Vecinxs Unidxs Saliendo de la Oscuridad:
Latinx Testimony of the Borderlands in Northfield, Minnesota
“One can spend their whole lives in Northfield without paying attention to the very big Latinx community that lives here. It is not that the people of Northfield are racist and want people to be segregated but there is a strong spatial segregation. The Latinx community, for the most part, live in the same place.” -Mar Valdecantos (translation)
This is the story of the people of Viking Terrace, a predominantly Latinx trailer park that is somewhat out of sight of two of the nation’s most prestigious colleges, but that in other ways has been hidden in plain sight for a long time. This project began with a relatively simple prompt: “Show me a border in this community.” Our group had a lot of ideas as to what we wanted to focus on, but we eventually settled on housing. In reality, though, this project has become less exclusively focused on the institutional inequalities in housing; rather, it seeks to tell the story of the inhabitants of Viking Terrace, largely through their own words. A final note before we begin: unless noted otherwise, all names have been changed to protect the anonymity of the people we talked to.
Our story begins with a meeting, organized by our group and Mar Valdecantos, a local activist who founded the group Vecinxs Unidxs (Neighbors United). Mar has been an activist in this community for a long time; she was a Northfield City Councillor at one point, served on a housing task force for Governor Dayton, and currently hosts the radio show El Super Barrio Latino on KYMN, in addition to chairing the Northfield Human Rights Commission and her work with Vecinxs Unidxs. According to Mar, Vecinxs Unidxs was founded in 2017 in response to the terrible conditions in Viking Terrace and other predominantly Latinx communities in Northfield (including the infamous and now since evacuated Florella’s Park). As she described it:
"When the mayor came to Northfield estate as the committee of human rights and what was happening was that the people would open the cupboards and the roaches would literally jump out of these cupboards. In addition, the kids would eat and play with the cockroaches; causing the mayor distress and opened up their eyes to these horrible living conditions."
Due to VU’s rallying, the community came as one and fought for a response that resulted in the conclusion that the Mayor coming to realize the reality that these people had to view. As a result, the Mayor called for a full inspection of all the buildings and threatened to revoke the landowners’ licenses to rent if the landowners did not keep these homes suitable enough to live in.
Similarly, the purposely segregated area known as Viking Terrace exemplifies that their fight for suitable living conditions did not end with the improvement of apartment buildings in Northfield. The reality of the situation that involves Viking Terrace is one full of strife and financial difficulties, which heightens the precariousness of its inhabitants. To understand Viking Terrace, we must go back in time, to roughly the 1980s. At that time, Viking Terrace underwent a major demographic shift. While it appears that the landlord remained the same, the community shifted from largely housing lower-class whites to working-class Latinx people. In short, this white-flight allowed for the area of Viking Terrace to become easily marginalized in comparison to these other communities. These people came from a wide variety of Central and South American countries, but the largest amount came from a small town in the mountains of the State of Veracruz, Mexico: Maltrata. With a population of about 20,000, Maltrata plus its surrounding areas are about the same size as Northfield. Like Northfield, it is also a largely self-contained rural community. However, during the late 1980s and 1990s, the implementation of NAFTA caused a sharp decline in one of the main pillars of the city’s economy: brick manufacturing. This led many Maltrata residents to venture north; after a few were recruited in California to come to Minnesota, the flow to Northfield steadily increased. Two of the women we interviewed described the reason for emigration. One mentioned that family connections in the United States allowed them to leave their homes. She explained:
"I have family members here who came because of another family member who told them that Northfield had many factories and many jobs available. In Maltrata, there are no factories, there is no work. You had to go to the nearest city for work and pay for the transportation yourself, which would be over 40 minutes long. Because Northfield had very few Hispanics and because we are hard workers, there were many jobs for us here."
As such, most of these migrants are impoverished and have had to overcome obstacle after obstacle in their traumatic and shame-filled journeys to find a better opportunity, which made them land in Viking Terrace--a place that has affordable housing compared to the rest of Northfield. However, these homes are extremely fragile and are not weather-proof trailer parks. These Mexican immigrants are able to own the trailer parks but are forced to rent the land space that trailer parks exist upon. Despite the affordable housing, the inaccessibility to steady jobs does not allow for their living situation to improve; in fact, it eliminates any possibility of social and economic mobility.
The people of Viking Terrace are at the crossroads of various disparities. As immigrants, their first action after arriving at a new place is finding a roof over their head. Many come with few savings and thus require cheap housing. In Northfield’s case, Viking Terrace is a place to go. Similarly, many immigrants come without proper documentation to work. This puts them at a disadvantage when securing a place to live and in how they sustain themselves. Being undocumented means that the jobs that are available are those that pay in cash and are not permanent. Some of the residents that we spoke with shared that this was a cause for uncertainty in their lives. We heard of two women who had lost their jobs at a factory a few days before our interview.
Viking Terrace is a desert for its residents. It is in the northern edge of Northfield away from downtown, the economic and social center of town. Viking Terrace is far away from the often used Target, Aldi and other stores. We heard from residents that they tend to go outside of Northfield to Walmart because they feel more comfortable shopping there. Physical mobility is more difficult for residents because Northfield’s transportation routes avoid their area. This makes it difficult for them to access jobs and shopping spaces among other things. The residents we interviewed complained about the lack of access they experience.
Viking Terrace exists within a border in Rice County, a region bordered off by railroads--a method historically known for segregation and ghettoization of regions. In the Neatline map, it demonstrates this physical division of the railroads enclosing Viking Terrace. Also, it is extremely important to note that a border is not a place but rather a state of mind. Even though we are so far away from the Mexican border, borders exists here. There are physical and ideological borders. Even when they leave this physical space, they cannot leave fear behind--this fear that was forced on them.
For the borderlands context, the United States of America has a total of three land borders. At the surface, those are the only borders one needs to think about, and the borderlands--places where the divide and distance from the center lead to distinct, often hybrid identities--are really just the areas surrounding these three lines. But any US American can tell you that there are plenty of other borders within this country. Some are more obvious, like the lines demarcating Amerindian land, where federal laws apply a bit less, or the lines that divide this country into 50 distinct states. This story, however, is about less visible borders, borders which have kept a community in the shadows, unable to fully live the life that it needs and deserves.
Our main contention is to shed light on these horrible housing inequalities and that these inequalities are not only a failure of attention to housing but also have layers of racial and xenophobic bias toward the Latinx immigrant population of Northfield. As a result, our call-to-action is to make known the communities and organizations that are rallying at the moment--and have been--to combat these injustices that most Carleton students and staff have continued to ignore and neglect with their blissful ignorance.