By Jesse Marx
By Chris Parker
By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
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.
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.
On a Tuesday evening in June, Westrum is addressing roughly 50 Steele County Coalition supporters at a senior citizens' center in Owatonna. The assembled throng has a few traits in common: They are old and white, and they believe fervently that immigration is destroying Minnesota. Westrum has brought along some sweatshirts and T-shirts to sell. The word "Freedom" is emblazoned on the front. Across the back is a seemingly contradictory slogan: "Here in America We Speak English." Westrum boasts that more than 500 shirts have been sold so far. "We had a guy that was at the Mall of America and somebody bought the shirt right off of his back," he marvels.
Westrum is followed to the podium by Marlene Nelson, a 59-year-old Owatonna resident. She's a squat, white-haired woman with a bullhorn voice and brash manner. Nelson has twice run unsuccessfully for city council, losing the first time by just eight votes. The topic of her talk tonight is the federal government's H-1B visa program, which allows foreign workers in specialized fields such as engineering or computer programming to work legally in the United States for up to six years. Currently, as many as 195,000 such workers enter the country each year under the program.
Nelson believes that these temporary workers are taking away high-paying jobs from American citizens. She takes pains, however, to couch her argument as pro-American rather than anti-immigrant. "Now, don't blame the people who are here on H-1B," Nelson cautions. "They're being told that America doesn't have the brainpower to do our own work. They're not the villains in this. It's Congress and big business that concocted this idea."
This tone changes near the end of Nelson's speech, when she invokes the specter of California and its ongoing budget crisis. "They've been invaded and they've had too many people coming in," she proclaims. "I think it's a preview of what's going to happen here if we don't do something about it. We really need to get a handle on cutting down the numbers coming in and we need to get Americans back working. They need jobs too."
Anti-immigration advocates like Nelson and Westrum walk a fine line between jingoism and outright racism. Many of the organizations across the country that lobby for curtailing immigration and cracking down on illegal residents receive funding through the Pioneer Fund, a philanthropic organization that was founded by Wycliffe P. Draper, a millionaire businessman who promoted sending blacks back to Africa. The organization also was a primary supporter of research that sought to prove that whites are inherently smarter than blacks.
The Steele County Coalition itself has no financial ties to the Pioneer Fund. The group relies on the volunteer work and donations of its supporters, who are predominently retirees who feel threatened by the vast demographic changes in their part of the state. Their activities are largely confined to writing letters to the editor and collecting petition signatures. No such organization has taken shape in Faribault, but Westrum and Nelson vow to start a group in the near future.
Anti-immigration advocates generally rely on inflammatory statistics to prop up their arguments. They point out, for example, that the foreign-born population in Minnesota increased by 130 percent in the Nineties. While this is accurate, it obscures how small a fraction of the overall population immigrants remain. According to the 2000 census, there are roughly 260,000 foreign-born residents of Minnesota. This amounts to just five percent of the overall population. "They make it sound like batten down the hatches, there's thousands and thousands of immigrants coming to Minnesota. That's just not the case," says Professor Fennelly.
Immigration-reform advocates also consistently portray foreign-born residents as leeches, sucking out tax dollars for social services while contributing nothing in return. However, a 2000 study conducted by economist James Kielkopf for the Center for Rural Policy and Development determined that in south central Minnesota, Hispanic workers contributed $484 million annually to the economy. What's more, he estimated that such residents bolstered the local tax base by $45 million and contributed $76 million to the federal coffers--easily outpacing any government expenditures necessitated by their presence. According to 2002 U.S. Census Bureau statistics, 66 percent of foreign-born residents are employed, compared to 71 percent for native-born Minnesotans.
These statistics are nowhere to be found during the Steele County Coalition meeting. The immigrants discussed this evening are busy committing crimes, living off welfare, and stealing American jobs. Esther Dabill, another of the evening's speakers, is concerned about the possibility that Muslim residents might be permitted to have their driver's license photos taken while wearing head scarves that obscure their faces. Dabill cites a recent Florida case that she heard about on The O'Reilly Factor in which a woman sought to have her picture taken with just her eyes showing. Although the woman was rebuffed by the courts, Dabill is worried that such accommodations might be made in Minnesota. "I went down to the driver's license office and asked the clerk there, 'What happens if a woman comes in with her face covered and that's the way she wants to have her picture taken?'" Dabill tells the audience. "She said, 'We don't let her do it. She doesn't like it, but we make her remove all of it, except she can leave her hair covered.'" The clerk's response did little to reassure Dabill. "They're trying to repeal that in Minnesota," she insists.
Sue Zollar, the next speaker, is concerned that illegal immigrants might be allowed to attend college. She mentions recently introduced federal legislation, known as "The Dream Act," that would permit undocumented high school graduates who have been in the country for more than five years to qualify for in-state tuition rates. "You, the American taxpayers, should not have to foot the bill for illegal immigrants to attend our colleges and universities," she says. "Yet Congress has proposed to make this outrage the law of the land."
The final speaker of the evening is Amon Hilo, a stoop-shouldered man with a shaky voice and trembling hands. His rambling speech jumps from the perils of diversity to the Holy Trinity, and ends with a sort-of call to arms. "We're never going to influence anything and we're never going to change anything just by possessing facts," Hilo informs the group. "As a Christian, I myself feel the first response to what we've heard tonight must be to pray, because that's the only way to bring the change that's necessary." Hilo then goes on to declare that the country has been "conquered by pagan philosophies and ideas and thoughts." Marlene Nelson finally manages to usher Hilo off the stage with a nervous smile.
After the meeting I speak with Esther Dabill. She became involved with the Steele County Coalition out of frustration over not being eligible for government benefits. After twice battling leukemia, Dabill relates, she wound up unable to work at age 56 and sought financial assistance from Steele County. The government proved to be of no help. "As a native-born Minnesotan, I wasn't eligible for any services whatsoever even though I couldn't work," she claims. "And I'm a single person, so I have to take care of myself."
We're soon joined by Marlene Nelson. She takes umbrage at the suggestion that the Steele County Coalition and other anti-immigration groups are racist. "We deal in facts here," Nelson says. "That's why I get so upset with people saying we're like the KKK, or we're racist or bigoted. That's not true." To illustrate this point, Nelson tells a story about an Owatonna resident originally from Jamaica whom she befriended. She says that they began chatting regularly over coffee and that he agreed with her views on immigration. The man, who went by the nickname Ten Speed, had even promised to accompany Nelson to an upcoming Steele County Coalition meeting. "Well, before I could pick him up he got arrested in Central Park, right in downtown Owatonna, for being an illegal immigrant," Nelson says incredulously. "How silly I would have looked if I had brought him to this meeting."
As people begin to head home for the evening, I'm buttonholed by Amon Hilo. He says that he worked on the assembly line as a deboner at the Turkey Store in Faribault in the mid-'90s and witnessed firsthand how cultural diversity plays out on the factory floor. "I would have always thought that the Hmong and the Vietnamese and the Cambodians, being from the same general part of the world, that they would sort of work together and cooperate," he says. "But they hated one another. Knife fights! They had to call the cops because guys with big boning knives would get in knife fights."
Hilo is at a loss as to what should be done about all the problems that he associates with immigration. Luckily, he has ruled out violence as an option. "Is me putting anthrax in an envelope gonna solve anything?" he asks. "Or me getting my carry license, and getting my pistol, and going over there to the cultural diversity meeting and shooting all those people? What's that gonna do? Violence don't propagate the truth, you see?"
Fatima arrived in Minneapolis in 2001 directly from a Kenyan refugee camp. Four months later--single, unemployed, and unable to speak English--she moved to Faribault to take a job at the Turkey Store. She worked on the plant's assembly line, slicing up one turkey after another as it passed by overhead, earning $9.50 an hour. The repetitive, arduous work eventually caused Fatima to tear her rotator cuff. (Fearing retaliation from the company, Fatima did not want her real name used in this article.)
After having surgery, Fatima returned to work. Initially, per doctor's orders, she was placed in a less physically taxing job. This reprieve didn't last long. According to Fatima, the company insisted that she return to a job on the assembly line, even though she had not been cleared by her doctor. Unable to speak English, she felt powerless to argue with her immediate supervisors. "No matter how much you get injured, you have to be working," Fatima says through a translator.
When she attempted to bring up her medical problems with officials at the Turkey Store, Fatima says she was punished. In one instance she was sent home from work early. Then she was suspended for two weeks without pay. Fatima remained on the job because she didn't know where else she could find work and her family members back in Somalia were depending on her for support. In order to try to protect herself, Fatima got involved with a union drive being conducted at the plant by the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW).
