Eau Claire Woman Uses Her Voice to Support the Local Latino Population
It was only three months ago that federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents from Illinois moved into Wisconsin, arresting 83 people in 14 counties between Sept. 21-24 – just four days. Of the people detained, 44 had criminal convictions in the United States, according to an ICE press release issued the day after the arrests.
Sixteen had no previous criminal convictions, and 21 others had re-entered the country after being deported. The report indicated that four people were arrested in Eau Claire County.
Any time that you get the opportunity to experience someone's culture through their eyes, I think that there is nothing greater.
Mireya Sigala, a board member with El Centro de Conexión de Chippewa Valley, estimates that the number of Eau Claire arrests is much higher based on her interactions with affected families following the raid. El Centro promotes multiculturalism and supports the local Latino community by hosting cultural events and connecting people with resources such as education, legal help, workshops, scholarships, and more. After the arrests, Sigala worked with the organization to ensure affected families were taken care of.
“I do what I do because I love my community,” Sigala said. She was born and raised in the Chippewa Valley after her parents moved to the area as undocumented immigrants – they have since been granted citizenship – in the 1980s. “I am so grateful to my family, that they came here, and they took that risk,” she said. She considers herself privileged to have been born in the United States, and that the benefits of citizenship have passed on to her own children.
“In that same respect, I cannot forget about those struggles and the risks my parents took,” she said. “To me, that drive and that passion to help out my community is because I can see and I know that it is my responsibility to be a voice for people who don’t have one, for people who are fearful.”
Sigala uses her voice to educate the Eau Claire community about Latino culture and about immigration in the United States. There are many misconceptions about the immigration process and about who undocumented immigrants are, she said.
One such misconception is that Latin American immigrants take advantage of government services they don’t contribute to.
State aid programs require recipients to provide a Social Security number, which undocumented immigrants don’t have. Many pay taxes out of their paychecks that go toward Social Security and Medicaid that they will not be able to receive without proper documentation. “They have to buy groceries, they have to buy gas, they have to pay the same utility bills that we’re all paying, so all of that goes back into generating our economy,” Sigala said.
Sigala wants to teach the Chippewa Valley the profound value of the Latino community. A UW-Madison study from 2008 showed that about 40 percent of hired workers on Wisconsin dairy farms are immigrants, 89 percent of them from Mexico. Without immigrant labor, the price of milk would increase by 90 percent, according to a 2015 study by Texas A&M Agrilife Research.
But it’s about more than milk. The presence of Latino culture in the Chippewa Valley is enriching for the whole community, Sigala said. “Any time that you get the opportunity to experience someone’s culture through their eyes, I think that there is nothing greater,” she said. “I think it’s important to have, even on a small scale, just to have those small interactive opportunities.”
There are about 1,600 Hispanic or Latino people living in Eau Claire, making up about 2.4 percent of the population. However, Sigala said, “I truly believe that the Latino community is thriving. She pointed to Latio-owned businesses as proof.
Sigala remembers how when she was a child, there was nowhere nearby to purchase traditional food ingredients. Her family members would take turns driving to the Twin Cities to pick up groceries so they could all enjoy their cultural favorites. Now, she excitedly lists the local Latino-owned restaurants, the grocery stores that offer traditional foods, and the wide selection of Hispanic and Latino foods available at Woodman’s. The strength of the community is also shown in language exchange programs and in multicultural public education.UW-Eau Claire was host to a North Central Council of Latin Americanists conference in October where more than 60 Latin American Scholars explored a huge range of topics concerning Latin American culture.
After the ICE arrests, El Centro put out a call for donations for the families that were affected, many of which had their head of household removed. “It was amazing,” Sigala said. “Boxes and boxes, and clothing and diapers … This community is so giving, and when people are in need it doesn’t matter what your walk of life is, it does not matter what your situation.” Sigala knows that rebuilding confidence and trust within the Latino community will be difficult after the raid, but she's hopeful thanks to the outpouring of support she saw in the following weeks. “I was just blown away by what this community has to offer.”