SOURCE: Yankton Press and Dakotan
BY RANDY DOCKENDORF
Published: Saturday, November 14, 2009 12:21 AM CST
Sharon Guthmiller traveled to Mexico earlier this year, but she wasn’t a tourist.
Instead, the Yankton County Extension educator spent 12 days with a Michigan State University program learning about Latino culture. Last week, she gave a presentation to a Michigan State conference.
“My topic was understanding culture,” she said. “Understanding a person’s tradition and background is all part of the process of having them trust you.”
Guthmiller will put her experiences to use in assisting the growing Hispanic population in Yankton County.
“The Hispanics are here, and their numbers have been rising,” Guthmiller said. “I’m not sure if the numbers will keep going up, but they should at least remain stable. The Latinos are here for the long term.”
According to U.S. Census estimates, Yankton County had 524 Hispanics in 2008, accounting for 2.4 percent of the population. That compares to 395 Hispanics in 2000.
Based on the 2008 estimates, Yankton County has the fourth-largest number of Hispanics in the state and ranks among the top 10 counties for percentage of its population. Hispanics have surpassed American Indians — who stood at 480 — as the largest minority in Yankton County.
“For our community, we need to be ahead of the curve,” Guthmiller said. “We need to put away our cultural stereotypes and take a fresh perspective.”
Many people are surprised that more than 500 Latinos live in Yankton County, Guthmiller said. For the most part, the area Latinos tend to keep a low profile on the job and around the community, she said.
“In Yankton, the Latinos often live in the shadows and aren’t real visible, as far as their tendency to network,” she said. “They tend to be wary of authority and are often afraid of the police, even if they are legal immigrants.”
Hispanics play an important role in the community, and an effort needs to be made to reach out to them, Guthmiller said.
“They want to better themselves and receive the respect they deserve as individuals,” she said. “They are concerned about their economic well-being. They need access to education, health care, housing and transportation.”
The Hispanic children are part of the local school system, Guthmiller said.
“The children are resilient. They come to the United States and make the transition,” she said. “But when families move here, or the children are born here, they become Americanized and often don’t want to go back home. The families become a combination, between the children who are Americans and the parents who are here but not necessarily permanent residents.”
When it comes to health care, Latinos could be affected more than other segments by the H1N1 outbreak, Guthmiller said.
“Hispanics tend to live in large households, and there are H1N1 concerns with the common living arrangements,” she said. “In Michigan, they would have 10 to 12 people living in a small confined area, that could help spread the flu and other health problems.”
Hispanics consider themselves part of the local fabric, Guthmiller said.
“Hispanics are saying they are as American as you or I. They see one ‘America’ for the whole continent,” she said. “Latinos are starting their own oral histories and recording their own stories.”
Latinos need acceptance into the community, Guthmiller said. “We need to be consistent with our message,” she said.
South of the Border
The trip to Mexico helped Guthmiller put a face on Hispanics and their needs. Her participation in the Michigan State trip grew out of classes she has taken at Iowa State University.
“The classes deal with the international perspective on poverty,” she said.
Guthmiller found a common denominator regardless of nation or race. “The face of poverty is the same in all cultures,” she said.
Guthmiller learned of the Mexican trip through the North Central Region of the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE).
“The trip was open to farmers, educators and others,” she said. “We were immersed in the Hispanic culture for 12 days.”
Guthmiller received culture shock upon landing in Mexico City. She didn’t speak Spanish and immediately found herself at a loss at communicating with others and using the local currency.
“We were suddenly removed from a culture that we were comfortable with and that was familiar to us,” she said. “Now, we knew what immigrants felt like.”
Guthmiller found poverty upon entering Mexico City, with shacks built on hillsides.
The group spent part of its time in rural areas, learning about indigenous people and an archaeological site with ancient Mexican history. An interpreter helped with the 60 dialects of indigenous languages.
Guthmiller quickly found similarities between rural Mexico and the rural Midwest.
The rural areas are suffering from an out-migration of young people to the cities, she said. The rural areas are seeking to create jobs and start industries that will keep young people or attract those who move away, she said.
In the villages, families ran sustainable businesses such as rug making using simplistic looms. Other villagers created toys.
“Private companies were offering $100 loans to start them off,” Guthmiller said. “If they could prove they were making good, they would receive up to $1,000 in loans.”
Even with such efforts, villagers still find it difficult to make a living, Guthmiller said.
“Many Mexicans come to the United States so they can earn dollars and send money home, so they can build their mom and dad a brick home,” she said.
Besides dealing with unemployment, some rural areas of Mexico find difficulty maintaining an infrastructure, Guthmiller said.
“Their source of spring water was piped to holding tanks,” she said. “They were allowed to use water two hours a day.”
Guthmiller noted cultural values while in Mexico. Traditional family roles remained prominent, particularly in the villages.
“Men were hunters and gatherers, and the women’s role was more for family stability and going to the marketplace,” she said.
