November 2, 2016
By Keith Uhlig
Grandma Cakes in downtown Abbotsford is a bare and basic bakery, sparsely furnished with only a couple of tables, a half dozen or so cheap armless chairs and two display cases.
That's partly because Grandma Cakes is a work in progress; it just opened in February. But it's also because the heart of the business is in the back, where co-owner Amalia Melgarejo fusses and frets over Mexican-style cakes, pastries, cookies and other foods. Amelia has been baking for more than half of her 46 years, and to her this kitchen, with its gleaming metal appliances and space to create, is a paradise.
"That was always her dream, to own a bakery," said her daughter, Lorena Melgarejo, who runs Grandma Cakes with her mother.
All small-business owners face long odds in getting their endeavors off the ground and running, but Amalia overcame more than the average difficulties. She and her husband, Luis Melgarejo, immigrated to Wisconsin from Mexico in the late 1990s, lured north by jobs on dairy farms. The journey to Abbotsford from Hidalgo, a Mexican state that lies just north of Mexico City, wasn't on an easy or straight path.
After coming to America, Luis worked on more than a half-dozen farms across Wisconsin, Lorena, 26, said. The family lived in Dorchester, Marathon, Rice Lake, Marshfield, Auburndale, Antigo and Neillsville, eventually ending up in the Stratford area, living in a mobile home. While Luis worked, milking and caring for cows, Amalia baked in the kitchens of their small homes, selling goods such as her tres leches cakes. Their lives focused on work, so even after nearly 20 years in the U.S., they are uncomfortable speaking English. There just wasn't enough time in their days to develop an ease with the new language.
Being Hispanic with a language barrier has set the Melgorejos apart from most of central Wisconsin society at large, but they fit in fine in downtown Abbotsford. Grandma Cakes is one of a handful of Hispanic businesses on the 100 block of North First Street. These entrepreneurs tap into a burgeoning Hispanic customer base, and are beginning to woo white customers, too. Along the way, they support and help each other gain footholds that allow them to live their dreams.
In its heyday, downtown Abbotsford was like a lot of rural Wisconsin towns, full of Mom-and-Pop stores that depended on a customer base of farmers and blue-collar workers. But over the course of decades, rural Wisconsin's population has aged and declined, and farms have evolved from small, family-run operations with small herds to larger, fewer dairies that milk hundreds of cows a day. The small downtown Abbotsford stores suffered, and at one time vacancies lined its main street.
The vacuum left is now being filled by new Hispanic immigrant business owners, attracted to the area by jobs on those large dairy farms, food processing plants and other entry-level positions. It's a cyclical immigration story that is as old as America itself.
In a time when the Republican candidate for the U.S. is promising to get tough on immigrants and deport undocumented workers at an unprecedented level, it's a very uncomfortable atmosphere for a lot of people, including both newcomers and some people who have lived in the area for generations.
However, many also recognize that the wave of Hispanic newcomers and business owners bring new growth to a downtown that was facing deep decay.
"It's been real good for Abbotsford," said Mayor Dale Rachu. "These smaller businesses are basically keeping main street alive."
'Trump? We don't care.'
Illegal and legal immigration from Hispanic countries, particularly Mexico, has been a political football on the national stage for generations. But the rhetoric, attention and stakes ballooned in June 2015 when Donald J. Trump put the issue front and center as he launched his campaign for president.
"When Mexico sends its people, they're not sending their best," Trump said in his announcement speech. "They're sending people that have lots of problems, and they're bringing those problems with them. They're bringing drugs. They're bringing crime. They're rapists. And some, I assume, are good people."
That blunt language, along with Trump's intention to build a wall between the United States and Mexico, thrust people of Hispanic heritage into a harsh spotlight. Some civic and Hispanic leaders in Abbotsford say the impact on them specifically has been minimal; others say they have noticed a distinct uptick in racial taunts or comments. They all say that Trump's comments represent a deep misunderstanding of what they are all about and what they contribute to the community.
