When he was 15 years old, Juan Hernandez traveled with his family from their home in Edinburg, Texas, to Brooten to work the fields during planting and harvesting seasons. For many years, he migrated back and forth from the south several months of the year. In 1997, he met his wife, Veronica, who also was a migrant worker from Texas employed on a potato farm near Monticello. The couple now make their home in Texas, but tending the land in Minnesota has called them back spring after spring.
This year, because of the many challenges migrant workers face — paying two sets of bills, the possibility of theft and damage to their home while they are away, taking the children in and out of school and leaving behind family and friends — they made the decision not to return for the seasonal work. However, their oldest son urged them to reconsider. At 17, he was finally old enough to drive combine in the fields.
So, for yet another spring, Juan and Veronica and their three sons, ages 13, 15 and 17, moved back to Brooten for the 2019 season. Their oldest daughter stayed behind in Texas.
Migrant workers play a vital role in the economy and have been traveling from the southern United States to work during the growing season in Minnesota for many years.
Although the workers are spread far and wide, there are many, including Juan and Veronica, who make their temporary home at a migrant camp on the edge of Brooten. The camp is comprised of about 40 apartments, and over the course of a season it is home to as many as 400 people.
While in Minnesota, Juan works as a seasonal supervisor at Lakeside Foods, Inc., a vegetable packing plant. He also has served as a bilingual interpreter and, in Texas, worked in the oil industry. Veronica is a family advocate and recruiter for the migrant school in Brooten, which serves the children of the many migrant workers who move to the area each spring.
The people of St. Donatus Parish in Brooten and its neighboring parishes recently renewed their efforts to welcome the migrant families and to strengthen Hispanic/ Latino ministry in the area year-round. On June 4, the communities met at the camp to celebrate Mass with Bishop Donald Kettler and other priests, enjoy a potluck meal and swap stories. A second Mass and meal took place July 7.
“We enjoyed very much the Mass and the meal,” Juan said. “It was nice for the community to come together and to meet some of the people from the area.”
“It made us feel more at home, more welcome,” Veronica added.
In the early 1990s, Father Tony Kroll served as a priest in Brooten. Having just returned then from ministry in Venezuela, Father Kroll was eager to meet the migrant families, many of whom were of Hispanic/Latino descent.
One of the things he did was to teach the children how to fish. He also drove around the camp and invited people to join him for Mass. A highlight for him was a softball game that included people from the camp as well as local townspeople.
“It was a very positive thing,” he recalled. “One of the Texans brought hot beans. There was an older woman, a resident of Brooten, who came and ate the hot beans. After that day, she went through town telling everyone about how good those hot beans were. She did more for integration and welcoming the migrants than anyone. That’s what we need today — people who are willing to go out of their comfort zone and make friends with people who are different than they are. I think that’s what’s happening in Brooten now.”
When Bob Leukam started working in the Brooten parish as the business manager last fall, he wanted to get to know the whole area, and that included the people in the migrant camp. On a number of occasions, he spent time playing kickball or basketball with the kids and getting to know the families.
“What Jesus taught us to do is to invite everybody to the Eucharist,” he said. “That is our duty. That is stewardship. That is evangelism to invite your neighbor to come to Mass with you and to celebrate the Eucharist with you. That’s why I’m here…because of that feeling in my heart to invite people to the Eucharist. All our churches need more people. And if the people are there, then all they need is an invitation.
“I think sometimes there’s an ‘us’ and ‘them’ complex out there. And it’s not only for those who are Spanish-speaking. It’s any minority. It’s poor people. It’s disabled people. It’s anybody that’s not like us.
My mission in life is to get rid of the ‘us’ and ‘them,’ and make it just ‘us.’”
Leukam recently offered a baptism class to one of the migrant families, who then had their child baptized. He is also planning to host a Bible study with the youth and teach them about the rosary with the help of Arturo Salgado, a member of St. Mary Parish in Melrose. Salgado recently completed a two-year course in lay leadership formation through the Pastoral Leadership Institute of the University of St. Mary of the Lake University (Mundelein Seminary) in the Archdiocese of Chicago.
“Every baptized person has as a mission to bring the Word of God to every creature; it is a mandate that Jesus gave us to go all over the world and make all peoples disciples,” Salgado said. “That is why it is necessary to accompany our migrant brothers and sisters to continue persevering in the knowledge of the Word of God and the practice of the sacraments of the Church.”
And their efforts extend beyond the camp.
“We have a large population of Hispanic people around here that work on dairy farms or at Jennie-O in Willmar, and those are the people that I’m trying to communicate with, because they’re here 12 months out of the year,” Leukam said. “If we can build community with them, that is very, very good because they could become part of our parish and that will make our parish stronger.”
Leukam and Salgado know there is more work to be done.
“We’re going to build something great here in the diocese,” Leukam said. “And it’s not only here in Brooten. It’s in Long Prairie. It’s in Sauk Centre. It’s in Melrose. It’s in Cold Spring. There are Hispanic communities all over the diocese. The Catholic Church needs to have their arms open, not across their chest. We need our arms apart, welcoming people in, inviting people to come together and be part of the community, to be part of the Church.”