Mixing Two Cultures in Beardstown

By Garry Moore

July 15, 2010 Updated Sep 4, 2007 at 8:22 AM CDT

The labor scene in Beardstown has changed dramatically over the past few years. So much so that the town has a new nickname.

In part two of his special report, News 25's Garry Moore talks with residents of the town some call Little Mexico.

To say Beardstown has a Mexican flavor would be an understatement.

One resident, Jose Medina, was asked, "How long have you been in Beardstown? Two years."

"You have family here? No, my family in Mexico. Me working here."

Jose isn't the only Mexican immigrant in Beardstown.

Hundreds have settled in this rural Central Illinois town. Most of them brought in by the Cargill meatpacking Company.

Retired Priest Father Eugene Weitzel remembers when Oscar Meyer owned the meat processing plant.

When the company left, he says the town suffered. And were it not for the Mexicans hired by Cargill, Beardstown would be dead.

Retired priest Father Eugene Weitzel said, ""From the time they opened until 1995, they had little or no trouble getting white workers...but gradually they needed more workers so they went down to Texas and started inviting Hispanics to come up and work in the plant."

"First it was mostly men, and gradually as they came more and more and got settled they brought their wives and children. And we're at the stage now where they're bringing older parents."

"Eventually, they went right down to Mexico itself to get workers, so we're at the point now where we think there are about 1,600 people here in town. They're a significant part of the population and they are growing."

Growing too fast for the Mayor of Beardstown, who says by hiring what he believes to be a largely illegal immigrant pool, Cargill has created a cheap labor force that threatens the middle class.

Bob Walters said, ""It's part of the operation of that plant is to recruit Illegals...and it's kind of a win, wink, deal. Current laws are pretty vague -they just gotta show two forms of I-D and you're in."

"The middle class is a rapidly disappearing population in this country. You're either filthy rich or you're struggling day to day to make ends meet and the middle class is just slowly being eliminated, and the use of illegal workers is one of the problems that makes the possible."

But not everyone sees Cargill or it's Mexican labor force in a bad light.

J.J. DeSollarof the Beardstown Chamber of Commerce said, ""When you're a large employer whose pumping 70 million dollars into the local economy. They have several thousand jobs out there that need to be done and they currently are having large turnover like a lot of large employers are having."

"So far as Hispanics taking jobs, I think anybody who wants a job can go out there and get a job. They're looking for people right now." "Beardstown's economic situation the last few years has been very, very good."

"What amazes me is when a worker is given a 2 to 3% an hour increase in wages once every 3 or 4 years, they start hollering inflation, we can't be competitive and all that--but if their CEO gets a million dollars bonus, corporate profits go up 30 4o, 50%, that's good business--that doesn't make good sense to me, and I'm not buying into that story," said Walters.

The town's acknowledgement of it's growing Hispanic population is evident by the fact that right across the street from the Cargill plant, you have the Lincoln Land community college where many Hispanic residents come for job training and bilingual education.

Residents like 19-year-old grocery clerk Edith Perez. She said, "I'm trying to get a better job, by going to Lincoln Land. They help me a lot there. I'm trying to get my GED."

Though one of the immigrants' biggest supporters, Father Weitzel says there have been some problems--with drugs, loud parties.

"But every group has those kinds of problems."

Legal or Illegal...accepted or rejected...Mexican immigrants are changing the landscape of Beardstown, as globalization goes down cold in Beardstown.

Cargill Spokesman Mark Klein tells News 25, "We disagree with everything the Mayor says...And we're disappointed he continues to cast Beardstown in a negative light. We are an important part of the community and that's why we support it."

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