Tony Gonzalez, center, in white shirt, executive director of Comunidad Hispana, and Holy Cross Sr. Mary Thomas Reichl, right, founder of the group, are pictured with the organization’s staff in the Merrill office. (Submitted photo)

Tony Gonzalez, center, in white shirt, executive director of Comunidad Hispana, and Holy Cross Sr. Mary Thomas Reichl, right, founder of the group, are pictured with the organization’s staff in the Merrill office. (Submitted photo)

Mallory Tarnowski
Special to the Catholic Herald

During his apostolic journey to Rio de Janeiro on July 25, 2013, Pope Francis made an urgent appeal for all people to, “never tire of working for a more just world, marked by greater solidarity!”

His message is central to the mission of the Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD), the national anti-poverty program of the U.S. Catholic bishops, designed to break the cycle of poverty by helping low-income people participate in decisions that affect their lives, families and communities.

Throughout the past decade, the Diocese of Superior, through its Department of Development, has facilitated national CCHD grants to provide support for Comunidad Hispana, an immigrant rights and community development organization based in Merrill. The diocese reports that annual funding for the organization has averaged about $47,000.

According to Holy Cross Sr. Mary Thomas Reichl, who founded the group in 2003, Comunidad Hispana, “Gives a voice to the voiceless.”

Service to migrant farmworkers

In this case, the “voiceless” are migrant farmworkers who have settled on farms throughout Wisconsin, hoping to establish a more prosperous life for themselves and their families. Two years ago, Sr. Mary Thomas was instrumental in hiring Tony Gonzalez as executive director of Comunidad Hispana. In addition to Gonzalez, three part-time advocacy and outreach coordinators are on staff. Their primary focus is to advocate for humane working conditions for the farmworkers.

According to an article from titled, “Migrant Farm Workers: Our Nation’s Invisible Population,” between 1 and 3 million migrant farmworkers contribute to the essential production of produce that feed Americans every day. However, the migrant farmworker community has fallen victim to the feeling of being ostracized due to their undocumented status.

The fear of being deported has also left farmworkers with little to no options for help, which has exposed them to a myriad of abuses.

Comunidad Hispana pursues justice and equality for the migrant farmworker community. For instance, the Comunidad Hispana staff works to help reduce the barriers that farmworkers face in order for them to better understand their rights and responsibilities. According to Sr. Mary Thomas, “Every person has the right to life, liberty and happiness.”

Mission is empowerment

The organization’s mission is to help empower farmworkers to be active members of their community.

“Our mission is to empower the Latino community to become active equal participants of the communities in which they reside; our vision is to see an integrated community with Latinos sharing and showcasing their traditions while yet immersing and adopting the American way of life,” explained Gonzalez.

The first avenue through which they pursue this goal is education. The Hispanic community is educated about the U.S. government, while also having their concerns addressed on how legislation and law enforcement affects their everyday lives.

Gonzalez is also a certified interpreter who collaborates with attorneys, court officials and law enforcement in order create better communication and cohesiveness among all parties. In addition, farm owners meet regularly with Gonzalez and the outreach staff to learn how to communicate in a more effective way with the farm workers.

Comunidad Hispana also attempts to educate migrant farmworkers so as to put them in the most advantageous position to be successful and prosperous in the United States. In order to do that, farmworkers take English classes while pursuing their GED and HSED. They also take asphalt training and welding courses at North Central Technical College.

According to Gonzalez, this training will allow the workers to have better job placement, which in turn will increase their salaries exponentially. An increase in wages opens up a multitude of opportunities for migrant farmworkers such as having more time to spend with their families or more time to seek educational or occupational opportunities.

“We serve as a resource conduit to various different services in the areas mentioned, with partnerships with United Way, St. Vincent de Paul, Bridge Clinic, and other organizations. We strive to provide the needed training that will enhance work opportunities and upward mobility,” Gonzalez said.

Faith in the face of adversity

One project on which Comunidad Hispana is working is the pursuit of driver’s licenses for undocumented workers.

“We have taken the approach of putting a face to the issue. Unless the people who are affected show their presence, then the problem will be just waived off as something mundane,” Gonzalez said, adding that the organization has organized meetings and rallies, and contacted state lawmakers in an attempt to enlist their support.

The organization has also endured adversity due to what it considers “political agendas” that have come with issues such as immigration reform. There have also been challenges dealing with negative stereotypes about the undocumented.

Despite facing adversity, Gonzalez has faith in a successful future for Comunidad Hispana.
“I have great hopes that we will be able to provide our services to all of the communities that have Hispanic concentrations in Central Wisconsin,” he said. “If fundraising is attained, I expect to become an agency that can advocate and support the empowering needs of our community.”

Mallory Tarnowski is a double major in history and justice and peace studies at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul.