The 2014 OAP Organizing Class of 19 organizers just graduated on August 7. Over the six-month training, they had the opportunity to learn from organizers in Greater Minnesota and the Twin Cities area. The Greater Minnesota trips to Leech Lake and Southern Minnesota were immersion experiences that expanded knowledge, understanding, and relationships among the OAP class members. Congratulations to these powerful racial justice organizers!
By Salvador Miranda
“Got Food? Thank a Farmworker” – Centro Campesino
The 2014 OAP Traveling Organizing Class was on the road again for the next immersion experience, this time to Southern Minnesota hosted by the Centro Campesino staff and leaders. The class began the tour at the migrant camp used by Seneca Corporation (Montgomery) for the migrant workers who come to Minnesota each year from Texas and the Southwest. The camp consists of a dozen trailers (not manufactured homes) equipped with bunk beds, but no cooking facilities. Hundreds of men and women live in separate quarters and those with families and children have no available housing. Some find family housing in nearby towns.
The class listened to stories of the finding places to cook food at the nearby park in the picnic areas. Before long, the park electric outlets were locked and encounters with police and residents became more frequent. In recent history, the city council of Montgomery passed anti-loitering ordinance targeting the children of the migrant families living in the town.
Centro Campesino and allies have spent years organizing with the workers to improve living conditions. A powerful outcome of that investment of working with the families is the impact it has had on the children; many have grown up going to meetings, welcome celebrations and actions organized by Centro Campesino. One young man – Fernando – grew up in this organizing culture and shared how his experiences have influenced his desire to organize for change. He told the story of the time he and others headed to Austin to challenge a business owner to change the anti-immigrant messages on his signage. It was a powerful action he will always remember. Another story he shared was during a Career Day at school, when a classmate announced his career was to become a border agent with a “look” at Fernando – a look Fernando has seen many times growing up in Southern Minnesota.
The next stop was in Owatonna at the Lakeside Foods migrant camp. This housing was used as internment housing for Germans during the war in the 40’s. Although the barbed wire had been removed, the rest rooms had no privacy – no walls for the showers or commodes. Among Centro Campesino’s organizing campaigns was getting the company to install walls for privacy in the bath rooms; assigning a housing unit to be used for day care so children are not exposed to pesticides sprayed on the fields; and a storm shelter when tornadoes come through. It took time, many actions and meetings to convince the company to make the changes – it did happen – another victory for the workers and their families. While we were there, some of the organizers spent time visiting with Santos, an elder who with his wife has been coming to Owatonna for decades. They have a home in Texas and have raised their children and grandchildren in Texas. Coming to Minnesota is something they do for the added income. This is a common story with migrant workers and their families, who have come for the work for decades. We heard a story about pesticides and the “alarm” in the camp. Before the company installed an alarm, aircraft would fly over the fields spraying pesticides on the fields, workers would be exposed and at times develop rashes and other signs of poisoning. The alarm was set up to warn the workers and the children to go indoors.
Our next stop was the offices of Centro Campesino, where we heard more about the history of organizing the workers, families and the youth. Centro Campesino organizers have done some powerful organizing in towns in Southern Minnesota, including Waseca, Faribault, Owatonna, Austin, and Northfield. Through this organizing youth have raised scholarship funds, had a voice in Washington, DC on the immigration debate, and been a part of the organizing culture Centro Campesino has built since 1996 in Southern Minnesota.
The class heard the organizing stories and saw photos of documenting the work. Finally, we heard about a mural in the office and the meaning behind it. Images of Mother Earth, the sun and moons and corn, the indigenous food maize. The mural represents our common indigenous cultural beliefs, traditions and spirituality shared by indigenous cultures in the Americas – an image that struck the class as very powerful and real after their day in Southern Minnesota.
Salvador Miranda is OAP’s Associate Director and Director of Training. He is also a board member of Centro Campesino and has worked with the organization since 1998.