July 15, 2020
It only takes a handful of inspired people to create a movement. And that’s exactly what is happening in one rural town in Greater Minnesota.
Convivencia Hispana has become a strong force for our Hispanic/Latinx community living in St. James and other towns across Watonwan County. These rural communities in southwestern Minnesota house some of the largest meatpacking plants in the country as well as some of the most severe educational and economic disparities in the state.
Four years ago, a group of co-workers at Smithfield Foods decided that they could no longer remain silent. Thus, the birth of Convivenici Hispana. The initial focus was on public education and economic disparities among Latinos. Today’s work includes educating families to better understand and navigate the economic and social-political systems that have historically disadvantaged people of color.
Convivencia Hispana is the first and only network of volunteers fighting to give a voice to the Hispanic/Latinx community in St. James. Its members have deep and proud roots from Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador.
“We are a network and hub of working-class people, community members, and parents that have put St. James on the map,” says one of the group’s coordinators Ever Vargas. “It makes us feel good when people become aware of our community here in St. James. Everything we are doing is new. We are like iguanas. We have changed our skin in the past four years of growth, but not our hearts.”
Vargas says Convivencia Hispana has accomplished a lot in just a few years. The group was instrumental in bringing culturally-specific events to St. James. It also helped to increase Latino representation on the town’s decision-making committees and convinced school administrators to hire more interpreters for the schools. Most recently, Convivencia Hispana partnered with the MN Department of Health to administer approximately 500 COVID-19 tests to local residents.
The pandemic has made things extremely difficult for rural communities, especially the elderly and their families. Prior to COVID-19, members of Convivencia Hispana met to participate in activities twice a month with the Golden Age Group (Latino elders from the area). That program had to be paused due to health risks. They still try to stay in touch with calls and cards during this difficult period.
“It’s very sad to see that we cannot connect right now, but we do not stop. I wish we had more time,” Vargas says.
Unlike most metro advocacy groups, Convivencia Hispana operates with only volunteers who have full-time jobs. The network does not receive funding typically designated to nonprofits. “We don’t have organizations here. We have nothing. We have been forgotten, so we have to extend and cover all of the facets that our community needs,” Vargas explains.
He sees the potential power in partnering with organizations like LatinoLEAD that can unite rural, suburban, and urban communities. It’s the best way to increase the influence of our communities across the state. “Why don’t we have meetings every 6 months, 4 months and come together. I’d love to have more people come meet with us,” Vargas says.
Convivencia Hispana sees developing and supporting its youth as the most critical part of the network’s efforts. “Youth are the biggest drivers. Our hope is that they continue to do this work with the same passion as to how we started,” Vargas says. “ My hope is that our young people have that love of the community. That makes me proud – when I see our young people doing this work.”