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Once a migrant farm worker, Moorhead woman finds her calling helping immigrants

Martha Castanon was handpicked as an advocate for farm workers recognized by the Labor Hall of Fame in 2012 and was recently appointed to a second term on the governor’s Minnesota Council of Latino Affairs.

A woman talks on a landline phone while seated at a desk.
Martha Castanon works at her desk at the Immigrant Law Center of Moorhead on Thursday, Feb. 24, 2022.
C.S. Hagen / The Forum
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MOORHEAD — Martha Castanon knew she’d found her calling the first time she handed an immigrant a green card.

She was working a case for a Latina woman whose husband abused her. Castanon remembered it as a “horrible case” filled with threats and legal paperwork in the late 1990s.

“When I gave her the green card, she just kept turning it over and over in her hands,” Castanon said.

“Then she asked if it was real. I said, ‘Yes.’ And the tears that followed, flowing down her face.” Castanon took a moment to compose herself after recalling the memory.

Behind her, purple “End Domestic Violence” ribbon magnets emblazoned a large filing cabinet. On the wall hung half a dozen historic photographs of migrant field laborers in sugar beet and cabbage fields.

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“She said her husband would tell her she would never get this card, that she would be sent back to Mexico. But to see that once she had that little card, how it opened up so many doors for her was something I will never forget,” Castanon said.

“There is something so satisfying about seeing someone get to be a citizen or get a green card,” she said.

Castanon, once a migrant child worker pulling onions from Texas fields, cucumbers from Wisconsin and sugarbeets from Minnesota’s fertile Red River Valley, is now a worker for the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota in Moorhead.

She started the job in 2015 after working 35 years for Southern Minnesota Regional Legal Services. She was handpicked as an advocate for farm workers recognized by the Labor Hall of Fame in 2012 and was recently appointed to a second term on the governor’s Minnesota Council of Latino Affairs.

A woman points toward a photo on a wall.
Martha Castanon, of Immigration Law Center of Moorhead, shows pictures of Latino migrant workers on Thursday, Feb. 24, 2022.
C.S. Hagen / The Forum

Now, most of the migrant farm laborers are gone, and more people are coming from other countries in Central and South America and to work in turkey factories, at hospitals or as janitors. Her family originally came from Mexico when her grandfather traveled north to help fill in the farm worker shortage during World War II.

As a 10-year-old, Castanon trailed behind her parents through local sugarbeet fields and in cucumber fields in Wisconsin. She said picking cucumbers was one of the toughest jobs she’s ever done.

She remembers her mother’s voice, which still brings tears to her eyes, singing a mariachi tune called “De Colores,” or “The Colors,” while working under the hot summer sun. Dad carried the water, mom carried the lunch. They worked from 6 a.m. until 6 p.m. every day.

When Castanon felt tired or wished for a better life, her mother always reminded her that somewhere, someone had it worse.

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“There was one time I was complaining how tough life was and my mom said, ‘We are lucky compared to other families. We have a roof over our heads, we have a farmer we are working for. Yes, your dad is sick, but you need to be grateful for these other things.’ They taught me to always look at the good side of things,” Castanon said.

When she first began working with immigrants, helping them with paperwork and legal loopholes, sometimes she discovered local Latino families were run out of small towns. Such racist actions now rarely occur, as people have become more accepting, she said.

When she hears anti-immigrant speech, she calmly reminds people that there is a process for people to come to America, and “They’re trying to build a better life just like your great grandparents many, many years ago.

“A lot of the kids today are not aware of the farm worker history that we have here, and I feel like it should be something that is taught. At one time, you could see all these families working, but it’s changed,” Castanon said.

A tattered certificate is displayed in a frame.
Martha Castanon showing her 'degree of hard work' child labor certificate from 1972 in her office on Thursday, Feb. 24, 2022.
C.S. Hagen / The Forum

Proudly, she displays a framed certificate from 1972. She was 12, and because of her young age her father needed to register her to work.

“I had to frame this because this is my degree of hard work, and it’s a constant reminder to me of where I have been and where I am now. Never as a child at that time did that young girl think she’d be doing what she’s doing, helping others get legal status,” Castanon said.

Usually, she travels all around northwestern Minnesota, but because of the coronavirus pandemic, she’s had to limit her interactions to telephone calls, emails, Zoom meetings and appointments, she said.

She helps immigrants who travel to Minnesota from across the world, including families of mixed status households.

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Many of those she finds have escaped horrors from their home countries and carry with them terrible stories, she said.

One woman escaped from South America and spoke of being targeted by gangs.

“This woman’s spouse had a little shop that sold cellphones, and (there were) gangs extorting money. He would say no, no, and he was severely beaten,” Castanon said.

The assault was mistakenly reported to a policeman who was related to gang members involved in the attack.

“Soon after, he was found dead, and they left. In fact, she was kidnapped and raped," Castanon said. "Some of the stories I hear are just horrible, and for anyone, we would want to leave a place that is not safe.

“We would want better lives, and the young woman had two kids with her, and she was so afraid her kids would be kidnapped. Some of the stories are so hard to hear. I hope these women are safe now wherever they are."

When asked what made her the person she is today, Castanon replied with a story.

“When I was 10 years old and first went into the fields close to Barnesville, this one day in July, it was hot and blowing wind and we were tired and working along a section near County Road 11. And across the road, there was a little gravel pit that had like a sandy beach on it. And it was me and my brother and sister, and we told dad it’s hot, let’s go home,” Castanon said.

“He said, ‘Let’s just do one more round, and I’ll take you over there and we’ll go swimming.’

“And we did that round as fast as we could, and dad kept his promise and we had so much fun. It was that one little thing that gave us so much pleasure. All that shaped me into the person I am today,” Castanon said.

C.S. Hagen is an award-winning journalist currently covering the education and activist beats mainly in North Dakota and Minnesota.
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