After Trump was nominated as the Republican candidate, some people drove by Alejandro Vazquez's house on the west side of Abbotsford waving Trump signs and yelling in support of the controversial businessman, he said. But the 55-year-old Mexico City native shrugs off that incident.
Vazquez is the editor and publisher of Noticias, a Spanish- and English-language regional newspaper and operates a Spanish-language radio station, El Primerito, from his basement. He was trained and worked as a journalist in Mexico, but he worked for years in factories and processing plants in America before he started his own newspaper in central Wisconsin. He's lived in Abbotsford since 2004.
"Trump? We don't care," Vazquez said. "In the U.S.A., really all over the world, there are two different communities. One is a business one, made up of business people, political people. But if you interview farmers, factory workers, they really don't care."
The point Vazquez makes about new immigrants, those here legally and those not, is that they simply are too busy working to gain a foothold in society and build their lives to make too much about Trump.
If Trump wins the election and starts deporting undocumented people as he said he would, Vazquez said they will simply start again, as they've done before.
"These people live in the shadows," Vazquez said. "Their dream is a better life. ... They want to pay their bills, pay their taxes."
Lorena Melgarejo agrees with Vazquez. But, she adds, if Trump is elected and able to fulfill his promises, it would have a big impact on the Abbotsford area. Hispanic-owned businesses would likely close, cows would go unmilked and large businesses, such as Abbyland Meats, which depend on a Hispanic workforce, would be hard-pressed to find replacements.
On a personal level, Lorena said she would hate to see friends and family deported. "I don't think he (Trump) will be elected. But I still get worried."
Lorena's life is in the U.S.; that could likely change under a Trump-led country. Lorena has the papers that give her legal status to live and work in the U.S. But many of her friends and family do not. If they get sent back to Mexico, she would probably go too, she said with a shrug. And she and her parents would open a new bakery there.
Writer Keith Uhlig goes back in time
It wasn't so long ago that downtown Abbotsford was as quintessentially "American" as a Norman Rockwell painting or a 1950s TV sitcom — small, quiet, safe and white.
For the first five years of my life in the late '60s and early '70s, my parents and I lived in a mobile home park on Abbotsford's north side, and among my first memories is Mom pulling me in my red Radio Flyer wagon to go get the mail at the little brick post office. Later, even after we moved to the country, to a place about 7 miles east of town, Abbotsford was where we did our shopping, bought gas and identified with. Abbotsford was our town.
My great uncle Al Uhlig owned a lumber store in downtown Abbotsford and ran a construction business from there. My grandpa, Emil Uhlig, farmed about 5 miles west of Abbotsford, but he also was carpenter who worked for his brother, Al. I remember one time driving through the downtown with Grandpa. Not usually one for nostalgia, he said, "I think I've worked on every single one of these buildings."
He said those words with an ever-so-subtle accent and a halting cadence, leftovers from his own immigration story. Grandpa came to this country as a toddler and spoke only German until he went to a rural schoolhouse and learned English. Some of the patterns of his first language stayed with him for his entire life.
In the 1970s, Abbotsford's downtown included a Coast-to-Coast hardware store. A corner drugstore. A music store with a drum set in the window. A cafe for the Greyhound bus stop. An active armory that looked, to me as a kid, like a castle. A clothes shop. A Ben Franklin variety store where I first bought my own candy, and later, plastic model cars and airplanes. A theater with springy red velvet seats where I saw my first movie, Disney's "The Aristocats."
My grandfather may have helped build Abbotsford's downtown, but also was part of its struggles. He helped build the strip mall on the city's East Side, and the hardware store and Ben Franklin moved there. Pizza Hut moved into town. Hardee's opened. And later, years after I moved away in the mid-1980s, the new four-lane State 29 was routed between Abbotsford and Colby. Hardee's ended up moving to the new 29/13 interchange. New gas stations and a McDonald's popped up there, too. Mr. B's, a couple of gas stations and stores in Abbotsford shuttered. Medo-Farms is now The Medo's.
