As Juan Ramirez and his wife Laura sit in the living room of their Austin bungalow, they flip through a photo album that chronicles many of the family's firsts.
"Those were the first days when we got here," Laura Ramirez said. "Christian's first birthday. ... The first Hispanic person we met in Le Sueur."
The Ramirezes were among the first Mexican families in Austin, one of dozens of rural cities around the Midwest coping with big demographic changes. Today, SPAM and tortillas both have a place on grocers store shelves, as the town struggles to adjust to a growing Latino population.
Austin's transformation was set in motion 25 years ago this month, when union meatpackers walked off their jobs at the Hormel plant. The strike was one of the longest in an industry racked by them in the 1980s. After the strike, Austin started to mirror other meatpacking towns and attract immigrant workers who showed up for jobs.
Juan, who is from the state of Guanajuato in Central Mexico, moved to the United States illegally in the mid-1980s. He first worked picking fruit in California, was later granted amnesty and became a U.S. citizen after Congress passed the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986.
His wife was a teacher in Mexico. She came to the United States legally on a tourist visa but overstayed it. She joined Juan in California and eventually became a U.S. citizen. In 1992, they moved to Austin, where Juan found work at Quality Pork Processors (QPP).
Since then, Juan Ramirez has had a number of slaughterhouse jobs at the QPP pork-processing plant. After five years, he landed a job at Hormel, where the pay was better and the job less dangerous. He said he was one of just two dozen Latino workers there at the time.
"The work is very hard," he said. "And the atmosphere is very hostile, too -- especially when you arrive as a Hispanic. The workers see you differently."
ADJUSTING TO AUSTIN
Juan and Laura Ramirez both speak English well, but say they feel more comfortable expressing themselves in Spanish. Juan updated his training and works as an electrician assistant at Hormel. Laura works as a success coach at the kindergarten center.
In those early years in Austin, it wasn't always easy being among the first Latino families, Laura recalled.
"There were times when we went to the store and people would follow us to see what we were doing," she said. "I'd have all four of my kids with me, so it looked like a little kindergarten. The kids would tell me 'Mommy, that lady is following us.' I'd say, 'Don't worry. We're going to take them on a trip around the store.' "
Still, both say they came to feel at home in Austin. They had steady work to support their four children. They enjoyed the slower pace of a small town. They had hopes and aspirations -- and were learning to adapt to life in a place with few people like them. Their first support network came from the four other Mexican families in town and a Spanish mass held once a month.
On a recent Sunday morning, several hundred people pack the Queen of Angels Catholic Church. It's one of three Spanish services at the church now. This church is the go-to place for Mexicans, where they come to hear their language, learn about community resources, and find sanctuary.
The pews are filled with young families. Some men and boys wear cowboy hats and pointed boots. Many women remain seated during the service, tending to fussy babies.
Sister Ruth Snyder helps with the church's Hispanic Ministries. By many accounts, she's considered one of the strongest liaisons between the Latino community and greater Austin.
Snyder believes the rapid influx of immigrant workers sparked a strong anti-immigrant sentiment in town. Much of it stems from old-timers, who remember the city before the 1985 Hormel strike.
"It's an emotional thing, not an intellectual thing," Snyder said. "They think you can return to the old Austin, some of them do. It's hard to deal with emotions and feelings. You can do it with some education, but it doesn't always reach."
Today, there are about 2,500 Latino residents in Austin, according to the Census. But most local officials agree that's a conservative estimate. Some say the number could be as high as 5,000, or about a quarter of the city's population.
Many come from the Mexican state of Oaxaca, according to Latino advocates. There's also a sizable Guatemalan community.
Most of the new arrivals work at QPP. Union officials estimate as many as 90 percent of the company's 1,200 workers are Latino. At Hormel, about a quarter of the company's 1,400 employees are minorities.
Snyder and city officials speculate many whites in Austin resent the newcomers because many of the immigrants are using false work documents. But no organization has any data to support that claim.
"If that could be changed, where they could have papers to be able to stay and work, I think then we could address how to integrate them better into the community," Snyder said. "But until that happens, that division is always going to be there -- legal and illegal."
