OAP Organizing Class: Learning from Migrant Workers in Southern Minnesota

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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.

Going Far, Together

Billy Moua

Billy Moua

Billy Moua is an intern at OAP this summer, focusing on health equity. He is a Hmong-American, first generation, senior chemistry major at Carleton College. He plans to attend medical school in hopes of becoming a pediatric oncologist. 

Coming into my OAP internship, I thought I knew quite a lot about the field I was immersing myself in. I had just finished my school year working with our office of diversity and had secured another position working with our TRiO program (a federally funded program to help assist low-income, first generation students or students with documented disabilities) for the upcoming year. Additionally, my experience as a Hmong student at an elite private liberal arts school fed into my ego and I expected that my internship was going to primarily involve application of my prior knowledge. Through the classes I attended, discussions I facilitated and participated in and my general experience with academia, I felt confident and comfortable coming into OAP’s space, but this false sense of security quickly faded away as I sobered to the realization that there was much more to be learned. My experience in Owatonna is a testament to this shift.

Migrant workers and their families have been coming to Owatonna, and similar towns like it, for many years and OAP held a training session in the form of a field trip for the apprentices to get a glimpse into the migrant farm workers’ camps, living spaces, conditions and realities. Although we could not step inside the actual camps because it was private property, the trip was guided with rich, informative narration by Ernesto Vélez of Centro Campesino, an organization that advances social justice for Latino migrant workers and immigrant Latino residents, who detailed the history of the challenges and victories in attaining basic worker and human rights and better living conditions. In fighting for these rights, Ernesto explained that many companies and towns would use intimidation tactics: reassigning jobs, firing workers, withholding bonuses and imposing curfews for adolescents (to name a few) to silence the organization and workers’ voices. In some cases, the risk of fighting against companies was too high and workers would collectively decide to bring their movement to a halt, but for other communities, the rallied effort was seen through to the end and proved to be successful in providing better conditions.

Later on, Ernesto introduced us to a young man who was 16 years old, extremely bright and filled with passion. This young man, who shall remain nameless, was impressive to say the least. He started working the fields in his pre-teens, was a youth leader for Centro Campesino and told us that he had testified to the EPA in Washington D.C. to reform the harmful and utterly disgusting practices of spraying pesticides while workers were in the field. The emerging organizer and leader then shared with us his hopes of going to college, majoring in political science and furthering the work that he is currently involved in.

This experience, alongside the many others I’ve had with OAP, has given me far greater and deeper insight than any discussion or any academic text could ever dream of giving me. My five hour experience in Owatonna opened my eyes to a whole world of injustice that existed an hour away from my backyard. From this, I started to reflect on my privilege as a U.S. citizen, something that I never critically examined before. The thought of facing deportation at the whim of law enforcement and immigration had never crossed my mind and although I identify as a low-income, first-generation college student, I never thought twice about the significance of receiving federal funding for my education due to my citizenship. There I was, excited to help the limitless potential of this young student, knowing there were scholarships available to help him achieve his dreams, but all the while naïvely forgetting the comparatively weak financial aid packages that students of similar talent and qualifications would receive due to their undocumented status which would greatly influence their ability to pursue the post-secondary institution of their dreams.

How was it that these students, who come from families who are thrown into seemingly impossible situations to survive, are able to overcome and are, against all odds, in an arm’s reach of unlocking, realizing and achieving their dreams are met with a monetary roadblock that could be alleviated with something as simple as citizenship. This question, along with an abundance of similarly-phrased questions are what I have found to be what fuel social justice work. If there is one thing that I have learned from my internship at OAP, it is that we must begin to truly see the humanity of other people and start building relationships within our own communities and across different communities to effect the change we envision. Before this internship, I would have been able to read a piece similar to the one you are reading now and I would have thought that this deeper level of understanding was a cakewalk and if crafted expertly, I would be able to experience the same learning as the author from mere text. If I had simply read this article, I would have still not have been able to stand in the fields, swat away the hungry insects flying around my head, feel the fire of Ernesto’s voice or see the promise of a young man’s future. To my peers pursuing their undergraduate degrees, I urge and encourage you to work with organizations that are doing work that you share similar passions with. Get out of the classroom and go (sometimes literally) into the field. Our struggles are all connected and only through genuine human contact is an organic connection of someone else’s humanity created. I end this reading with an African proverb: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”