The movie theater burned down. About half the buildings on the block stood vacant after businesses closed or moved. The armory's stucco finish began to crack, peel and break off.
Abbotsford, like many small rural towns across the country, was withering on the vine.
A Hispanic influx
In 2000, the U.S. Census Bureau recorded 1,956 people living in Abbotsford.
Thirty-nine identified themselves as Hispanic, about 2 percent of the population. But by 2010, Abbotsford added 354 people, growing to a total population of 2,310. About a quarter of those people, 578, were Hispanic. The estimated numbers for 2014, the most current available through the Census Bureau, show that Abby's population dwindled a bit, to 2,134. The number of Hispanic people declined as well, to 499, about 23 percent. But the town's population numbers today compare favorably to 2000.
The official numbers only tell part of the story, Vazquez said. Because undocumented Hispanic immigrants don't get counted in official government tallies, no one really knows exactly how many live in Abbotsford and the surrounding area. He guesses that a person could double the census figures and have a reasonable estimate.
Stable, steady growth sustains small communities like Abbotsford. If the Hispanic numbers were subtracted from the census totals, the tax base of the small town would likely be shrinking, Mayor Rachu said.
As it is, "a lot of the house sales are to Hispanics," Rachu said. "They're buying cars. And they're keeping things in real nice shape."
One of the drivers of the Hispanic influx into the area is the meat processing company Abbyland Foods. Founded in 1977, the company now dominates the Abbotsford landscape, as well as Curtis, a smaller town 5 miles west. In 1979, Abbyland had 12 employees and one truck making deliveries around Wisconsin and Minnesota, according to its website. (Abbyland representatives did not respond to a request for an interview for this story.)
Now the company employs more than 1,000 people and has eight divisions. Abbyland Trucking has a fleet of 155 tractor-trailers that deliver across the U.S.
Rachu said that Abbyland has expanded the business tax base of Abbotsford, and he believes that would not be possible without Hispanic workers.
As dairy farms grew larger, Hispanic labor often helps drive their expansion, too, Vazquez points out.
That growth aspect of the immigration story was outlined in a 2012 report by the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism. Clark County grew by 3.4 percent between 2000 and 2010, according to a piece titled "Hispanic immigrants help rural county stave off population dip."
The piece quoted Katherine Curtis, an assistant professor of community and environmental sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison:
“Overall, there’s an important effect and important contribution of the Hispanic population. In local communities we often hear about their importance in keeping the dairy industry afloat and rural schools open — in some cases, just keeping rural communities alive.”
New businesses fulfill old dreams
The cakes and pastries Amalia Melgarejo made in her small mobile-home kitchen were so popular that she could not keep up with demand. Sensing opportunity, she started making her own demands to her family: They needed to open a bakery. She was so determined to start the business, Lorena said, that she threatened to move back to Mexico to do it.
Amalia has been baking half her life, and she feels at home kneading the dough, mixing the ingredients. She learned her craft when she was a little girl, helping her aunt make Mexican bread. They baked the loaves in a wood-burning oven made of adobe, she said.
It fell to Lorena to get the ball rolling on opening the business in America. A 2009 graduate of Marshfield High School, Lorena speaks excellent English. Before the bakery opened, she worked as a Spanish interpreter. Lorena started by typing "How do I start my own business?" into Google. Next, she called Abbotsford City Hall, and started making inquiries about opening the business there. Locating their bakery in Abbotsford just made sense.
"It's like, right in the middle of the Hispanic area," Lorena said. She found a hospitable community. Abbotsford city officials pointed her to the state's Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, which provided information regarding regulations regarding food-based businesses.
She also found a business community receptive to Hispanic-owned ventures and a willingness to help them get started.
Grandma Cakes is next to the Super Mercado La Tropicana, a Hispanic grocery store, deli and grill. Super Mercado is owned by Nivia Castillo. Castillo also owns the large brick building at 118 N. First St., and rents space to the Melgarejos for their bakery.