Fatima believes this ultimately led to her ouster. In May, the company fired her, supposedly for poor work habits. However, the two instances of troublesome behavior cited in the termination letter occurred in 2001 and 2002. There was no mention of any recent event that might have led to her dismissal.
Donaldson Lawhead, an Austin attorney who is representing Fatima, believes that her case is part of a disturbing pattern. "They're taking people who have injuries and they're putting them in jobs that exceed what the doctor says they should be doing. And when they complain, they say they're guilty of misconduct," argues Lawhead. He is currently representing seven other workers who have been injured on the job.
Because Fatima was fired for purported misconduct, she is ineligible for workers' compensation. Lawhead has filed an appeal with the U.S. Department of Labor arguing that her injuries entitle her to compensation. The UFCW is also considering filing charges of labor-law violations with the National Labor Relations Board.
Andrew Mason, an organizer with the UFCW, contends that firing workers when they get injured or display support for the union is a tactic that the Turkey Store uses to bully its employees. Workers at the slaughterhouse used to be represented by the UFCW, but in the mid-'90s the plant was temporarily shut down. When it reopened, the union had been ousted and wages had been cut. Since that time, the workforce has become increasingly dominated by immigrants, particularly Somalis.
Mason has been attempting to organize Turkey Store employees since February, but without much success. He blames the lack of progress on ignorance among the workers and intimidation by the company. "The immigrant workers are not aware of what their rights are and they're not aware of what to do," Mason says. He alleges that the company is constantly holding meetings to discourage employees from organizing and that workers are forced to stand outside the plant with anti-union placards each time the UFCW hands out leaflets. "Basically the organizing campaign is in neutral due to the effect of the intimidation by the company," Mason says.
It is impossible to discern the Turkey Store's take on these allegations. The plant's human resources director referred inquiries to an office inWillmar. Repeated calls over a two-month period were not returned.
Kymn Anderson, executive director of the Faribault Chamber of Commerce, defends the Turkey Store's employment practices, arguing that the company has gone out of its way to accommodate the needs of employees. For example, the Turkey Store has created a prayer room for its Muslim workers. "We have found them to be a great partner in the community for issues that have come up," Anderson says.
The prayer room will be of little help to Fatima. She is now living with a cousin in Minneapolis and remains unemployed.
On a muggy thursday evening shortly before the Fourth of July, 27-year-old police officer Eric Sammon is providing me with a tour of the Cannon River Trailer Park. It's a relatively slow night on patrol. So far we've delivered a sick cat to the Humane Society and responded to a purported burglary that turned out to be someone breaking into his own home.
Sammon is a Faribault native. The three-year veteran of the police department is roughly 5'6", with a square jaw and baby face. He wears a pair of wraparound silver shades to augment his police blues. "Back in my high school days and my elementary school days, it was pretty much all white," Sammon says of his hometown.
The Cannon River Trailer Park is a cluster of almost 200 mobile homes situated alongside State Road 21. "This is probably our worst trailer park right here, as far as getting calls," Sammon ventures. He drives slowly down the narrow roads, occasionally waving to the Hispanic kids who are clustered everywhere, riding bikes or shooting off firecrackers. Some of the trailers are dilapidated, scarred with broken windows and splintered siding. Others are pristine, with neat gardens squeezed into sandbox-sized yards. "That one burned down about two months ago," Sammon says, pointing to a ramshackle structure rendered uninhabitable by fire. "I can't remember what it was from. I think it was a stove." Cars are squeezed into every conceivable inch of space, as many as five per trailer.
Sammon figures that over the last seven years, Cannon River has morphed from an entirely white enclave to one that is now perhaps 90 percent Hispanic. No matter what ethnic group dominates, however, it has remained a hot spot for the police. "It used to be all our whites that were in trouble that lived here," he notes.
The arrival of significant numbers of foreign-born residents over the last decade has presented Faribault's cops and courts with some predicaments. The chief problem is language. Of the police force's 28 officers, not one is fluent in Spanish or Somali. Police Chief Michael Lewis says that it's extremely difficult to hire bilingual cops, because such officers are highly sought after by larger departments.
Last year the police department spent $6,000 on translation services, a figure that rises annually. On one criminal sexual conduct case alone this year, the department has shelled out $2,500 to pay translators. With the city facing a serious fiscal crunch, Lewis says that the police department might have to make do without such services in the future. "One of the things we may have to look at with budget cuts is relying on the community to help themselves," he says.
