Life in a Guatemalan immigrant community in rural Ohio
By Joanna Bernstein
On June 19, 2018, Carlos was at the Fresh Mark, Inc. meatpacking plant where he works in Massillon, Ohio, when a coworker told him that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) had arrived at the plant. Carlos is an undocumented, indigenous immigrant from Guatemala and has been living and working in Ohio for fifteen years. He worked at the time in the warehouse for Fresh Mark, which produces and distributes pork products across the United States. After hearing his coworker’s news, he was struck with fear, but he kept working, even as terrifying thoughts ran through his head: “What’s going to happen to me? Are they going to take me and deport me? Is this it?”
The raid was part of a larger ICE campaign. The agency conducted simultaneous surprise raids on Fresh Mark meatpacking plants in Massillon, Salem, and Canton, Ohio. At the time, it was considered to be the largest raid “in recent history.” ICE arrested more than a hundred and forty workers from the Salem plant. The agency seized false work permits and green cards from the other plants, but only apprehended workers in Salem.
“After a few hours—I don’t remember how many because I was so scared—my supervisor called over the radio and said that immigration had left and that they didn’t take or arrest anyone,’ Carlos said. He made his way to the parking lot, got in his car, and drove to his home in nearby Dover, Ohio.
Many of the immigrants who work at the various Fresh Mark meatpacking plants, including the Salem location, live in indigenous Guatemalan enclaves in Dover and its neighboring town of New Philadelphia, fifty miles from Salem. Dover has a population of just under thirteen thousand and is ninety percent white and five percent Hispanic or Latinx, according to recent Census data. New Philadelphia has about seventeen thousand people and is eighty-seven percent white and eight percent Hispanic or Latino. (Census data for immigrant and minority populations is notoriously low due to undercounting of groups like undocumented immigrants, so it’s likely that the Latinx population of the area is actually higher; school district data suggests that Dover High School is actually about thirteen percent Latin.) Donald Trump won Tuscarawas County, where New Philadelphia and Dover are located, in the 2016 presidential election, receiving sixty-five percent of the vote.
When most folks think of communities where immigrants from Central America might feel at home, they probably don’t think of Dover, Ohio—or, for that matter, other cities in the Rust Belt. But maybe they should. In the small town of Dover, a Guatemalan immigrant community continues to thrive, even amid the threat of an emboldened ICE and Trump-supporting neighbors. Small Guatemalan businesses keep the area vibrant and attract buyers from neighboring states. Dover is a working case study on immigrant-driven urban and economic revitalization and civic engagement of undocumented, Latinx immigrants.
Carlos, who asked that we not use his last name because of his citizenship status, first came to the United States from Guatemala in 2003, when he was seventeen years old. He is from Aguacatan, in the department of Huehetenango. He speaks two indigenous Mayan languages—Akwateko and K’iche—in addition to Spanish. Huehetenango suffered a great deal of violence and damage during the Guatemalan civil war in the 1980s. Between 1960 and 1996, leftist rebels faced off against a U.S.-backed military dictatorship, which had displaced a democratically-elected government, in a conflict that left more than two hundred thousand people dead, most of whom were indigenous Mayans. The Eighties were the most violent years of the war, during which Carlos’s parents survived the Mayan genocide.
Growing up amid intense poverty, in the wake of domestic trauma and terror, Carlos saw few opportunities to prosper economically in Guatemala and decided to make the journey “al norte” to the United States. After crossing the border, Carlos first went to live for a few months elsewhere in Ohio, with a cousin, before making his way to Dover in 2003.
‘When I arrived in Dover there were hardly any Guatemalans or Latinos. There were maybe twenty? I was one of the first ones,” Carlos said. According to local tortilla factory owner Juax Ixcoy—a legal permanent resident from Huehuetenango who has been living in Dover for almost twenty years and speaks K’iche and Spanish—Dover’s Guatemalan population started to grow substantially around 2012 or 2013, when unaccompanied minors from Central America began to arrive en masse. In fiscal year 2014, more than fifty-seven thousand Central American children arrived in the United States, double the number who made it to the U.S. southern border the previous year. According to an investigation that year by the Center for American Progress, “The majority of unaccompanied children and families who are arriving come from a region of Central America known as the ‘Northern Triangle,’ where high rates of violence and homicide have prevailed in recent years and economic opportunity is increasingly hard to come by.”
The unaccompanied Guatemalan youth arriving in Dover were either K’iche speakers from Huehuetenango or Ixil speakers from Quiche. Dover is one of three recognized hubs for Ixil speakers in the United States. Centreville, Virginia and Pittsburgh are the others. Substantial K’iche populations have also been identified in Massachusetts and Oregon. In an NPR article from 2014, Ixil interpreter Sheba Velasco said that she went that year from receiving an interpretation request “maybe once or three times a month” to “four or five calls a week.” K’iche was the twelfth most common language for immigration court proceedings in 2017.
According to Ixcoy, the tortilla factory owner, prior to the Fresh Mark raids in the various locations surrounding Dover, he couldn’t recall any targeted ICE raids taking place. After the Fresh Mark raids, that changed. “Between winter and spring 2019, ICE started pulling over worker vans at dawn,” Iscoy said. “They came out of nowhere and just started pulling over groups of guys on their way to work.” He went on to say that there were rumors swirling around the local community that ICE was looking for minors who had missed their dates in immigration court, and that when they didn’t find those specific people, they would just arrest everyone.