Women often remained in the home, Guthmiller said. That trait was noticeable at a large meal served at an outdoors tent.
“The women who fixed the meal stayed in a house, away from the crowd,” she said. “We had to go inside to see them and thank them for the meal.”
The Hispanic culture is very family-oriented, Guthmiller said. “The first thing the leader of our group asked was ‘How’s your mother?’ It’s all part of their emphasis on family,” she said.
One morning, Guthmiller noticed children walking hand in hand to school.
“They were dressed very neatly. They were just clean and impeccable,” she said. “They were walking to school with their grandparents, their siblings and older persons. It was inter-generational, with respect for all ages. In Mexico, the young show respect for the older generation. The older care for the very young.”
Mexicans also honor their guests, Guthmiller said. She noticed the streets were lined with triangle flags and was told the display was in her group’s honor.
“The village was welcoming us with flags,” she said. “It was unbelievable.”
Religion also plays a major role in Mexican life, she said. Most of the population is Catholic, and Mexico City had a big cathedral located in a government square. On St. Valentine’s Day, bands and orchestras played, and people crowded the marketplace.
And plenty of people could be found in Mexico City, one of the largest cities in the world, Guthmiller said. Despite the traffic congestion, Mexican drivers took it in stride, she said.
“Mexicans are not as uptight. They are more laid back,” she said. “In traffic, they honk and don’t use turn signals. They just wave to each other. They have a more tolerant system. There definitely isn’t road rage.”
The Mexican desire to please was also found at mealtime, Guthmiller said. The hosts put out their best, with food ranging from fresh fruit, vegetables and salads to rice, wild rabbit, tortillas and even the inside of cactus with a sauce and scrambled with eggs.
The Mexicans also showed a tremendous pride in their jobs, Guthmiller said.
“When they worked at the hotels, they were dressed with a spit shine. It was their profession, and they were proud of it,” she said. “The same way, the bus driver was very proud that he had followed his profession. To him, it wasn’t just a job.”
That strong work ethic, and the struggling economy, has driven more Mexicans to the United States, including Yankton, Guthmiller said.
“At Michigan State, we learned the land owners and producers were aging, and the Latinos provided the labor that was needed in Michigan,” she said. “The proprietors and land owners needed them, and they needed laborers to fill their meat plants. They are doing things that the other main population wasn’t doing.”
Studying The Figures
Guthmiller said she has been working with Mike McCurry, a South Dakota State University Extension rural sociologist who helped author the analysis, “Hispanics in South Dakota.”
“Between the 1990 and 2000 census, Hispanics were the fastest growing group in South Dakota,” McCurry told the Press & Dakotan. “Census estimates in 2005 showed a 30 percent growth since 2000. The trend obviously continued, even increased, through the first five years of the 21st century.”
The SDSU study notes that Hispanic immigrants often work at meat packing and food processing plants, which explains why Yankton County has seen an influx of Hispanics.
The analysis says Hispanic immigrants rarely take jobs from local residents. Instead, they accept lower-sector jobs that local residents do not want.
The study says Hispanics migrate to places where they know others. A network of relatives and friends shares news about jobs.
The 2010 census will provide definite figures, he said, but he noted some factors.
“Raids on meat packers in the Midwest during the last several years have affected the migration in and out of the Midwest, which would include South Dakota,” he said.
Also, Yankton’s 2000 census data included Gurney’s horticulture plant, which no longer operates in the community, McCurry said.
“That single employer change probably changed the profile in Yankton County for several years,” he said.
On the other hand, the dairy industry along I-29 employs many Latino workers, McCurry said.
Hispanic immigration may not be able to maintain its past pace, McCurry said.
“Despite Hispanics being the largest-growing minority over the past 15 years, the 2005 population estimate was 14,140,” he said. “Maintaining that 6 percent growth per year would have required about 850 more Hispanics each year.
“If the economy and more pressure on employers increased out-migration and reduced in-migration even a little, we could be seeing a slowed population growth.”
On a strictly limited anecdotal basis, McCurry said he has heard less Spanish spoken in his Brookings hometown, particularly by groups of three to five young men.
“That suggests fewer immigrants,” he said. “On the other hand, I’m noticing a bit more Spanish from family groups, which suggests that the Hispanics who have made a home in South Dakota aren’t leaving.”
Hispanics have much to offer the region, Guthmiller said.
“They treasure their culture,” she said. “They have human needs the same as any culture. They value relationships, family and respect.”
Guthmiller said she grew up on an American Indian reservation and was reminded of a Lakota phrase — “Mitakuye Oyasin,” or “We are all related.”
“Hispanics are welcoming, sincere people who want to sit at the table,” she said. “We all have positive hopes for the future. We need an understanding of those positive hopes if we want to work together.”
To read more about the SARE project involved, visit the SARE reporting website at http://www.sare.org/reporting/report_viewer.asp?pn=ENC06-090
Yankton Press & Dakotan Archives Community Extension Educator Helps Hispanics