Monday, January 10, 2022

The Stories of Three Ethnic Groups Making It in Rural America

via flickr
In recent months I've seen some good articles about immigrants making a go of it in the United States, and these give me hope. The dominant narrative is of bigotry and exclusion in this country, particularly centered on people of rural areas. Meanwhile, some from diverse backgrounds are managing to get established in rural life. Here I'll share three scenarios; two stories from Indiana, and one from Minnesota. In the first we find a community self-organizing in a small town, and in the other two minority (from a US perspective) populations using formal means to get into farming in this country. It's all remarkable to me.

First up, we have the Chuj people in Seymour, Indiana. This state would seem pretty far culturally from that of indigenous Mayan people, and yet at least one of its towns has become such a destination for them that it's become a 'mirror city.' The immigrants in question, coming from a remote, mountainous region, are Chuj people. They began moving to Seymour in bits and pieces two decades or so ago from the town of San Sebastián Coatán. I have no idea how it started or who were the first, but Seymour now has over 2000 Chuj members of the community. That's small potatoes compared to something like the approximately 156,000 Haitian nationals who now call New York City home, but those 2000 Mayans consist of over ten percent of the overall population of the Seymour.

Chuj migrants originally came to Seymour because of opportunities at a local car parts manufacturer and at a large farm, and they also find work in construction and cleaning. They haven't just come to take jobs, though. Entrepreneurs among them have opened grocery stores, restaurants, shops, and even a company that bakes and distributes a type of Guatemalan bread throughout the United States. There are also churches, like the Iglesia Evangélica Ríos de Agua Viva and the Iglesia la Nueva Jerusalén where the Guatemalans can worship together. All of these contribute to the economic and social life of the community as a whole, even if not directly to the non-Hispanic residents.

When this is referred to as a 'mirror city,' the idea is simply that people from one town or city (generally another country) form a unique and cohesive community in another city. This really isn't something new. For as long as people have been coming to North America from other lands they have been forming enclaves with their own businesses, churches, and social organizations. What makes it interesting, at least to me, is where many of the immigrants are winding up, as in this situation.

As I suggested above, life in general is positively impacted by such migration. The other residents of Seymour are benefiting from the presence of tax-paying people who through their labor and spending help make the economy prosper. In the case of Seymour, the population has gone from stagnated growth to an increase of twenty-five percent in just the past ten years. What's happening is called 'community-based migration.'

Second, the Burmese population of Fort Wayne, Indiana. There are currently more than 10,000 Burmese residents in that city, many of whom arrived as refugees in the early 1990s. Evidently quite a number of them had been farmers in their home country, but after arrival in the United States they took other forms of labor as employment. In order to open a door for those interested in getting back to agriculture, an incubator called Rose Avenue Education Farm was founded in 2020. Three non-profits collaborated in establishing the farm, with funding from a the Office of Refugee Resettlement, part of the US Department of Health and Human Services.  

On the farm, Burmese refugees are given plots of land to work along with equipment, training, and other orientation. All this is intended to help them start their self-sufficient farm operations.  In this setup, each farmer decides what they will grow, and as a result they tend to grow the squashes, bitter melons, radishes, cabbage, and so for that is typical for a Burmese diet. In turn, they sell mostly to other Burmese people at farmers' markets in the area, supplying a demand that wasn't necessarily being fully met by what Indiana stores generally offer. 

While success has been lacking in making sales to non-Burmese consumers, program leaders are looking at options like additional processing to make the products more attractive to that segment. One of the non-profits has recently received another government grant, which it plans to use to open a kitchen to further work the vegetables into the sort of prepared foods that a wider consumer audience would find appealing. This will include meal kits and other types of ready-to-eat foods. The added value can raise the price of unprocessed foods multiple times over once they are in final, prepared form.

Third, and finally, we'll leave Indiana and head over to Minnesota, where just this past November (2021), the Hmong American Farmers Association (HAFA), raised the last of the money it needed to buy the 155-acre Dakota County farm that it had been leasing for several years. Back in 2013 an anonymous individual bought that farmland and leased it to the HAFA, which in turn sublet it in plots to farmers. In 2020 the Minnesota state legislature put forward $2 million toward the purchase, and the association has now raised the remaining $500,000. 

The Hmong growers constitute more than half of the vendors at farmers' markets in the St Paul/Minneapolis area. They've been doing this for a lot longer than the HAFA has had access to the aforementioned farmland, using instead someone else's property and without assurances of continuous access over the years. 

It doesn't help that good, arable farmland is so expensive. Many immigrant farmers lacked access to the money, through loans or otherwise, for up-front costs aside from farmland, such as heavy equipment. Lacking security on the land and funds to make their operations more efficient, creating generational wealth was just a dream for the most part. 

With HAFA, Hmong farmers have received access to training and connections to institutions and businesses that purchase their products, moving them beyond just the farmers' market sphere. Being able to sublet land and increase revenue helps the farmers establish a foothold to prosper.

In all three examples above we have seen how people help each other. The Chuj people work in the US and send money back to their families in Guatemala, while also receiving newcomers. For them it appears to be more of an informal process, the type that has been the norm for centuries among migrant communities. The other two scenarios, however, with the Burmese and the Hmong, have formal organizations at the center, helping members of each group to put down roots both literally and figuratively in rural America. 

So much of what is said about the rural United States is negative, highlighting it as 'Trump country' where ignorance, poverty, and economic decline are the norm. As someone born and raised in rural northeast Missouri I can say that there are shreds of truth to that, but certainly not the whole story. 

The region where I grew up now has a vibrant community of Mexican-Americans and others from Central America, largely drawn by corporate ag operations, who have opened restaurants and other businesses that serve the community at large. That might be the nicest thing I'll ever write about corporate agriculture, but it's simply true that the industry brought in the people who are in some small way helping rejuvenate the economy. I'd just rather it be some other industry.

While some I knew growing up are ill-informed politically and religiously superstitious, others are astute in matters of civics and religion. That's not to say they're 'progressive' by the standards found in places like New York, but they are educated, compassionate people who want a better life for themselves, their families, and whoever their neighbors turn out to be. 

The future of small towns and family farms in the United States will likely not look entirely the same as it did in times past, if we are fortunate. Greater racial, ethnic, religious, and political diversity due to immigrants, urbanites shifting into farming, and other newcomers might well change the face of these places. Not ever small town will be revived, I'm sure, but it's not unreasonable to expect some to become more like the centers of commerce they once were, many decades ago.