Posted by Tim Nafziger on 12/17/07 at 10:53 AM
Zulma Prieto is the founding editor of El Puente, the first Spanish Language newspaper in Indiana. For over 16 years, she has been advocating on behalf of Hispanic members of Elkhart County (the county where I grew up). During a visit to Goshen, Ind., this fall, I was very pleased to be able to sit down with her to talk with her about her story and the situation for the Latino community in Indiana and around the country.
Zulma Prieto: My husband Jimmer and I came to the States in 1990. I was born in NY, I was raised in Colombia, my first language is Spanish. I have a Colombian family. My husband is Colombian and both of my kids were born there. We had not made any plans to come to the States.
We went through a conversion process. The first place that we started to go was the Mennonite Church in Colombia. W were both baptized at the Teusaquillo Church [in Bogota]. Before the conversion, I had a brain tumor and I had to go to the Cancer Institute for about a year and a half and the Lord healed me.
At that point, we committed 10 years of our lives to the Lord. We talked a lot about what would be the best thing to do. We have never worked for any agency or church. At the beginning, we had made an application to MCC, they said they didn’t have anything for us here. We looked for a regular job in one of the factories. We started attending seminary [in Elkhart]. It took about seven years to do complete our masters degrees because we had kids to support.
The founding of El Puente
In 1992, because of what I heard from people in the community, I understood that people needed some sort of news in Spanish, so I wrote The Goshen News and told them I would work for free if they would give me at least every once in a while every once in awhile [in Spanish], so people would have some news about what was going on. They were not interested.
When I approached the South Bend Tribune, I just went in there and talked to the editor and said, “I really think God wants me to volunteer because people really need information.” He looked about me and said, “Let’s try it for three months and we’ll see what happens.” Usually you have to do a budget and a plan. I didn’t have anything like that. In fact, I was not a journalist by training.
He called me about five hours later and started talking to me about things I didn’t have any idea about. But I told him I didn’t have the answer to that, but I do know that there are people in my community that have the answers, so they will be in touch with you.
I put him in touch with Tito Guedea and they got in touch and talked about the pictures and stuff like that. Tito taught us a lot. He and his wife have always been part of the process. At that time, we did it in a very primitive way. We printed pieces of paper together like that. He told us how to do it.
So that’s how it started. We’ve always been a community run newspaper with the collaboration of a lot of people. We never planned to be a high class newspaper. At the beginning people from Notre Dame, for example, were very interested in having a bilingual newspaper with very high end articles. I said, that if people want that, they can write for the New York Times, they are bilingual already. What we want is something that will be the voice of the people, the pictures from the people, their own history, something they can feel proud of. That’s what we’ve been doing for the last 16 years.
What has your connection been to the Mennonite church during that time?
I think I can speak for bothy myself and my husband. We have worked for the church, not a denomination. We have met beautiful people in many places. Many times, we have been very disappointed by the work of the churches and individual denominations.
What is it that has disappointed you?
It’s like they have their own little in-groups and their church’s interest. They talk about outreach, but they are afraid to go outside and contact the people and be involved in talking with people that are different from themselves. That’s what we’ve been finding.
El Puente means the bridge in Spanish. How has the newspaper been a bridge for Anglo and Latino communities?
At first we thought it was going to be a bridge between the Anglo and Latino communities, but it was not like that. In the first years, it was more the [Hispanic Community] themselves finding each other. We started to be like a bridge between communities here when they started to be aware that Latinos were working there in that restaurant and so in. That said, I think to create a sense of community.
We have always passed on information about and for working class people and we have continued to be so. I think that has been effective. Sometimes we don’t have the balance but we would like the community first of all not to forget where they are from, and not to forget the good values. And not to betray them by becoming commercialized. In fact, I get very excited when somebody tells me that they are creating the resources to go back to their home country. Sometimes it doesn’t happen, but sometimes it does.
I think that keeping the language and teaching the children the language is very important. If you are not appreciative of your own place where you come from you cannot be very respectful of the place where you are at. One of the reasons for them to know the values of their own traditions is they know that even though they are different, not better or worse. If they are going to be here, they have to learn the ways. It’s kind of tricky.
What are some highlights or stories from 16 years of publishing El Puente?
El Puente has given me the opportunity to be an advocate in many instances, to stick my nose everywhere that I want to, and so find out a lot of information. Sometimes I know I rub people the wrong way in the Anglo community, because many of them, especially those who have not been abroad, have notions about foreigners that creates a steel frame that doesn’t let people communicate. That really worries me.
