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Migrants No More
By Brent Wolfe
May 3, 1999
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Mexican-American migrant workers have been drawn to agricultural jobs in Minnesota for more than 30 years. Many make the annual trip and return to the Texas-Mexico border just ahead of the winter snows. But an increasing number are calling Minnesota "home."

Some have worked their way into highly-skilled jobs while others found work in social services, helping fellow migrants. Their efforts to build economic independence are often accompanied by a struggle for acceptance in small, rural communities.

TONY RICO WAS BORN IN SOUTHERN MEXICO and came to the U.S. 30 years ago when he was 25. He spent a summer picking wheat and sugar beats in Colorado. The following winter he was in El Paso looking for a job, when recruiters from a Minnesota turkey processing plant convinced him and 30 other single men to come to the tiny town of Altura.

Tony Rico Jr. (left) and his father, Tony Sr. (right)
(Photo credit: Brent Wolfe)
Altura sits in the rolling hills above the Whitewater Valley just north of St. Charles about 30 miles east of Rochester. Rico and the other men made about $150 a week, more than double the wages they could earn in a factory in El Paso. Work was fine, but life didn't offer much.
Rico: Pretty soon the Spanish people decides to have something to drink and they got drunk, you know? And the white folks in Altura didn't really like it like that much, you know? And after two or three weeks, they buy a car, a group of individuals, two or three Mexican people buy one car and they go raising hell in the street and, of course, the white folks didn't like that, you know.
Within a couple months, all the men had moved on in search of work in larger cities and managers at the turkey plant replaced them with patients from the state mental hospital in Rochester. But Rico stayed and worked his way into a job maintaining the plants machinery. The company rewarded him with a trailer to live in and an old station wagon.

In the early 80s, the plant was again looking for workers, so managers sent Rico to Texas with instructions to recruit women and responsible men. One of those he recruited was Magdalena Carranza. She'd dropped out of high school to work in a Levi's factory. But making jeans was hard work and she thought she could make more money in the north. She was small and shy and plant managers started her on an easy job: putting the gizzards in a little bag in each turkey's neck.
Carranza: But I started peeling gizzards with the machine and my fingers started peeling off too, and was bleeding. It was too much, I wasn't able to do that.
Magdallena Carranza (right) and her daughter Lee Rico-Carranza (left)
(Photo credit: Brent Wolfe)
So she was transferred to another part of the line. Like the men a decade before her, Carranza found the wages appealing but life in Altura was lonely. An elderly couple who worked at the plant took her under their wing and sometimes invited her to dinner. But she still felt alien, like people were afraid of her.
Carranza: Boy, they looked at us like strangers, really like aliens. They weren't used to Hispanic people. They were used to maybe one or two, but when they get to see more around, they were more kind of a little bit holding themselves, kind of scared a little bit, afraid of us, looking at us different.
Carranza made $900 in four months and returned to Brownsville to give the money to her parents. Rico came to visit her and she returned to Minnesota to live with him for a time. They had two children together but drifted apart. Rico married the daughter of a white farm family. Carranza eventually settled in St. Charles on her own and loves to fill her house with friends and laughter.
Carranza: And I have two birds, my company when my daughters not here with me.
Carranza is now a translator. She wears her pager like a broach on the lapel of her dark blazer just in case the county health department, the jail, or the schools need her for some quick interpreting. Her son, Tony Rico Jr., will finish high school in St. Charles next month. About 20 Hispanic families live there and they've made Tony and his mother feel more at home in St. Charles than they did when they lived in Rochester for a few years.
Rico Jr.: I didn't expect to see the diversity that I hadn't seen in Rochester. And there was the diversity in St. Charles and to have those individuals come to my doorstep and say "We want to welcome you." It was quite a surprise. It was quite different.
St. Charles has made an effort to make new residents welcome. School and city leaders worked in the early 70s with local churches to encourage southeast Asian refugees to move to town. In the 17 years he's lived in St. Charles, school superintendent Tom Ames has seen many residents make an extra effort to help people of different cultures. He and his wife adopted three Korean-American children.
Ames: Many individuals made a conscious decision to reach out and to help and I think that started when the first members of the Laotion community came in the late 70s and I see that happening to the present day.
Leaders, including the mayor, have helped minority students raise money to go to college. High school principal Hank Welle teaches Spanish and often welcomes new Hispanic students and parents in their native tongue. But there have been problems.
Welle: Issues may not start off as racial issues. They probably start off as normal, adolescent conflicts between one another. And in the process of resolving those conflicts, different people get drawn into that. So one our focuses has been to identify that early on and offer assistance through the counseling department.
While school officials promote harmony in the classroom, adults have to work through the issues of racism on their own. Sitting outside his home, Tony Rico Sr. fidgets with the Vlcro straps of a white brace on his left forearm, and recalls the vehement opposition he faced from the white farm family of a young woman he was courting.
Rico: They used to call me "black diablo," all kinds of things, you know. What did they call you? They called me a "black son of a bitch." Many times they called me that way and I just took it. What can I say, you know? Now they're my best friends.
Rico broke the ice slowly over several years by sharing his tools and knowledge of home repair with the family. He and Betty Jo Graves finally married and they now have a son of their own. Rico says he's seen people change in the 30 years he's lived near Altura.
Rico: I think there's a lot of Spanish people around here now, and some white folks talk to me about Spanish son-in-laws and Mexican and this. And they like it, even the farmers are talking about their in-laws' Spanish and Mexican. When I was here and was the only one here they didn't want to hear much about Spanish people. The only thing they heard on the TV was the Frito Bandito.
Tony Rico and Magdalena Carranza - both now longtime American citizens - say Minnesota is home. They return to Texas and Mexico on vacation to visit family and take a break from long Minnesota winters. They talk with newly-arrived migrants who complain of discrimination in the workplace but they say their experience is proof that, in time, Latinos can find acceptance as well as economic security in rural Minnesota.