But many of the immigrants without proper documents yearn to legalize their status.
LIVING IN FEAR
Inside the Community Learning Center in Austin, Martha Diaz plays a video called "Know Your Rights" for about 30 adults. Diaz, a case worker with Winona Diocese of Catholic Charities, holds the sessions every few months. The Diocese opened the Austin office last year to accommodate the city's growing Latino community.
"What can you do if they come into your house by force?" one woman asks. "You can't do anything."
"If this is your house, you don't have to open the door," Diaz replied.
"But they do enter," a man said. "They have a court order."
Diaz acknowledged that unfortunately that can happen. But she said, "they shouldn't enter by force."
Others want to know what to do if they're pulled over by the police or what will happen to their children if they are arrested.
Such fear and anxiety is common among Latinos in Austin, Diaz said. As a result, she said, many Latinos in town lie low, venturing out only for trips to church or the supermarket. Immigrants who use false documents cannot obtain a drivers license and are scared they'll be pulled over and possibly deported.
"It's not 'The policeman is your friend' mentality that we had growing up," said Diaz, a California native who has lived in Minnesota for 10 years. "You're fearful of the police and what's very, very sad is that the children are growing up with that fear. So the children that are citizens are growing up with that fear that the policemen are going to come and take mommy away."
CHALLENGES FOR POLICE
Close to midnight on a recent Friday, Officer Eric Blust pulls over the driver of a white mini van. He walks toward the car, where Sandra Rodriguez is in the driver's seat. Three kids are in the back. A teenage daughter interprets.
The 29-member police department has one Community Service Officer who speaks Spanish, but no bilingual police officers.
"Do you have a license?" he asks Rodriguez. "Tienes?" the daughter says to her mom.
"No," the woman said.
"Do you have an ID?"
"Si," she replied, indicating she has one.
Blust takes the ID and returns to the squad car.
"You'll see a lot of these," he said. "It's a valid Minnesota ID. Picture and everything looks like her. Things match up. I can't really question, I guess, how she got this. So I'm assuming she's here legally and all that."
Blust said he could investigate Rodriguez's status further but won't because the only law Rodriguez broke was driving without a license, a misdemeanor. Since she cooperated with him, he fines her about $100 and lets her go.
"Do I really want to dig into that deeper when there's a younger family there?" Blunt asks. "And if she is here illegally, dealing with all that and bringing that up -- when she went through the process of getting [the ID] -- it's just one of those things that we fight."
According to Austin Police records, the number of citations for driving without a license more than tripled in the last decade, from 61 in 2000 to 237 in 2009.
Officials say the department is also actively cracking down on forgery cases. Immigrants who use fake documents can face forgery, fraud or identity theft charges. The number of forgery cases in Austin went from 86 in 2000 to 141 in 2009.
Police say they're caught in a hard place. On one hand, they want to be proactive about crimes like drunk driving and drug trafficking. On the other, they acknowledge they're the source of fear for a community that already mistrusts them.
They also say they can only share information and coordinate arrests with Immigration Customs Enforcement officials. But they singlehandedly can't enforce federal immigration policy.
Several times throughout his shift, Officer Blust drives through a downtown parking lot, near several bars and restaurants. On one end, about two dozen men stand around a taco truck for a late night snack.
Twenty-seven-year old Jorge Pozos set up the truck a year ago. He's lived in Austin for 10 years, and before that in Albert Lea and Chicago.
Pozos watched communities and cultures collide in those other places. He said the process of mutual accommodation is slow, but not impossible.
"We can't just say 'I am Juan and I don't care about the police.' " he said. "We have to respect the rules, especially because we're in a country that's not ours. They've given us an opportunity to work. An opportunity we didn't have in our own country."
Pozos, 27, moved to the United States from Mexico City when he was a teenager. He became a U.S. citizen after marrying his wife, a U.S. citizen of Mexican descent.
Despite the obstacles, Pozos sees two cultures blending. He says about 40 percent of his customers are non-Mexican. But it'll take time and an open mind for the old and the new Austin to fully understand each other.
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