A rose is a rose is Melrose by any other name?

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A colleague from the college was extremely gracious this past weekend and took me up to her hometown of Melrose, MN to introduce me to folks who her equally gracious father had arranged for me to meet. It was an eye-opening experience and gave me the chance to try out my conversations with a wide array of people as well as get a long ride in–130 miles back home.

A Journey Across Our America: Observations & Reflections on the Latinoization of the U.S. From July-December 2007 I’ll be biking across the U.S. This experience will be the basis for book that follows José Martí’s 1891 call in “Our America” for a distinctively American culture, one that embraces rather than denies, the dynamic and organic relationship between place, language, and experience that shapes the American continent. In the blog I’ll document the exchanges I have with people about the Latinoization of the U.S. as well as my own life experiences and thoughts.

Melrose, like many small towns of Middle America has undergone a dramatic demographic change in the last decade. Repeatedly I heard from folks that prior to 1996 there were only about 16 Latinos in town, all part of the Cruz or Carbajal families. During the 90s economic boom a great number of Melrose citizens took better jobs in St. Cloud and subsequently moved. It was then that Jennie O, the turkey processing giant, began hiring large numbers of recent immigrants, and thus the chain migration process began that resulted in a significant number of folks from Michoacan migrated to take the entry level jobs at the plant. These workers helped the plant and occupied housing and fed the local economy so Melrose did not experience significant economic downturn despite losing a large number of its Anglo residents. Now, Latino migrants from other parts of the U.S. and more recent arrivals to the U.S., many of whom are sin papeles, comprise about 20% of the local population, though the 2005 online profile says that this number is only 12.3% (http://www.city-data.com/city/Melrose-Minnesota.html).

My host for the day was George O’Brien, a retiree and former 2 term mayor of Melrose from 1996-2002. It was during his tenure as mayor that the influx of Latino immigrants began arriving in Melrose–and it is clear that George’s leadership and open mindedness towards Melrose’s newest residents has had a tremendously positive impact. In his own words, they have tried to learn from the mistakes made in other Minnesota towns like Willmar and Worthington where the change in population has not been so smooth. To this end they are working with the Latino community and immigration advocates in the Twin Cities to develop a response plan should ICE make Melrose the target of an immigration raid. More impressively, George was the catalyst for the formation of Communities Connecting Cultures, a non-profit immigrant service organization whose single staff person works 25% of her weekly hours running the organization and whose pay is supplemented by Jennie O, her employer. CCC has a board that offers the young Latina who runs the organization, Ana Santana, advice on issues that arise and direction for the organization’s growth. George had heard about a similar organization in another town and approached Jennie O about providing staff support and some office space to start the program locally.

Ana, her husband and 3 children live in a trailer park in Albany, a town about 10 miles from Melrose. Like her, many of her co-workers live in surrounding towns and make the short commute daily. Originally from California, Ana’s father moved them to Melrose in the late 90s for better working conditions. In California her father worked in the fields and she shared memories with me of spending days in the vicinity of the fields while her family worked. Her father has since moved on to find work in the southern United States, but with a family and a stable job she doesn’t foresee them leaving Melrose anytime. She said when she saw the position advertised she was immediately interested and felt that her English language proficiency and interest in helping her co-workers would be an asset. Over the last few years the range of support services offered by CCC has grown expansively–from offering basic advice to newcomers about employment, social services, and cultural events to providing free tax advice to a large number of people in the surrounding communities. Young kids take advantage of her diligence, sincere desire to help, and resourcefulness–so I heard one anecdote about a young man who wanted to learn to break dance and she was able to find some online information for him so he could teach himself. Her work with CCC is not limited to 10 hours a week as folks approach her at home or church with questions. The Santana’s house is decorated with Mexican religious and cultural icons–and the kids gathered around as we spoke and were happy to pose for a picture with their mom. I asked her what her hopes and dreams were for her children and she replied by saying that she wanted them to have a good education so they could have even better opportunities than she has had.

After speaking with Ana, Kelly, her dad and I met Mrs. O’Brien for lunch at El Portal, the “best” restaurant in town as I was repeatedly told. We met the proprietor, Jose, and his daughter. As people began corwding in for the lunch rush Jose asked me to meet him at the futbol game later that afternoon so we could talk more. I agreed. Mr. O’Brien’s familiarity with people became evident as adults and children alike greeted him as they entered. As we spoke about the long-time townspeople’s attitudes about changes over the last decade they acknowledged that not all folks are as open as they are. Mrs. O’Brien made the point that many were wary of recent arrivals and held typical anxieties about the changing character and culture of the town. When asked why they (the O’Briens and others who go out of their way to facilitate the integration of new immigrants into Melrose), she said “because it was the good Christian thing to do”and that these new immigrants shared many of their same values and admirable qualities such a strong work ethic and family values. Though Kelly later expressed her chagrin at her mom’s response because she thought it was a bit to convenient an explanation that didn’t get to a more complex social and political explanation, I believe Mrs. O’Brien was sincere. I could hear my mom offering the same rationale because the Catholic disposition to be charitable to others and to follow the golden rule is both simple and profound guide for living; having compassion and doing good deeds offers one a way to find personal salvation–therein lies a framework for understanding one’s self-interest but also a lens through which to see how people’s well-being are tied to one another.

By the way, the food was great! I had the best chorizo and eggs I’ve been able to find in Minnesota.

