After more than a decade as executive director of the migrant farm workers organization Centro Campesino, Victor Contreras stepped down Friday.
Hailed a voice for migrant workers and immigrants across southern Minnesota, Contreras, 50, took the lead when a group of migrant workers in Owatonna decided to organize and fight for better working conditions. He has lived their plight.
A former seasonal migrant farm worker from Mexico, Contreras once worked the fields, nurseries and canneries of southern Texas, Florida, Alabama and Georgia. He came to work for the Owatonna Canning Company in the early 1990s.
When he decided to settle in Minnesota permanently, Contreras organized a community of workers who, by the very nature of their seasonal employment, rarely spoke up about their concerns.
He and a group of founders received help from a farm workers association in Ohio, convinced a group of supporters to serve on a board of directors, and went into the fields to recruit members.
The news spread in Steele County, as well as cities like Albert Lea, Austin, Le Sueur, Le Center and Montgomery.
"It was very clear workers wanted some kind of structure," Contreras said. "It was an amazing response."
The group's defining moment came quickly.
In 1997, Chiquita Processed Foods bought the Owatonna Canning Company. Most workers lived in a housing camp run by Chiquita.
In 2000, after a three-year long court battle, workers successfully pushed for a child care center at the housing camp. They also pressed for better pay.
The Chiquita canning company later became Lakeside Foods.
For Contreras, the challenge proved he would need time to develop working relationships with business leaders. But the victory helped Centro Campesino establish itself as the voice for migrant workers, and later immigrants, across southern Minnesota.
The organization expanded, opening satellite offices in Austin, Montgomery and St. Peter. In 2007, it moved into a Victorian home in downtown Owatonna, where Contreras works as social activist, entrepreneur — and counselor to thousands of people who come asking for help.
Centro Campesino has seven full-time employees and an annual budget of approximately $400,000. Contreras earned a salary of $40,850, according to the group's most recent available tax return from 2009.
It's hard to know exactly how many migrant workers come to Minnesota each year, but advocates place their number at more than 20,000.
While seasonal workers still come to the region, many immigrants also settled in south central Minnesota, and the region's changing demographics have been dramatic, said Owatonna Mayor Tom Kuntz.
"I think sometimes it takes a couple generations to make that total blend, but I think there's been progress and maturity made," said Kuntz, a lifelong Owatonna resident.
Kuntz said Centro Campesino has been the catalyst for that change even though there have been bumps in the road. Some longtime residents are particularly resentful of immigrants, some of whom may not have legally entered the United States.
"As in every community there's some anti sentiments towards races and some people feel that maybe that some of the illegals cause problems or that some of the issues of drugs are tied to certain races," he said. "But I think that is very limited in number. I think as a community, you need to encourage involvement from all cultures." There have been failures along the way. Contreras tried to create Minnesota's first union for migrant agricultural workers several years ago but fell short. Some critics have questioned his grassroots tactics to improve communication between immigrants and locals.
But Brad Sigal, a member of the Minneapolis-based Minnesota Immigrant Rights Action Committee, said the center has done incredible work to improve the lives of immigrants in rural Minnesota.
"You know, immigrants are not just in the Twin Cities," Sigal said. "It's not just an urban issue. They have been pioneers in that sense in terms of organizing outside the large population centers in conditions that are often very difficult."
The group's focus has undergone necessary changes as the immigration debate unfolded at the national level, Contreras said. But the group's mission to help newcomers remains the same.
"Before we focused only on migrant, temporary workers," he said. "Now, we have an office open all year and we offer a lot of extra social services, like health education and tax information, in addition to the needs of seasonal migrant workers."
Contreras is not yet sure what he will do next, but he hopes to work with communities of faith to expand social services for migrant workers and immigrants in southern Minnesota. A search committee is working to identify a successor.
During the transition, Centro Campesino organizer Ernesto Velez will serve as interim director.