Rural Latino workers say they face discrimination, isolation
Latinos have called both the rural and urban Southwest home for generations. But much of the rest of the nation is now adjusting to the latest wave of immigrants from Mexico and Latin America. Across rural America, one in two new neighbors is Latino, according to a recent study.
When Sadie Kaiser walks into a classroom at the Durand School District in west central Wisconsin, a few faces light up. She’s the English Language Coordinator, which means she helps children who speak little English navigate the classroom. Kaiser recently checked in on the preschoolers who stood around a table building and smashing things made out of Legos.
Kaiser said for a child who speaks only Spanish, the first days at school can be painful. She said she has to be proactive and ask questions like, "How do we make sure this little guy can get to the bathroom when he needs to? Whether it be teaching the teacher how to say key words or pictures, you know, for the child to point."
Kaiser’s position is fairly new. In the last few decades, the enrollment of Spanish-speaking children in schools here has grown. In Durand the number has almost doubled in just the last three years. In the neighboring district the Latino children now outnumber the non-Latino students.
Kaiser’s job is to get to know the kids. And sometimes she winds up being an advocate for their families. She pointed to a child who comes up to her knee.
"This is one of the families that’s a little isolated," Kaiser said. "They’re out in the country. Mom stays home with the kids. Dad works. And one vehicle."
Kaiser said that’s pretty typical. She said the families keep to themselves, not only because they’re isolated but also because of the language barrier and because they stand out. Over the last two years 1.5 million Latinos have moved into rural America, according to a study by Rural Family Economic Success Action Network.
"I never dreamed that this little corner of the world would have this immigrant presence," said Shaun Duvall, an interpreter for many dairy farmers and their workers. She said the newcomers here have changed the community, and not everyone knows how to handle it.
"I mean diversity is if you’re Norwegian growing up in a Swiss community," Duvall said. "You know that’s diversity! And so they don’t have experience. And so it’s not even so much discrimination, but just not knowing really."
Sociologist Jill Harrison interviewed almost 300 immigrant dairy workers for her research on labor relations for the University of Wisconsin. About a third said they had experienced discrimination. And many felt they needed to keep a low profile. It’s estimated that at least half of Wisconsin’s dairy workers are in this country without legal documentation.
"The aspect of my research that’s really haunted me the most is just how incredibly vulnerable and scared the immigrant workers we interviewed really feel," Harrison said. "They live in fear of being apprehended by law enforcement, which is an even much greater fear I think than their fear of being harassed."
Harrison’s research showed these families’ primary concern is being able to maintain their incomes and support their families.
"Poder sacara mi familia adelante mas que nada," Alejandro Depole said. ("To be able to take out my family more than anything.")
Depole supports a wife and two daughters back in Mexico. He said he came to Wisconsin to earn a decent paycheck so he could move his family ahead, nothing more.
Depole doesn’t go out much. But the only time he’s noticed discrimination is when police pull a driver over because he’s Latino.
"La policia si aveces discrimina cuando nos fue manejando," Depole said. ("The police sometimes discriminate when we were driving.")
Driving-related offenses are the most common reason Latinos appear in James Duvall’s courtroom. He’s a judge for rural Buffalo and Pepin counties in western Wisconsin. Duvall said some police officers are learning Spanish, but problems arise when a suspect and an officer can’t communicate, like in one recent incident.
"It turned into a scuffle, which I felt was made worse because of the fact that the two couldn’t really communicate very well," Duvall said.
Duvall said the case went to trial where eight out of 20 jury panelists said they couldn’t be fair and impartial with a Latino defendant. Duvall and others here said many in the community are resentful because the newcomers don’t speak English. And that keeps the populations separate.
History tells us the first wave of immigrants keep to themselves. It’s their children who are more likely integrate.
This story was originally published by Fronteras, a public radio collaboration in the southwest that focuses on the border and immigration.