This month I was blessed with interviewing 32-year-old Ana Laura Palacios Jimenéz, and hearing her story: what brought her to Lone Rock, what her work here entails, and why she loves this corner of the world. She had the patience to sit with me and share her journey, the courage to keep trying to explain when I didn’t understand, and the kindness to give me the opportunity to ask her my questions.
Our communities here, along the rivers of southwestern Wisconsin, are very white. Behind the scenes, however, many of the farmers are immigrants from Mexico and other Latin American countries. What is it like to leave Mexico City (population 8.85 million) and come live in Lone Rock, Wisconsin (population 888)? To become a minority? To have a language barrier that hides for some your intelligence, experience and knowledge?
Ana’s story is unique, and yet, like all the interviews I have been fortunate enough to hear, Ana’s was a reminder to me that taking the time to listen is such a valuable way to break down stereotypes. And the experience of interviewing someone who is learning English taught me to listen even more thoughtfully, as well as to take the time and interest to ask for clarification when I was not sure what was being said. To say, “I am not sure I understood,” is also a way of saying, “I want to understand you. I want to truly hear what you mean.” I am grateful Ana was patient with me and took the time to explain when I was not sure.
Ana arrived in Lone Rock in January 2019. She came from a city with 10,000 times more people than this river town. In university she had studied animal science and then spent three years working with rabbit producers, and then worked with producers of strawberries, fish, sheep and chickens. Her job was to help those producers learn the best ways to care for their farms, to improve production and to work with their government. She spent many hours traveling around the area to different farms. She was paid by the government for her work, but they did not always pay her in a timely manner, and then when she continued her education, receiving a master’s degree in genetics, they told her they could no longer hire her because they couldn’t afford to pay someone with a master’s degree.
She tried other jobs. She opened a handicraft store where she sold embroidered clothes and food products like cheese made by the farmers with whom she had worked. Unfortunately, she was unable to make the money necessary to keep the store open after a year. She worked construction. She worked a night shift printing blouses. For the construction job she performed hard labor under the sun for 10 hours a day, earning only $12 a day. It was a difficult job, but her co-workers were valuable. They could see her potential. They encouraged her to look for work abroad. She was clearly a dedicated worker, highly educated, strong in both body and spirit. Perhaps there was a better job somewhere else.
She thought Spain would be interesting, but couldn’t get a visa. Then someone suggested the United States. She reached out to many farming companies and felt discouraged by their lack of response. Then a friend suggested HANOR Company. After months of discouraging efforts and lack of responses, she heard back within hours of submitting her application to HANOR. They have operations in seven states and asked her if she had a preference for where she was placed. She did not. Ana just wanted a good job where she could use her knowledge and skills and be stable. She got her visa.
She believes that God was looking out for her. That He had heard her prayers when she asked to live in a place with many trees and lakes and friendly people. She had grown tired of the cars and the crowded nature of Mexico City. Tired of the people who were rude, and too busy to be friendly. And, besides all that, she wanted to finally meet snow! The idea of seasons was calling to her. Ana feels that when HANOR hired her to work for them, and settled her in her apartment in the Old Schoolhouse in Lone Rock, she had landed in heaven.
It wasn’t easy, though. She was nervous to speak English, and her new boss spoke no Spanish. He showed her what to do with only his gestures. Nonetheless, she was so happy to be working with animals again that she silently cried tears of joy. And then, as she demonstrated that she knew what she was doing, she saw her boss smiling. She knew then that he understood that everything was okay with her, that she could do this job well.
Now, two and a half years later, she still feels blessed to be here. She has met and fallen in love with José, a fellow immigrant and worker for HANOR. Perhaps part of what drew them together was their mutual searching and desire to grow and learn. Ana loves her job. But she also loves her life. She swims at Governor Dodge State Park. She goes for runs, she walks to the nearby woods where she is surrounded by the trees she prayed for. She and José can go sledding in the snow in the winter. It seems that Ana, after much work and searching, has found her home here in our river valley.
For me, it was refreshing to see Lone Rock through Ana’s eyes. Here is a woman who loves it there. Who, while afraid of and saddened by racism, has not felt its sting in Lone Rock. She acknowledges that some of that lack of sting might be that she is shy and hasn’t reached out a lot to the larger white community, staying within her Mexican community in the apartment building. But as she becomes more comfortable with her English, and she reaches out more, she feels welcomed by the community. She still hesitates to talk with new people for fear that they won’t understand her; that she will misspeak, or not be able to find a word in English. And yet each time that she does, and that new person makes the effort to understand, her comfort increases. Then, when she feels sure that she will be respected she feels comfortable speaking.
What a strong reminder that statement was for me. How important it is to demonstrate a willingness, and a desire, to truly hear what another has to say. Without judgment. To listen. Whether it is with someone learning the language, or who has only ever spoken English … I am grateful for that reminder.
Ana and José each have a teacher with whom they practice their English on a regular basis. In both cases their teacher has become like family to them here. They left their families of origin behind in Mexico and have no one else here, but these two local women have given their willingness and desire to listen to both Ana and José. And that has earned them the role of family.
In January Ana will have a baby, building their own family in this small piece of heaven. When I asked what she hopes Lone Rock will be like when her baby is 10, she acknowledged that many people want to see more infrastructure, but she is content with what is now. Her dream for her future, and the future then of Lone Rock, where she hopes to stay, is “to live quiet.” She had stated earlier that that was her goal in life, to live quiet. And she believes that she can do that here.
Jennifer Moore-Kerr is a mom, a free spirit and a barefoot dancer living in Spring Green where she can walk to the river and commune with friends. She can often be found welcoming locals and visitors alike to the Spring Green General Store where she tends the register most days. To suggest ideas for future “Bridges” columns, email email@example.com.