On the rural immigrant experience: “We come with a culture, our own history and we are here to help you”

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Although rural America is proportionally less diverse than the country as a whole, it is home to many immigrants and other communities of color. In the meatpacking industry, for example, foreign-born workers have long done the bulk of the work.

Nebraska is home to facilities run by JBS, Tyson, Smithfield and Costco and large Latino, Sudanese, Somali and Burmese communities, groups that have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19. The state is notorious for its disregard for workers’ lives. After former President Trump used the Defense Production Act to ensure meat processing plants would stay open in 2020, Governor Pete Ricketts refused to close a JBS plant despite officials’ requests to do so. of public health and then insisted that only documented workers would be eligible for vaccines.

“Our leadership does not reflect our people; it really feels like it’s only English, and if you speak other languages ​​you are looked down upon.”

In the face of this injustice, Gladys Godinez has become one of many people in rural Nebraska who has sought to inform, educate and activate her community in the face of the pandemic. The Guatemalan-born community organizer, who moved from California to Lexington, Nebraska, when she was 12, has worked with the Rural Assembly and other groups. Her parents worked in meat packing plants and she was keenly aware of the role her family and community played in maintaining a thriving rural economy, but she often felt that the news presented a negative stereotype that immigrants were criminals.

Today, she is executive director of United by Culture Media, an organization she and her husband started in anticipation of an immigration raid on the migrant community in Lexington. They formalized the organization last year to expand its reach, shine a light on untold stories and ensure diverse rural perspectives receive airtime. Godinez is also the host of the Courageous Mujer podcast, which seeks to uplift Latinas, and creates a bilingual webcast featuring not only news, which she says has been vital during COVID, but also positive stories that show the value of all immigrants across the US

Civil Eats spoke to Godinez about his experiences as they intersect with agriculture, racial stereotypes, and how immigrants change and are modified by rural areas.

Gladys Godinez prepares to speak at a car rally in the back of her father’s truck. (Photo credit: Chris Cox)

When most people think of rural America, they don’t really see the immigrant experience – you’ve said in the past that you felt invisible. Your city, Lexington, has a population of 10,000, and 60 to 70 percent of the community is Latino, and about 10 percent is of African descent. How do you change this narrative?

Twenty years ago there was a great wave of immigrants who came to Lexington because a meatpacking plant had opened. They recruited us from this rural community and held a town hall. And at this town hall, the city leaders told us that they didn’t want us here. I was 15 at the time, and I tried to counter this narrative, [by publicly standing up for our rights]. I didn’t know it at the time, but that’s what I was doing. And then, 20 to 25 years later, I came back to my community – it’s hard to claim a hometown when you’re an immigrant, but I would claim Lexington as my hometown – and I saw similar stories, even though our population is now the Lexington lineage. Our leadership does not reflect our people; it really feels like it’s only English, and if you speak other languages, you are looked down upon.

During the pandemic, I went to various leaders to ask for information in Spanish throughout the community, because a third of our residents speak [primarily] Spanish; they did not respond. I continually asked the public health department and community leaders, and there was no change. So we made this change by launching a webcast in Spanish. It was really me in my basement in front of a computer, putting together a PowerPoint on a Zoom call and just sharing it on our Facebook page. But it helped, and other communities followed suit. And we hope to be able to develop this into a bigger platform.

Tell me about your work with Solidarity with packing plant workers.

It started in April 2020, with a group of individuals at a JBS meatpacking plant on Grand Island. We have a network of individuals who are trying to help Latinos and immigrants across our state, and they’ve reached out to me asking, “What can we do to come together to do something?” Our voices are not heard.

My own journey started with my parents, who worked in a meat packing plant [at Tyson Foods]. They worked there for more than 20 years; they are retired now so i knew they were safe. But many members of my family still work there. And on top of that, a lot of my friends have been calling me saying, “Gladys, my parents, my mom, my aunt, my cousin, my sister are going through this right now in the meatpacking plant, and we don’t know not how to help them.” It started out as a very grassroots, statewide initiative that just talked to our neighbors and family members about what was going on.

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