It was a cold January morning in the city of Grand Island. But like any other day, Carlos Barcenas had found no shortage of work to be done. A broken furnace in the office of the Multicultural Coalition of Grand Island had left him scrambling to find a repair service, and an upcoming 10:30 round table discussion with other members of the coalition caused him to lead everyone next door in the neighboring office building.
Barcenas first arrived in Grand Island in 1994, when he was 14. Traveling all the way from Guerrero, Mexico, not far from the southern coastline, Barcenas' family came to the United States after his father was invited by the Assemblies of God to open a Hispanic ministry in Grand Island.
Graphic by Hilary Stohs-Krause
Click the image for an interactive graphic with information about four community leaders in Grand Island: two from South Sudan, one from Mexico and one first-generation Mexican-American.
Seventeen years later, Barcenas is executive director of the Multicultural Coalition. According to Barcenas, it's been a position that's allowed him to work directly with the diverse population of Grand Island.
"We're building relationships. I think that's one of the things we've strived for," explained Barcenas. "How do we learn from each other?" What we're trying to do is, bring people to the table- like they are here today and just say, How can we help each other?"
But as always, there are obstacles along the way. When asked how he'd felt about previous violence within the community, Barcenas was to the point:
"It's hard because in a small community, when something happens, everybody knows about it," he said. "It is hard every time you look at the news and you happen so see a Hispanic last name or a Sudanese last name. It does make you think about what people are going to say. Obviously there are people in the community that will see it as, See, it's the Hispanics, it's the Mexicans, it's the blacks, the Sudanese that are causing all this.'"
That violence has often been the result of cultural misunderstandings. As Sudan native and former Swift worker Hoth Kuel has put it, it's sometimes been difficult to understand and accept the laws and regulations when entering a new country. Those misunderstandings have ranged from knowing the right protocol while being pulled over to domestic violence in the household.
"I have a Sudanese person in jail now because his wife called for an arrest on him and said, This guy is raping me,'" recalled Kuel. "We tried to solve that problem by saying, Hey, we don't have this kind of thing in Africa. We don't have raping in Africa. Your husband is your husband- your wife is your wife. Why would you call the police for that?' They say, This is America.' Ok, you call the police, the cops. Now, that guy is still in jail now"
Barcenas has also stressed that a big part of reaching across the table comes with remembering your own roots, but also knowing how to move forward and understand the differences of a new community and fellow immigrants:
"When you first come from a different country, you love your country," said Barcenas. "You miss your community, and you wish things (now) were like that. But one of the things I've found out personally, is that even though I'm Mexican, I cannot live as a Mexican anymore because I'm not in Mexico. So, my cultures, my values, what I've learned: that will always be there. However, how can I bring the best of me to the community?"
It was a sentiment echoed by the rest of the participants present at the morning's discussion, including former 8 year Swift & Co packing plant employee Timbek Doup; now a full-time college student from Malakal, South Sudan. As Duop leaned back in his creaky chair opposite Barcenas, he recalled the initial difficulties of living in the once-foreign city he now calls home.
"I can say that is not easy because the culture is so different and the language is so different," said Duop.
They were differences Duop worked hard to overcome. As an employee at the packing plant, he saw the tensions that could arise as a result of different cultural norms and values. He's worked with fellow Sudanese and Somali immigrants new to the community. With them, he's stressed the importance of recognizing the problems Grand Island has faced. He's taught them to approach the problems as members of the community and not as a different group. As Duop pointed out, in many ways, we aren't so different from one another:
"So I can say we are one country-one nation. I don't care about colour. When I cut my hand, my blood is the same blood. I don't care about the skin. We are human," Duop stated.
As the meeting drew to a close, there was a feeling that in a small way, the community as a whole had moved forward. Barcenas saw everyone off as they grabbed their coats and walked into the cold air outside. But before the meeting drew to a close, he left the group with a thought that perhaps best described the small Nebraska city.
"The reality is that I get hungry, you get hungry. You get cold, I get cold. You need affection, I need affection," Barcenas said. Wherever you're in the world, you need those. I don't think culture makes a difference. It's just the wrapping, we're all wrapped in a different paper. (Laughed) If that makes sense."
The "Not In Our Town" national project was produced by The Working Group. Major support for this program is provided by PBS, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and the Einhorn Family Charitable Trust.
"Not In Our Town: Class Actions" tells the stories of a suburban California school district, a mid-western college town and a college campus in the heart of the South where people are working together to stop hate and intolerance, and activating their communities to create safer, more accepting environments for everyone. You can watch this program Feb. 13, 2012 at 10:00 pm CT on NET1 television.