Carlos continued to work at the Fresh Mark plant in Masillon for a year and a half after the raid. “I didn’t want to leave my job after the raid, so I didn’t. I get to drive a forklift. It’s fun,” he told me in October 2019. He showed me a video on his phone that one of his co-workers took of him operating the forklift at the plant. His eyes lit up as the short video played, and he explained his work to me in more detail. At the end of the video, Carlos looks at the camera. He is smiling.
Earlier that month, Carlos’s bosses at Fresh Mark had called him into their offices and informed him that the human resources department was conducting an audit. As part of the audit, Carlos was going to need to provide HR with his current passport. He has a valid Guatemalan passport issued to him by one of the Guatemalan consulates in the United States, but the name on his real passport does not match the name he is working under. The social security number that he submitted on his fake documents when he began working at Fresh Mark was most likely real, and probably belongs to someone who is deceased.
It’s common practice for large manufacturing corporations that rely heavily on immigrant labor, like meatpacking plants, to tacitly accept fake work and immigration documents for the sake of having their books and records appear clean and consistent with tax and labor laws. The Trump administration has encouraged corporations to vet immigrants’ employment eligibility by using E-Verify, an online government database that determines whether an individual can legally work in the United States or not. The use of E-Verify is preferred, not mandatory. After the raid, Fresh Mark claimed it had been using E-Verify to confirm the employment eligibility of its workers.
Carlos had until Christmas to present Fresh Mark with the requested documentation. His boss told him that if he was unable to provide them with a current passport by the holidays, he should not bother returning to work after Christmas because he would no longer have a job. He was visibly upset as he talked. “I have connections, and I know I can find another job, I just don’t want to,” he said. But finding a job proved more difficult than expected. By December, Carlos was still out of work and considering moving to Pittsburgh for better opportunities. (He has since found work at another meatpacking plant in Ohio, an hour and a half away from his home in Dover.)
I contacted Fresh Mark to ask about their employment practices with respect to immigrant employees. “We continue to run the same number of shifts at our facilities and are always hiring new talent so we can continue to best serve our customers,” a representative wrote in an emailed statement. “Our roots are proudly planted in Northeast Ohio, and we’re grateful for all our team members who work across all of our facilities.”
After the ICE raids in June 2018, he community of Salem was shaken. According to a Guardian article published three months later, “many Guatemalan residents have left Salem, and those who remain refuse to speak about the raid with outsiders. Local businesses have suffered, churches and advocates scramble to help immigrants left traumatized and without jobs, and Fresh Mark continues operating, without its full workforce.” Aggressive tactics used by ICE can create an overall atmosphere of fear and anxiety in immigrant communities, which can keep folks indoors and limit their social and civic engagement.
This has not necessarily been the case in Dover and New Philadelphia. Ixcoy said that while those early-morning busts injected a certain level of fear into the immigrant community and caused some people to be more apprehensive about driving, Dover’s Guatemalan community has continued to thrive—with positive effects on the economic life of the towns. “It seems like every time an older business closes a new ‘tienda’ pops up,” said Aaron Balk, a lifelong Dover resident.
“The last time I counted, there were eighteen small businesses owned by Guatemalans between Dover and New Philadelphia,’ Ixcoy said. These businesses include small grocery stores and restaurants selling specialty food products from Central America, clothing stores that sell traditional indigenous clothing from Guatemala, and bakeries. Many immigrants send money back to their home countries through remittance services at the various stores.
In addition to these small businesses, the largest Guatemalan Evangelical church in the area, “Iglesia Latina,” purchased the indoor flea market on Cherry Street in 2018. “It was dirty and going to close, so the church bought it and does a better job of taking care of the place,” said Jacinto, a twenty-three-year-old Guatemalan immigrant from Huehuetenango who sells indigenous clothing at the flea market. (Jacinto’s name has been changed at his request.) Jacinto’s mom died when he was young, and his dad couldn’t take care of him. He arrived in Dover as an unaccompanied minor when he was seventeen, directly from the border, and is now a legal permanent resident.
The flea market is a sight to see. It’s big and sits right next to the fairgrounds. It’s only open on the weekends. A third of the vendors sell antiques, used clothing, and other small, random items; a third sell Trump flags, confederate flags, and other conservative propaganda; and a third sell indigenous clothing from Guatemala, soccer jerseys and shoes, and soccer balls. The presence of right-wing extremists doesn’t prevent Guatemalan and Latinx customers from outside of the city and even outside of the state from shopping at the flea market on the weekends. “People come from Ohio and sometimes Indiana,” Jacinto said. “I order these clothes directly from Guatemala. They aren’t easy to find.”
I asked Jacinto if he feels a sense of welcome as a Guatemalan immigrant living in a predominantly white and politically conservative town. He said he did. “What about the people with the Trump flags?” I asked. “I just ignore them,” he said, with a hint of laughter. “I want to open my own business here—a supermarket that sells both Latin and American products. I want to be able to sell milk cheaper than Walmart.” ■
Joanna Bernstein is a writer and researcher in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Her work has appeared in Public Source, Latino Rebels, and NPR’s Latino USA. Find her on Twitter @Joannapgh
Cover illustration by Natalie Gonzalez.
Belt Magazine is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. To support more independent writing and journalism made by and for the Rust Belt and greater Midwest, make a donation to Belt Magazine, or become a member starting at just $5 a month.