The Lost Tribes of Faribault

Latinos, Somalis, and the American dream in southern Minnesota

Romo's job is to help Spanish-speaking families navigate the U.S. education system. Earlier this year, for example, a fifth-grade student who was frequently missing classes was referred to her by a teacher. It turned out that the student was being kept at home by her parents to help care for a younger sibling. Romo paid a visit to the mother and explained that school was not optional. "The next day the child was at school."

Romo believes that Faribault has also come a long way since 1991, as evidenced by the very fact that there is a Hispanic liaison employed by the school district. But there are still problems. When asked what services exist to help Somali school kids adjust to their new homes, Romo simply shakes her head back and forth: "None, none, none." In addition, the Hispanic liaison position was recently cut from full-time to part-time due to budget constraints.

Children of undocumented residents, in particular, face a quandary when it comes to education. While they are permitted to enroll in public schools, many are then unable to attend college because they lack a valid social security number. "The Dream Act," which was introduced in Congress last year, would change that by allowing high school graduates who have been in the country for five years to attend public universities at in-state tuition rates.

Angie Gil, a senior at Faribault High School, has helped organize a group to garner support for the measure locally. Gil's family is originally from Guatemala, but she was born in the United States and grew up in New York City. Her family moved to Faribault eight years ago to escape the city and be near relatives. "They liked it here and we got stuck moving here," Gil laughs. "It's boring. It's a small town. There's a lot of people here who are racist. I don't mind anymore. It's them."

While Gil herself would not be helped by The Dream Act, she has friends and relatives who are here illegally. "They have a dream to go to college and they can't," she notes. "They can't go to college. They can't work. They just end up going back to their own country."

Residents of Faribault have generally come to terms with the fact that most immigrants aren't going anywhere. In recent years, the town has made a genuine effort to embrace their presence. The most concrete reflection of this is the establishment of a "Welcome Center." Located in a city-owned house downtown, the facility serves as a one-stop resource for any difficulties that residents encounter, from an inability to read the phone bill to an empty cupboard.

The facility has provided a lifeline for residents like Mariana Hernandez (not her real name), an undocumented immigrant from Mexico who has lived in Faribault for four years. She and her husband relocated from California on the advice of a relative, believing that jobs would be more plentiful and the cost of living cheaper. When the couple first arrived, they shared a one-bathroom trailer with 18 other people.

Hernandez turned to the Welcome Center for help after her husband was laid off from his agricultural job earlier this year and they didn't have enough money to feed their two toddlers. "Es dificil," sighs Hernandez, a statement that needs no translation. She applied for financial assistance from the county, but couldn't read any of the materials that she received in the mail. For months, every time she received a notice from the county--or any other mail she couldn't understand--she would take it to the Welcome Center to have it translated.

Unfortunately, the Welcome Center is facing serious fiscal problems. From last October until the end of July, the facility had a full-time Americorps worker assigned to it, but the funding for that position has since been eliminated. In order to keep the facility staffed, a fundraising campaign was organized this summer with a goal of raising $50,000. It only brought in $6,000. For now, the center has pieced together enough volunteer help to keep the doors open. The Turkey Store has promised to provide interpreters to work at the facility for eight hours each week and a grant from Rice County Family Services Collaborative is providing another 12 hours of staffing. "If you add it together, we'll be able to cover a good portion of the week," reasons Welcome Center coordinator Bob Kell.

Not all immigrants are coming to Faribault out of economic necessity. Abdi Omar, a native of Somalia, relocated from Chicago late last year after determining that there was a business opportunity to be exploited in south central Minnesota. In February, he and a business partner opened Banadir, a restaurant and bodega located on Central Avenue in downtown Faribault.

"There's our community here and there's just a need to serve them," Omar says in stilted English. "And we need to get the money from them too." At this he bursts out in laughter. "We're going to kill two birds with one stone."

Despite its geographically specific name, Banadir does not cater exclusively to the Somali community. The front of the restaurant is painted in red, green, and white, the colors of the Mexican flag--a remnant from the previous tenant. Inside there are other reminders of the prior business: oversized sombreros and colorful Mexican blankets line the walls. At the rear of the store is a modest restaurant. There are eight tables covered with red-checked tablecloths of the type usually associated with pizza parlors. The product selection is equally eclectic. Halal meat, prepared in accordance with Muslim scripture, is available, as are cactus tostadas, imported from Mexico, and bottles of cologne. The television is tuned to MSNBC.

A Hispanic man comes into the store and grabs a drink out of the refrigerator. As the customer approaches the counter, Omar attempts to engage him in conversation. "Que pasa?" he asks.

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