A palm-leaf cross and rosary were among the items the Juarez family abruptly left behind in Greene County. (Photo by Chuck Offenburger)
Then they left.
No phone call, no text, no email, no written note. And there’s been no contact from them in the month that’s passed since their mysterious departure.
They left behind every bit of food they’d been given here, or at least what was left of it. Ditto on all the clothing they’d received to survive in Iowa’s harsh temperatures in late January and the first half of February.
They left behind an electric fry pan full of chunked potatoes, half-cooked. We can be grateful they unplugged it.
There was a half-eaten sandwich on the kitchen table.
They left the laptop computer the Greene County Schools had provided to their 12-year-old son who’d enrolled in seventh grade.
They left their queen-sized blanket with its big image of Our Lady of Guadalupe. They even left what I think was that son’s rosary and a cross he’d made from a palm leaf that churches give out in the Easter season.
It seems to me they left very quickly, including not locking the door of the house we’d helped them rent. As far as I’ve been able to find out, they were not arrested, kidnapped, bullied or harassed.
So, there’s a lot we don’t know.
But the Juarez family also left us with a lot of lessons and reminders.
They are important things for us in Greene County to learn, or realize again, as we continue to launch a multicultural growth initiative here.
Our goals are to bolster our workforce; secure a future here for our major employers; find more farm workers; drastically expand and improve our housing stock; grow retail business and enrollment in our two public school systems; broaden and diversify our population, and reverse a century of population decline.
We’ve been at it 18 months, and we hope it will still be unfolding in 18 years.
I’m serving as chairperson of the steering committee, working to mobilize the public to get behind this initiative and help make it work. We had up to 75 people working on four subcommittees until we hit a funding snag late last year. We didn’t get a USDA grant we thought was a slam dunk for us.
The general chairperson is Sid Jones, recently-retired bank president and still the president of the Greene County Development Corporation (GCDC), our local economic development group.
We’ve worked very closely with GCDC staff and board members, as well as a hired consultant Carlos Arguello of the business LatinoIQ, based in Grimes northwest of Des Moines. He is a bilingual, first-generation immigrant who grew up in neighboring Carroll and worked for years in international business with John Deere. He has guided several large businesses and other communities in diversifying in recent years.
And we are in process of hiring a full-time director of a new multicultural family resource center, facilitating the settlement of newcomers here.
We are attempting to build a unique funding partnership involving our businesses, county government, Jefferson city government, the schools and even generous individuals. Such a partnership, we think, will enhance our eligibility for grants from the state and federal government and possibly national foundations.
Although we are seeking families from across the nation and around the world, including refugees, our focus in recruiting is on Latinos. They are the fastest-growing population demographic in both Iowa and the U.S.
Our efforts here have received fairly extensive media coverage, both nationally and internationally.
And that’s what brought Jose Juarez Hernandez, 34, his wife Maria Morales, 40, their older son, Yovani, and their 8-month-old infant son, Cristo, into Jefferson in the early afternoon of a very cold Sunday, Jan. 22. The previous month, they’d driven in a small, over-packed sedan from Yakima, Wash., where they’d lived about a year, with interim stays in Texas and briefly in Chicago before arriving here.
They saw Jefferson’s fine Mexican restaurant, Casa de Oro, went in and told owner Gil Lepe that they’d come because of two stories about Greene County’s diversity initiative they’d seen in the media – and which they’d saved on their smart phone. One was a video story from months earlier by reporter Andrew Hollenbeck on KCCI-TV in Des Moines, and the other was a story by reporter Jim Cason in the Mexico City newspaper La Jornada.
Both stories told of 200 or more jobs being open with the major employers here, and that Latinos are being recruited.
Jose Juarez would point to those stories on his phone and say, basically, with translation help from 12-year-old Yovani, “Here we are!”
Lepe and his team at Casa de Oro fed the family. A regular customer covered the tab, and a couple of others left money for more meals in the days ahead. Several other local people helped the Juarezes find temporary housing for a few nights, and then helped them rent a small house in Jefferson for the month of February. They were able to get food and clothes from the Greene County Christian Action Resource Center, which is the local food pantry.
In the next days, we learned that both parents came from rural areas of Mexico, Jose in Veracruz state and Maria from Guanajuato. They did not know each other until they met in Wilson, N.C., two years ago.
Maria had lived there in North Carolina about 16 years, had been married before and had two older children who remain there. Her former husband had returned to Mexico. Jose arrived there two years ago with a tourist visa, he said. They began dating, fell in love and married. Then they moved to Yakima in south central Washington and both had jobs at an apple orchard and apple processing firm. Both worked earlier at grain farms, they said, and Jose has also worked as a welder.
Both boys, Yovani and little Cristo, are U.S. citizens, having been born in this country.
An immediate problem for both parents, we learned, is that neither had proper documentation to work here now. But we had a person with deep experience in immigration law visit with them, and her report was that at least Maria had a strong chance of gaining legal residency, but she would need legal representation to get that. Prospects for Jose acquiring legal residency did not seem as bright, we were told, but we decided to try to get all his records from Mexico and see what might be possible.
That was on Feb. 10, when we had that difficult conversation with the parents, telling them that we could not assist them in finding employment until they had proper documentation. We also told them they should not be driving their car, since neither had an operator’s license and they had no insurance.
Sometime in the next two days, they left Jefferson. We’ve heard nothing from them since, despite our best efforts to reach them and at least find out that they are safe and healthy.
If I could speak to them again — one parent to two others — I’d tell them they’ve made lousy choices, especially for their young sons. They should get back to Greene County as soon as possible and ask us again for help. I believe we’d provide what we could legally do.
So, what are those “lessons and reminders” we’ve received from all this?
— There are so many people, like the Juarez family, who are leading lives that are oh-so hard, for many different reasons. Yovani, who may be the sharpest 12-year-old I’ve ever encountered, translated horrific stories from his parents for me, and then softly added, “We have suffered.”
— Good people in Greene County responded quickly and generously when we asked them to help in this situation. That included the schools, churches, our food pantry, medical center, businesses, farmers, landlords and others.
— We must be up-front with newcomers, telling them they’ve got to have proper documentation before we can offer them employment, education, training, housing assistance, and good neighbors in good communities.
— We need professional help in setting up and operating the services we’ll need for effective reception and resettlement of new families, especially when they begin arriving in significant numbers. That’s the position we’re hiring for now.
— We need to restart the community preparedness efforts we made earlier for language classes, translation services, intercultural education and integration, and new facilities and programs for entertainment and recreation.
— There’ll be some costs involved, but none are prohibitive. Indeed, there will be new economic opportunities for all, especially in development and construction of housing, manufacturing, retail and services.
— Growth is good. For all.
— Greene County will be rewarded for the challenges we accept and overcome.
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