Right now we have a situation where immigrants are blamed for everything under the sun. It continues to be the foremost issue. And I don’t think this is going to change for some time because the United States based on a war economy. In order for people not to notice what’s going on with the budget and the amount of money spent on war, they need to keep going here with the issue about immigration. So when there are no jobs and people are losing their houses, then they blame everything on the immigrants. Even though a lot of the people that know about NAFTA and other trade agreements, the everyday public is not aware of the impact that has had [on Latin American countries] and so they do not know why immigrants coming here.
Hope for Change
If people humanized [our story] in plain language I know that their heart is in the right place. Right now I’m excited about the sustainability movement here [in Goshen] and in many parts the United States. It about starting to get control of our own life. I think my hopes for the States and for the people abroad is control: control of their lives, control of their land, and of what they are eating and doing. I hope this goes to the political level as well and that people are elected who truly represent the needs of the people. Because right now this is not a republic, it is not a democracy. I don’t know what it is, but it’s not.
Can you describe some of the ways you’ve seen the sustainability movement growing in Goshen?
Sustainability movement here in Goshen: More of local people are becoming interested in going to the Farmer’s Market and sustaining resources. I wish they would have more open communication with the regular people so other people would become interested, not just people at Goshen College and the same choir.
What impact have you seen in the local community have you seen with the escalation of ICE raids and this summer with higher penalties for employers hiring people without valid social security numbers?
It is going to be a burden to the companies and it is going to create a lot of problems for immigrants. Right now, they are feeling very persecuted. The situation has become almost unbearable. The consequence is you cannot drive a car, you cannot get a regular ID, insurance, license plates. Now your work is unstable. What are they going to do?
There are people who have been working in companies for ten years. I think it’s creating more and more of an economy where people are going to take advantage of [immigrants]. They are losing their houses, they cannot get their cars under their own name. An people are exploiting that need unfairly.
What would you say is currently the most difficult issue for Hispanics in Goshen right now?
I would say the most difficult issue that Hispanics in Goshen are facing now is having to face a legal system that has no answers to their problems. Most of the local population ignores the daily hardships that undocumented workers face. Currently they are about to lose all they have worked for. They earned their possessions through hard work, surely they should have a way to leave if necessary but at least in Goshen of the Old Testament, people left with their cattle and their sheep.
When there was the bill before Congress this spring, a number of people were talking about the way it would “slave class” of workers where the instability would keep them without any possibility of getting out of the situation. What do you think about this?
Yes, I see this happening. When people talk about immigration, they only see one part of the coin. They do not consider what would happen to the economy if [immigrants] leave Goshen. What happens if you multiply that effect by every town and city in the country? What will they do? What are they going to do when nobody wants to buy new cars? They were the ones that brought new commerce; they were potentially the biggest clients for many local businesses. So is that going to help the economy? They don’t see that side. Even the middle class is not ready for the impact because a lot of the middle class also rely on the poor, they have their jobs because the poor class exists. They will not have work anymore.
Where do you see hope for communicating these ideas to a broader audience and building a bridge to middle class people in Goshen?
The host community has to get together and really look at the situation and really start to know what their need is. We have been living in a structure that is always talking about the needs of the poor and the needs of the immigrants. What are the needs of the middle class? And the investors and the owners, so forth. Don’t they have any needs? Because we have two parties here, and unless people acknowledge their mutual need, we are not going to find solutions.
What drew you to the Anabaptist tradition and are there things today that you continue to see that are of value?
The church that I joined in Colombia is very different from the church here. They were not just socially and politically active. It was part of their daily live and their everyday environment. I find, in the case of the Mennonite church, they have very good writers, people of high standards, very ethical. I find in a place like Goshen, the Mecca of the Mennonite church, they are more interested in what happens abroad, rather than right here. But I also saw that in Colombia when I did political work. The Mennonite church in Colombia had people willing to work on [the neighborhood] on the other side of the city, but not in their own.
It’s the same thing with missionaries, you can parachute into a situation. Then go back home to a warm bed and watch television and eat good food. It is different when you give a real commitment to the community that you are living in, because you are running real risks when you are doing the same things.
But it is easier to talk about the problems in Tanzania, or fix the problems in Darfur, or see how many people are dying in Colombia because of the drugs. But unless the situation changes here both locally, and with a change in broader structures, there is no way for things to change abroad. When we talk about a system that is oppressing us, we fail to see that we are part of the system.
Is there anything you’d like to share in conclusion?
I see excellent things happening. I’m excited the intercultural center at Goshen College that is being started. I am excited about many different good things that I see happening in Goshen. We need to do more. I’m excited for the new generation, people like you and of your age, who are moving forward. Hopefully they will have a new mentality, because they have been exposed to many realities besides this one. So I have hopes for the future. I really do. I just hope that the new generation has the guts to break the steel frames that are there and to create new possibilities.
Thanks to my wife Charletta for help transcribing this interview.