The Lost Tribes of Faribault

Latinos, Somalis, and the American dream in southern Minnesota

 Carrie Romo's family first came to Faribault in the summer of 1991 in search of work. Her husband, who heard from a friend that there were jobs to be had in south central Minnesota, had headed north from Texas to explore the opportunities. After he landed a job at the Seneca Foods cannery in Montgomery, his wife and two of their kids followed. The journey took three days on an Amtrak train.

Romo is of Mexican descent, but she grew up in Eagle Pass, Texas, a border town with few (legal) economic opportunities. "Either you drive a truck or you sell drugs or you know somebody who knows somebody who knows somebody who gets you a job," she says.

That first summer in Minnesota, Romo found work providing daycare to the children of migrant workers. Even with two wage earners, the family's living situation was difficult. Initially they lived in the basement of a family friend's home. Then they secured a trailer at the Cannon River Trailer Park that they shared with relatives. Clothes were communal property too. On weekends they pored through yard sales for bargains. "Everything we could get for free we'd take," Romo notes.

Diana Watters

The reception that her family received in Faribault was not friendly. She recalls hunting for an apartment back in 1991 and being informed by the landlord that cockroaches were not welcome at the complex. "That was our first taste of Faribault," she remembers. "You would walk into a store and they would just stare at you."

Despite the chilly reception, Romo and her family migrated between Faribault and the Mexican border for the next seven years, arriving in Minnesota each summer in time for the vegetable harvest. Then, in 1998, after her husband secured a year-round position at Seneca Foods, the family became permanent Minnesota residents.

It's a transition that has been duplicated by thousands of Mexican families in the last decade all over rural Minnesota, in towns like Willmar, Worthington, Albert Lea, and Faribault. "When I came in '91 you would only see the Mexicans, or the Hispanics, in the summer," Romo notes.

Faribault is the seat of Rice County, 60 miles south of the Twin Cities, with a population of roughly 20,000. Ever since the Mdewakanton Sioux Indians were driven out of the area following an uprising in 1862, the overwhelming majority of residents have been white. In the last decade, however, Faribault's racial profile has changed dramatically. Between 1990 and 2000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, the percentage of Hispanic residents jumped from less than 1 percent to 15 percent. These immigrants have been followed by other economic pilgrims, most notably refugees from Somalia and Sudan. More than a quarter of the students now enrolled in kindergarten at the Faribault public schools speak a language other than English at home.

The main impetus for this influx of foreign-born residents is jobs. The largest employer of immigrant labor in Faribault is the Jennie-O Turkey Store, a subsidiary of Hormel Foods that employs roughly 600 people, predominantly Somalis. Canneries like Faribault Foods and Primera Foods also hire many foreign-born residents. "Immigration is almost exclusively driven by food processing in south central Minnesota," says Katherine Fennelly, a professor at the University of Minnesota's Hubert H. Humphrey Institute for Public Policy who has been studying immigration issues in Faribault for the last two years.

Driven by a desire to lower labor costs, eliminate unions, and increase profits, many slaughterhouses have moved from cities to rural areas over the last three decades. The accompanying jobs generally pay less than $10 an hour, are extremely dangerous, and offer little in the way of security or benefits. For the most part, immigrants are the only people willing to work under these conditions. "It's very hard work--low prestige work," notes Fennelly. "I think it's quite safe to say that the white U.S.-born residents are not coming to work in these plants."

As in other small towns across Minnesota, the rapid integration of large numbers of immigrants into Faribault has proven turbulent. The various ethnic groups are largely segregated and seldom interact. Many newcomers feel alienated and unwanted. The cops and courts have found themselves struggling to deal with residents who don't speak English and have little understanding of U.S. laws. And in many towns, elderly white residents have organized groups to fight immigration and shine a harsh spotlight on illegal residents.

Whether Faribault's white residents choose to believe it or not, immigrants could be the key to the town's survival. According to the Rural Policy Center, the population of south central Minnesota increased by 7,000 people during the 1990s, but only 470 of these new residents were white non-Hispanics.

"You've got to look at the pluses," argues Dan Burns, a program supervisor at South Central Technical College and a member of Faribault's Diversity Coalition, a group set up to grapple with immigration issues. "We can't have it both ways. You can't say, 'Yes, we need you to work in our plants, but at six o'clock we don't want to see you anymore.'"

 

Paul Westrum doesn't see any upside to immigration. For the last decade, the 60-year-old retiree and Albert Lea resident has been the primary force behind organized resistance to immigration in Minnesota. Two years ago he helped start the Steele County Coalition for Immigration Reduction. He claims that there are now 26 other like-minded organizations across Minnesota.

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