The recent arrest of Nooh Mohamud Abdille, a 21-year-old Somali man who was employed at the Turkey Store, offers a window into the difficulties facing law enforcement agencies. On June 28, at 2:30 a.m., police officers were dispatched to an apartment in downtown Faribault to investigate a domestic assault. According to the criminal complaint, after a night of drinking at Denny's Bar, Abdille threatened to kill his uncle and then stabbed him with a kitchen knife. Because neither of the men spoke much English, the police ran into immediate problems conducting the investigation. "They didn't get statements from all the witnesses right away because they didn't have an interpreter," says Rice County Attorney Paul Beaumaster.
Abdille was eventually charged with three felonies, including second degree attempted murder. At his arraignment two days later, however, there was again no interpreter available. The hearing had to be postponed for a week. Abdille is now awaiting trial.
Language is not the only stumbling block for law enforcement officials in dealing with people from other countries. Many immigrants run afoul of the law repeatedly because they don't have a valid driver's license or insurance. The problem stems primarily from ignorance rather than malevolence. "Sometimes they just don't understand the concept of a license," Beaumaster says. "They will share a license between six guys--six guys with one license." In addition, when non-English speakers have their licenses suspended because of violations, they often can't read the notices that come in the mail. "They don't come in Somalian," Beaumaster notes.
In order to prevent people from continuously cycling through the courts for petty violations, the county attorney's office is now trying to set up a diversion program. The details of the plan are still being worked out, but the hope is to offer non-English speakers education services that will help them permanently steer clear of driving infractions. "If you can get somebody off that cycle and back on line for 100 bucks, it's a bargain," argues Beaumaster.
There is some evidence that minority residents aren't getting a fair shake from the Faribault cops. A study of racial profiling released last month found that Hispanics are six times more likely than whites to have their vehicles searched when they're pulled over by the police in Faribault. What's more, Hispanics are three times less likely to be caught with contraband when a search is conducted. Chief Lewis is not willing to concede that racial profiling is a problem, however. He contends that each traffic stop involves unique circumstances that raw numbers don't take into account. "It's not exactly crystal clear, clean cut," he argues. "There are other factors involved."
During my night with the Faribault police, most of the post-twilight hours are indeed spent dealing with traffic stops, along with drunks and fireworks scofflaws. After a mid-shift break at the Truckers Inn, I begin riding with 31-year-old rookie officer Eric Bengtson. He has a goatee and a steel-trap memory that he primarily uses to reproduce movie dialogue and to catalog the crimes of Faribault's citizens. "I see one of our local scumbags back there," Bengtson notes as we drive through downtown around 11:30 p.m. "He did a home invasion on an 87-year-old woman and threw her to the ground." He checks to see if the guy has any outstanding warrants, but the scumbag comes back clean.
Roughly an hour later, a black kid wearing a stocking cap catches Bengtson's attention. "It seems a little odd, when it's this hot out, this muggy out, that he's wearing a stocking cap," he reasons. "So we'll follow him and see what he's doing." After tailing the vehicle for several blocks, Bengtson concludes that the driver's not up to any trouble.
We spend bar-closing time milling outside Spike's Bar & Grill, a local watering hole that's the only jumping joint in town this evening. The (almost entirely white) patrons do a boozy double take as they exit the bar and spy two squad cars. After weighing the odds of getting behind the wheel drunk with the cops looking on, most of them either call a cab or walk home.
As we're leaving Spike's, a call comes over the transom reporting a disturbance at the Cannon River Trailer Park. Four squad cars arrive to find three Hispanic guys--two of them shirtless--sitting on their back porch amidst a pile of beer bottles and a boom box. The men look bleary-eyed and bewildered, communicating with the cops in broken English. Bengtson ventures into the trailer to survey the scene. "It's hotter than shit in that back room," he reports. Finally, after taking down the men's names and warning them to keep it down, the cops depart.
After seven hours on patrol, it's clear that Faribault's citizens all have at least a couple of things in common--a fondness for booze and a tendency to behave poorly under its influence.
Carrie Romo still lives in the Cannon River Trailer Park, but few other details of her life remain the same. In the 12 years since first arriving in Faribault, she's earned a degree from South Central Technical College, taken additional classes at Augsburg College, and now works as the Hispanic liaison for the Faribault public elementary schools.
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.