Immigration has historically been a controversial issue in the US political discourse. Whether Germans, Irish, Italians, Asians or Latin Americans they have all faced resistance based at worst on racist or nativist attitudes and at best on false assumptions of the cultural and economic impact or ramifications. The truth is immigration not only creates jobs and stimulates the economy, research shows that cultural diversity in schools improves the quality of a child’s education and has also proven that students who learn in a more diverse peer group grow more tolerant and better able to address conflict.
Diversity is more characteristic in large US cities although recent trends show rural and suburban areas growing into more pluralistic communities. I spent the last three years of the 60’s in the Quad Cities, a cluster of cities located 3 hours west of Chicago divided by the Mississippi River as a natural border between Iowa and Illinois.
One of the cities on the Illinois side is Rock Island, home base for the famous Rock Island Lines turned into a folk theme by singer Johnny Cash and on the Iowa side is Davenport not far from where Chicano rocker Ritchie Valens played his last concert before his plane crashed on the Winter of 1959.
The area was a hub for large farm equipment manufacturers such as John Deere, International Harvester and CASE which supported most of the local economy through good UAW Union salaries, benefits and pensions. Despite the racism and discrimination in the railroad yard and foundries, people of Color could enjoy a basic middle class income contrasting with the wages and working conditions of families working in the agricultural fields in surrounding areas.
Latinos, in those days Mexicanos, Mexican Americans and a few Chicanos had a place in the local economy and were by then trying to make themselves visible beyond the stereotypical second class citizen images through a small network of community organizations like the G.I. Forum, LULAC and the Illinois Migrant Council.
Among the few trailblazers in the area was Lupe Rivera whose Civic background was combined with his great culinary skills. Some local leaders inspired Raza with speeches but Lupe gave us a deeper sense of community through his Mexican food. Some people move masses with ideology but someone has to feed them and Lupe was that kind of individual in the history of La Causa.
Lupe had been in the restaurant business in the US Mexico border for a while but the Midwest was not ready then for Mexican businesses and for the same reason people from around the region would drive hours to the Pilsen Barrio in the south side of Chicago to pack on Mexican food ingredients, spices, utensils, clothing and music on vinyl records and eight-track cartridges.
The best Lupe could manage was to cook out of his small apartment kitchen in Muscatine, IA., to which we would drive up on weekends to pick up our orders of Barbacoa or Menudo. Memories of the long lines of cars of people picking up food orders by his doorsteps, going all around the block makes me think of an early version of today’s drive-thru establishments.
Lupe would get the Menudo meat from an area farmer in the Iowa side who owned a few acres and farm animals. He would supply local meat markets from his cattle and would dispose of all the remains including the animals’ intestines. Lupe would show up from time to time to offer money for the cows’ hooves, stomach lining and intestines but the farmer was glad to rid himself of all the waste and wouldn’t accept money from Lupe who would walk out with large containers of the raw Menudo meat.
One of those many visits the good farmer got curious about Lupe’s use of so much animal waste and asked him what he did with it to which Lupe casually replied “we eat it”. The response and how unabashed it was delivered almost floored the farmer.
“You eat this shit?” he screamed at Lupe. “yes” Lupe went on, “we Mexicans like it for breakfast”. That was enough information to offend the grower enough to kick Lupe out of his farm and told him never to come around anymore.
Lupe’s attempts to explain himself and offers of more money were not enough to convince the farmer who insisted Lupe left his property before he called the police on him. Needless to say the grower’s cultural shock had adverse implications in the community who for an extended period of time was deprived of Lupe’s menudo on Sundays.
Finally, the Menudo dry season came to an end when Lupe talked to our friend Julio Gonzales about the issue and Julio decided to intercede. Gonzales was a young Chicano from Corpus Christi who ended up in Iowa following the migrant stream with his family and had just returned from his tour in Viet Nam. Unlike many of us he was a tall handsome high school educated guy who spoke English without a Mexican accent, had an Andy Griffith personality and understood the local culture enough to talk to White people about sports, politics and even hunting and fishing.
So Julio paid the farmer a casual visit to talk about current affairs, the weather, local politics and the usual sports chit-chats. In the middle of the conversation Julio drops a comment about taking his two dogs hunting. That spun the conversation around to where the hunting dogs became the focus. To make a long story short Julio asked the farmer if by any chance he had any meat scraps he could buy to feed the dogs.
“Sure” he replied, “I have plenty of scraps you can take as much as you want.” And as they walked along to pick up the dog food, the farmer warned Julio “just don’t give any of this to the Mexicans because they will eat it.” “Nonsense” Julio exclaimed, “this is dog food, who in his right mind would eat this shit” and the rest is history, that marked the end of our menudo dry spell.
Oddly enough a year later I would see Menudo meat packaged and sold in Safeway food stores and soon after a bumper-sticker that reads “MENUDO, BREAKFAST OF CHAMPIONS”.