A Street Corner Mix

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Sholom Rubashkin was sentenced to 27 years in federal prison on Monday, marking yet another chapter in Postville, Iowa’s, tragic relationship with Agriprocessors Inc. I thought about this relationship the other day while sitting in a Mexican restaurant on Postville’s main drag, enjoying a burrito the size of my forearm.

Rubashkin was sentenced for his role in a financial fraud scandal that came to light just over two years ago after an immigration raid at Agriprocessors, which was a kosher meat packing plant operated by his family. The facility was opened in the northeast Iowa farm community in 1987 after Hasidic Jews from New York bought a shuttered plant. During the next two decades Agriprocessors became the largest kosher meat processing facility in the U.S.

And the town became an ongoing experiment in what happens when cultures mix—or don’t—in a small community. With the arrival of the Hasidic Jews and the workers from south of the border and elsewhere, Postville suddenly found itself being labeled one of Iowa’s most ethnically diverse communities. This diversity didn’t always make for smooth relations between the newcomers (as well as amongst the newcomers) and those who considered themselves “native” Postvillians. Recent books with titles like Postville: A Clash of Cultures in Heartland America and Postville, U.S.A.: Surviving Diversity in Small-Town America are self-explanatory as to the tension created in the community.

To say the least, the largest workplace raid in Iowa’s history—it involved the arrest of almost one-third of the plant’s 968 workers—did not help matters any. The event provided a glimpse at everything from the terrible working conditions in meat packing plants and how even child labor laws are sometimes violated, to the prevalence of methamphetamine in such facilities and the shortsightedness of having a local economy rely too heavily on one employer (Postville saw its population of 2,800 drop by roughly 1,000 within a year of the raid, according to the town’s mayor). The Agriprocessors debacle, and how it was handled by the authorities, was also just one more example of how broken our immigration system is.

Last year,  Canadian-based Agri Star bought the plant, spent millions of dollars modernizing it, promised to treat workers well and began processing kosher chicken, turkey and beef. It remains to be seen how this latest twist will turn out for the people—newcomers and old-timers alike—of Postville. However, I thought it was a good sign that when interviewed by Radio Iowa recently, Agri Star CEO Hershey Friedman said it made sense to keep kosher production in the town because, “people who have expertise in kosher processing have made Postville their home.”

He’s right. And it’s good to be reminded that despite all of the turmoil, despite all of the question marks about the future, despite all of the unflattering books written, Postville is still home to people who came there—recently and not so recently—for various reasons, and have stayed through thick and thin. After the immigration cops and TV cameras leave town, these people have to get along if the community is to survive.

As I tucked into that burrito while sitting next to a picture window at the Taste of Mexico, behind me a group of  whip-thin Somalis—two men and one woman–were having an animated conversation in their native tongue while sipping Mountain Dew. The restaurant is housed in a beautiful, if slightly run-down, stone building that was once the home of “Luhman & Sanders,” a dry goods store that dated back to the 1800s.

The men took turns walking out to the sidewalk for a smoke, passing through a bright entry-way where on the floor the words “Luhman & Sanders” were spelled out in ancient black and white tiles. While one of the men paced the sidewalk in the June heat, two blond, well-dressed women greeted him as they walked by.

A stocky guy in his 30s with a sun burnt face and the jocular disposition of a beer salesman walked in carrying a neon “Bud Light” sign. “I got it fixed,” he said to the friendly Mexican waitress as she fetched him a ladder. He mounted the sign in the picture window and fiddled with it to make it straight, stepping off the ladder periodically to eye it from a distance.

Meanwhile, the three Somalis finally walked out the front door together, one of the men carrying a take-out clam shell and the woman  still sipping her Mountain Dew.

The beer man plugged-in the sign, returned the ladder and walked to his van parked across the street. Before getting in, he turned and took one last look at his handiwork. As he drove off, a farmer in a pickup took his parking spot, jumped out and walked into John’s Hardware Center.

I paid up and walked out to my car, a little groggy from the meal and the muggy heat. As I backed out of my space, an older bearded man wearing the garb of a traditional Jew—a black suit and fedora— walked past the restaurant.

Inside, the waitress seated a middle-aged white couple under the repaired Bud sign.

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