Mexican immigration to Pelican, spanning six decades, shifted ‘complexion’ of historically Scandinavian American community

Speaking at the Pelican Rapids Public Library April 12 was a panel focusing on Mexican immigration to the Pelican area.
Introducing the panel is Joan Ellison.
Seated from left, Chris Schuelke, Otter Tail County Historical Society; Alvaro Perez, Sr., and Alvaro Perez Jr. The Perez family was among the earlier families to settle permanently in Pelican Rapids.

“The Mexicans shook up the place” when they started coming to Pelican Rapids.

“…It was difficult, uncomfortable for a town not accustomed to different nationalities…”

By some accounts, the city-run Pelican liquor store posted a sign in the window:

“No minors. No Mexicans.” And that was less than 50 years ago.

These were just a few of the comments and quotes drawn from a special program on Mexican immigration, at the Pelican Rapids Public Library April 12.

But the bottom line, when it comes to business, industry and the need for labor; is production and profit.

And the bottom line with incoming Mexicans: “They wanted work; and they came to work.”

By most accounts then and today, the Mexican American workforce has played a substantial role in making the Pelican West Central Turkeys plant among the most productive and efficient of the Jennie-O and Hormel operations.

Special guest was Alvaro Perez Sr., among the earliest Mexicans who first came as temporary labor, and eventually settled permanently here. His son, Alvaro Jr., a Pelican Rapids High School graduate, was also a special guest for the program.

“I feel happy here,” said Alvaro senior, a proud, permanent Pelican Rapids citizen, who strapped on a handsome tie for the occasion and joined his son and Otter Tail County Historical Society director Chris Schuelke at the head table for the program, which nearly filled the library meeting room.

Struggling to meet labor needs, almost since the very opening of the Pelican turkey processing plant in 1956, the plant was especially short-handed during the pre-holiday rush for Thanksgiving and Christmas turkeys. In 1963, the plant was “so desperate that they recruited patients from the Fergus Falls State Hospital,” said Schuelke.

Shortages continued from the mid-1960s on, during the Vietnam era and the loss of young men to the war effort.

Alvaro Sr. began traveling north to Pelican Rapids in the 1970s, generally working three months and going back.

He recalled up to 80 Mexican workers arriving in Pelican on bus. They stayed in a barracks-like compound-men on one side, women on the other.

“My family was here together,” recalled Alvaro Sr., recalling there was a certain amount of drinking and rowdy conduct, with such a gathering of mostly younger men. “My family never drank, so it was rough,” said Alvaro Sr.

The work was mostly seasonal in Pelican at the time, so they were back and forth from Mexico for many years. The Perez family found work in St. James, Minnesota, and also in Chicago, where they lived for about five years.

“I didn’t want to raise my kids in the big city. Too many problems,” said Alvaro Senior. “I didn’t like Chicago. I grew up in a small town in Mexico.”

In 1990, the family settled for good in Pelican Rapids.

“We just bought heavy coats…No more problems,” said Alvaro Sr., drawing a laugh from the audience. Alvaro Jr. was about five years old when the family made Pelican their home.

Eventually, they bought a home. “We saved money, paid cash,” said Alvaro Sr. “I don’t like loans so much.” Alvaro Jr. recalled there were about seven Mexican families in Pelican at the time, in the early 1990s. There were a number of Vietnamese families; but the Bosnian and Somali families began arriving a few years later.

As far as the interaction among the immigrant groups:

“We mostly got along…except maybe on the soccer field,” laughed Alvaro Jr.

Alvaro Jr. expressed the importance of family bonds when immigrating.

“It is about what you teach your kids, the values–be responsible, save money, make the right decisions” said Alvaro Jr. “It is important to depend on your family.”

Revival of ‘Friendship Festival’ will be multicultural celebration July 21

Summer 2018 will include a celebration of ethnic diversity in Pelican Rapids, with the revival of the “Friendship Festival.”

The return of the multi-cultural event of food and music was announced at the April 12 Mexican immigration program at the Pelican Rapids Public Library by Joan Ellison, one of the founders of the Pelican Multi Cultural Committee.

Young leaders in the Hispanic and Somali communities are spearheading the event, slated for 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on July 2.

In other multicultural happenings, a “Diversity Dinner” potluck is set Sunday, April 29, 5:00 p.m. at the Pelican Rapids Library.