homes at Viking Terrace. Photo by Hai Ngo.)
When his car broke down two weeks ago, José Ramos and his family faced a difficult decision.
Replacing the car’s water pump would put a considerable strain on the family’s monthly budget. Yet without a car, José couldn’t drive to the sites around Northfield where he finds occasional home improvement odd jobs.
So paying for the repair was a necessity, he and his wife Angelica, decided.
Laid off from his full-time construction job five months ago, José now spends all of his time looking for work. “Sometimes I work for a week, and then not at all. Sometimes there will be work for two days, then none,” he says.
The Ramos’ situation is common today in Northfield’s Hispanic community, where few have avoided the effects of the global economic recession that began in 2008.
Nationwide, the unemployment rate for Hispanics now stands at 13.1 percent compared to the national average of 10.2 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Construction and manufacturing jobs are especially hard hit and anecdotal accounts in the Northfield area suggest a similar story here.
Undocumented immigrants have an especially difficult time finding work, because many companies that once employed them without question now conduct careful screenings. Undocumented immigrants are also usually unable to qualify for government support programs such as unemployment benefits and food stamps.
José immigrated 20 years ago from his home in Veracruz, Mexico. His wife Angelica followed seven years later. They asked that their real names not be used to identify them in this article. The couple now lives with their two daughters, ages 12 and 6, in a small home in the Viking Terrace Mobile Home Park, where much of Northfield’s Hispanic immigrant population can be found.
With Angelica’s low-paying Lakeview factory job now providing the family’s only steady source of income, paying the bills and buying food are their top priority.
When there was money, Angelica says, the family took trips to visit relatives in California and Wisconsin, and to Disneyland.
“Now, those things are luxuries,” Angelica said.
With winter’s higher electricity bills on the way, and no sign of a steady job for José, the Ramoses must budget carefully to buy essentials like shoes and clothing for their daughters.
The new economic stresses on Northfield’s Hispanic community means an extra burden for the institutions that support them, of which there are several very active in Northfield.
The parishioners of the St. Dominic Catholic Church, which offers a weekly mass in Spanish, also donate used furniture and cars which are distributed to church members in need. Fr. Dennis Dempsey at St. Dominic’s says the program is so popular that his own garage, where the donated sofas, chairs and tables are stored before being claimed by parishioners, is “like a used furniture shop.”
Every week, immigrants and their children, including the Ramoses, gather to pray and connect with other Hispanics at St. Dominic’s. “It’s a comfort,” Angelica says.
The Community Action Center (CAC), the most important service group supporting Hispanic immigrants in Northfield, runs a food shelf, a weekly free family meal, a Christmas gift-sharing program, and a program to provide school supplies to children.
Hispanics make up roughly 7 percent of the Rice County population, according to the Minnesota Department of Health, while over half of the nearly 2400 individuals the CAC served last year were Hispanic.
HealthFinders Collaborative, a local free clinic for uninsured Rice County residents, also serves many local Hispanic immigrants. They were the majority of the clinic’s patients until the recession hit, and they remain so, although unemployed white patients are now “pretty close to equal” to the number of unemployed Hispanics, according to Angie Koch, the clinic’s director.
The Hispanic community also does a lot to support its own members in need, according to Fr. Dempsey.
“When they come up here, they’re coming because there’s a connection,” Fr. Dempsey said, explaining that many immigrants choose to live in Northfield because family members, friends, or neighbors from their home communities in Mexico or South America have already settled here.
So when times are tough, immigrants’ extended families here provide extra food or a place to stay. José and Angelica are no exception-they help support a cousin who also immigrated from Mexico by providing food and a room in their already-full house for only $300 per month.
For José and Angelica Ramos, nothing will ease their economic worries but a secure job for José. “The main thing is having work, nothing more. That’s the only reason we came here-to work,” says Angelica.
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