STORY BY VICTORIA BLANCO + ART BY MARIE KETRING
s executive director of Centro Campesino, an Owatonna-based migrant farm workers’ organization, Ernesto Velez Bustos sees his main mission as empowering and equipping Latinos to fight for equal rights as laborers. Migrant worker exploitation is pervasive throughout Minnesota and the rest of the country, but most companies refuse to hear and resolve the complaints of their lowest-paid employees. Before Centro Campesino existed, Minnesota’s migrant workers were forced to accept their company’s conditions, no matter how unfair. Centro Campesino’s inception in 1998 provided migrants with an opportunity to make their voices heard and demand fair workers’ rights.
One morning in 2010, Ernesto was getting ready to leave for the day when fifteen cleaning crew workers from Fairbault, Minnesota, showed up at his office and asked for help. They worked for Ronnell Cleaning Services and were under contract with the Jennie-O plant in Fairbault. Over the years, Latino employees of Ronnell Cleaning Services became tired of the recurring injustices they faced: wage stagnation, unfounded firings, unfair scheduling; the fact that no Latino worker could earn vacation or a management position, despite years of experience. The workers had approached the company’s local management with their complaints, but were turned away. Ernesto sat down to listen to their story, knowing they had few places they could turn for help. “A lot of agencies would say you need a lawyer, because they don’t know what the levers are. When they came in, we dropped everything.”
After listening to the litany of injustices, Ernesto called the Ronnell Cleaning Services headquarters in New Jersey.
n this case, the CEO of the company listened as Ernesto detailed the workers’ complaints. The CEO sent a representative to Owatonna the next day to intervene with local management on behalf of the migrant workers. Ernesto believes this story illustrates an important fact about our country’s migrant workers: “That was one example where the other side said ‘yeah, you know, I depend a little bit on these people and if they leave today I’ll be in trouble so I’d rather make them happy than lose them.’”
Centro Campesino has spent nearly two decades documenting migrant workers’ obstacles and implementing solutions. Between 20,000 and 30,000 migrant workers visit Minnesota each year to work primarily in canning companies and farming.
The Fairbault scenario demonstrates that Latino migrant workers, regardless of their visa status, continue to encounter wage injustice and mistreatment.
The story of Latino immigration to the U.S. is an ever-changing one, and immigrants’ needs also shift depending on the structures in place. During the Bush administration, when raids were the preferred tactic of deportation, Centro Campesino dedicated time and resources to educating immigrants about their human rights. Under the Obama administration, immigrants find themselves lost in a system of multiple visa statuses, confusing paperwork, and meetings with consulate officers. No matter the political climate, Centro Campesino is there for migrant and immigrant workers in Minnesota.
he vast majority of migrant workers in Minnesota possess work visas or are U.S. citizens residing in border states like Texas. Unlike workers who cross the U.S.-Mexico border without documentation, most of Minnesota’s migrant workers don’t risk deportation when they arrive for the “busy season,” which begins in May and lasts until October. Living without a fear of deportation may endow documented workers with a relative sense of security—a privilege undocumented workers do not enjoy.
Men and women stand in assembly lines for twelve-hour shifts packing and labeling canned goods. In the spring, they pick rocks from fields to prepare the land for planting. In the fall, they tassel corn and harvest pumpkins. Most workers bring their children, even if it means taking them out of school for a few weeks or months. The families tend to live on the rural outskirts of Owatonna, miles away from the town center, in dormitory-style housing provided by the companies. For decades, these dormitories didn’t include kitchens, so families relied on packaged and fast foods during their stays. Finally, after years of advocating, most companies installed industrial kitchens so that families could cook their own meals.
To Ernesto, this isolation means migrant families will never have equal access to a town’s amenities including hospitals, fully-stocked grocery stores, and social locales where migrant workers and white Owatonnans are most likely to have the opportunity to interact and build relationships—a crucial step to breaking down the racial barriers that prevent disenfranchised minorities from achieving better lives. “Location is where it all begins, as they say. They’re seven miles away, so there’s no access. They have a twelve-hour shift; if you do your groceries, you do it once, you’re not going to be coming into town more, so it limits things. So just because we’re in rural Minnesota a lot of resources are less; you’re Latino it’s another layer of less; you’re a migrant worker, your schedule is very difficult.” Even though some migrant families have been coming to Owatonna for three generations, Ernesto observes the climate of inclusivity has changed very little.
hile Ernesto came to the U.S. to pursue a college education rather than work, his experiences of disenfranchisement make him familiar with the racial barriers Latinos encounter. He’s quick to point out that his personal circumstances have made his experiences in the U.S. easier than it is for many immigrants, but he nevertheless feels a connection with Latinos striving to achieve their goals in the U.S. and being received with hostility.
When Ernesto arrived in Owatonna from Morelos, Mexico, he had minimal knowledge of English. At customs in the Houston airport, Ernesto encountered an immigration agent who tried to refuse him entry because Ernesto had broken a provision of the permanent resident visa his parents obtained for him at age seventeen. At that time, Ernesto’s father had already been living in the U.S. for over ten years. Back in his hometown of Moyotepec, Ernesto and his sisters had been raised mostly by their mother. According to U.S. law for permanent residents, Ernesto couldn’t live outside the U.S. continuously for more than eleven months. But at seventeen, it was important to him to return to Mexico to finish high school. Ernesto couldn’t fully explain his predicament to the immigration officer in English; the officer chastised him for not speaking English. Luckily, a different officer empathized with his case and let him continue to Minneapolis, where his father had been watching passengers get off each flight, checking to see if his son was among them.
Soon after settling into Owatonna, Ernesto realized he didn’t understand the social workings of the Midwest.
rnesto has spent the last ten years at Centro Campesino learning the needs and aspirations of his community. “It’s been my education here,” he says. Ernesto started as a community organizer at Centro Campesino in 2004 and has held several positions within the organization over the past ten plus years, including serving as its executive director. His remarkable escalation through the ranks demonstrates his capacity to connect across both class and race. Ernesto is always thinking about the opportunities he wants the current and subsequent generations of young Latinos to enjoy. But without white Owatonnans and Latinos driving toward each other rather than away, he knows that nothing will change.
Ernesto sees promise in increased college enrollment among Latino students, and he’s heartened by the fact that more young Latinos passing through Centro Campesino’s doors are imagining themselves as a lawyer, doctor, or “the first bilingual, Mexican-American president.”
For young Latinos to achieve these aspirations, Ernesto understands that white society must know and respect Latinos’ lives.
He returns over and over to his core belief that “assimilation is a two-way street.”