After lunch I met with Tim King, the publisher of La Voz Libre, a Spanish language newspaper published in Long Prairie, and Herman Lensing, the Asst. Editor at the Melrose Beacon, to discuss my trip. We had a lively conversation about my trip, other literary sojourns taken across the country and in other nations by foot, car, and trains. Tim indicated that he would cover my trip from time to time so the local communities could stay apprised of my progress.

This was followed by an opportunity to meet with Angel Vargas, a young entrepreneur who owns two stores in Melrose and one in Long Prairie. Two of these are clothing stores that specialize in ropa mexicana, with the other one being a small automotive accessory store in downtown Melrose that specializes in electronics. While the clothing stores target the Latino community, he spoke of wanting to draw a more diverse crowd to the accessory store. Angel is from Fresno, CA. and came to Melrose with his family about 5 years ago. In addition to being a young entrepreneur, he is also very active in the community as the director of one of the youth soccer leagues. He and Tim King spoke about the prospect of buying one of the local radio stations and wondered aloud of advertisers would support a Spanish language station. After chatting with him I then met with John Jensen, the chief of police, at a coffee shop across the street and had a very insightful conversation on his perspective of Anglo-Mexican relationships in the town. Originally from St. Paul, Chief Jensen has been in Melrose for close to 20 years. Like most folks I think he may have had some wariness about the new population but over time he has come to respect the contributions they have made to the local economy and other than involvement by some outsiders in a drug bust, he said that the most common infraction of problems he sees is folks driving without a driver’s license. Even then he seemed to understand the quandary people were in who needed to drive to work but who couldn’t get a license. He was very clear with me that he thought the downtown area would be desolate if it were not for the occupations of residential housing and businesses by Latinos. He shared with me anecdotes about locals, particularly elders, who have had to adjust their attitudes over time as the local culture and day to day rhythms have changed over time. Part of his job thus involves explaining to these residents that difference is not intrinsically harmful or threatening. He said that other than the drug bust incident they have not worked with ICE–and he eschews any notion that they would strategize with them on a raid.

Following a brief tour of downtown Melrose, that included a visit to St. Mary’s church where a Spanish language mass is held on Sundays and a side altar has been set up to honor the Virgen de Guadalupe and a quick trip to Earl’s bar, Kelly took me to the soccer game at the park to meet Peggy and John Stokman, two retirees who re-located to Melrose from Nebraska with the intention of finding a community where they could be advocates for new immigrants. As with the O’Briens it was evident that the Stokmans were were know and liked in the community as children and adults alike went out of their way to greet them. Having spent some time in Central America on a mission, the Stokmans returned to Nebraska and became involved in the immigrant rights movement, mostly through their church. Though their involvement is something that is frowned upon by their children who take a more legalistic approach to people’s rights, they have not allowed that to abate their passion for their work. Aware of how their presence as outsiders might be perceived, their entree into the Latino community of Melrose began through their regular attendance of the Spanish language mass. After a few weeks some parishioners began approaching them and letting them know they appreciated their presence and began inviting them to social outings. As trust was built and genuine relationships formed the Stokmans said that residents told them what they needed most was English language instruction. Having experience with this in Nebraska, they put together a free ESL program and solicited volunteers from among Melrose residents who served as instructors after receiving some training. This program involved more than 60 tutors, most of whom knew no Spanish! Notwithstanding the impressive involvement of residents in the ESL program, when I asked them about Anglo-Mexican relations, they admitted that for many folks particularly the elderly, there was reluctance to accept change. Scattered throughout the mostly Latino crowd at the park were some young white youth who were clearly friends of the players. To help me get an answer to how youth were adapting to this change they took me to a high school graduation party to which they had been invited so I could find out for myself.

There I met the guest of honor who aspired to go to St. Benedict College in St. Joesph. According to her, socializing among youth of different backgrounds in the high school was somewhat limited. However, her younger brother who just passed the sixth grade, the kids were all friends despite background. I also had the pleasure of meeting Mr. and Mrs. Carbajal, some of the long-time mexicano residents of Melrose who are considered community elders and often looked to for advice. Mr. Carbajal is now retired from Jennio-O, while his wife continues to work in HR at the plant. Mr. Carbajal was fairly adamant that things have changed for the better for the Latino community as their numbers have increased. He also believes that it is incumbent for new immigrants to earn the trust of locals through their actions and behavior.

The Ride Home

I left Melrose about 5:00 p.m. feeling very satisfied with the range of people I met and the conversations we had. My goal was to reach Watkins, MN by nightfall, about 45 miles away. While that goal was reached, I could not find a place to camp or get a hotel so I rode into the dark with the goal of reaching the next town about 16 mils up the road. HWY 55 has a nice broad shoulder and though there was no moon out and I had to ride a lot more slowly, I made it to Annandale a little before 11:00p.m. Unfortunately, I ended up having to go two towns further to Buffalo before I could find a room. By the time I arrived it was close to 1:00 a.m. and I had gone 85 miles. Very, very tired I slept late and rode the final 45 miles home the next morning.

I’m a 46 year old Tejano transplant living in Minnesota since the summer of 2004 when I decided to jump off the proverbial cliff and see what life would hold for me if I accepted a position as chair of The Department of Chicano Studies at the University of Minnesota. Surrounded by a great group of people, the work has been super hard, but fun & rewarding. I think we’re making progress all the time. What’s progress? Well, that’s always debateable because it’s relative. From where we were, we’ve come far. From where we want to be, we’ve a long way to go. In the meanwhile, this blog is about another journey, one which I hope will keep me sane as I try to figure out this crazy world and my place in it…