Castillo came to the United States at age 9. Her mother, a single mom struggling to raise six children, worked picking strawberries on California fruit farms, Castillo said. As she grew up, Castillo spent time in Mexico and Texas. For a while as a young adult, she lived in Perryton, Texas, and drove an hour to work in a meat processing plant in Kansas, a plant where her husband also worked.
She and her husband ended up moving to Watertown, west of Milwaukee. Her husband had family there, she said, and was able to find a job at a pork processing plant. Castillo started selling food favored by Hispanics as a way to earn money on the side and eventually built a strong enough business to open a store. Then she and her husband started selling items from a truck in Abbotsford.
Eventually, business declined in Watertown and picked up in Abbotsford. Castillo moved her store to where Grandma Cakes is now located, renting the space from Laurie Raatz, who owned Spring Crest Draperies. That arrangement worked well, Castillo said. Raatz became more than a landlord; she became a close friend.
Raatz provided key support for Castillo when she and her husband went through a divorce and helped establish her new store in Abbotsford as she closed the Watertown location.
"I loved her," Castillo said of Raatz. "She was the first person who helped me a lot."
Then Raatz fell sick with cancer and moved to close Spring Crest. Raatz asked if Castillo wanted to buy the building, and Castillo did.
Just like Raatz helped her get her store started in Abbotsford, Castillo has helped others. Before Grandma Cakes, Castillo rented space to Ana and Javier Garcia. The Garcias kept a small inventory of men's and women's clothes and shoes in the space where Castillo once housed her small grocery store. They now own the clothing store Novedades La Chiquita, also on the 100 block of First Street. That building was vacant before the Garcias moved both their business and their home into it.
The store is mostly run by Ana, 35,, while Javier, 37, works at Abbyland Meats. Ana first started selling clothes with a Hispanic flair from the trunk of her car when she and Javier worked in a meat processing plant in Indiana.
When Javier started working at Abbyland, the two of them decided to marry. They could not find a store that sold the clothing items they wanted for their wedding. So they decided they would start the store.
"It was always a dream, and he supported me," Ana said, through an interpreter. "When I was little (in Mexico), my parents had a small store. I always wanted one of my own."
A writer returns to a new old place
The Hispanic-flavored renaissance of downtown Abbotsford didn't happen overnight, but for me, in a way, it did. After leaving home in 1984, life moved on for me as it did for the town. I got married, moved through a succession of jobs, moved to the Twin Cities. My wife and I visited friends and relatives in Colby and Abbotsford, but there rarely was cause to go to Abby's downtown; it just did not register on my radar screen.
But last spring my mother was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer, and we found ourselves spending more and more time in the town. We started grocery shopping at Kramer's County Market. When I was a kid, it was Kramer's IGA. Back then, Mom would go in the store on a Friday night, while Dad and I sat in the parking lot, listening to country music on the radio.
One Sunday afternoon, my wife and I were looking for a quick place to eat that wasn't a fast food chain. We wandered onto First Street, and into Super Mercado La Tropicana, and had the best tacos ever.
That's when I realized that the town I grew up in changed in ways that I never would have predicted in the 1980s.
That kind of change is often uncomfortable for long-time residents.
Ana Garcia said that she's been told to "go home to Mexico" by a passer-by when she was bringing boxes of clothes into her store. Her daughter has been told the same thing as school. "She defended herself, though," Ana said.
Without the Hispanic people, downtown Abbotsford "would be empty," Ana Garcia said. "Just like it was before we came."
Not just in Abbotsford, Javier Garcia said. "The whole country. We work all over the country."
No matter what happens in Tuesday's election, the business owners in downtown Abbotsford say they want to stay. They want to help build a community for everybody, Hispanic newcomers and longtime white residents.
"We just want to be here," Javier Garcia said. "And have a better future for our kids."
Source: Marshfield News-Herald