America’s newest small town entrepreneurs: Illegal immigrants

Latino businesses are thriving in the Heartland

Benjamin Skirvin By Benjamin Skirvin

SEYMOUR, INDIANA — A decade ago, cars straying from I-65 into this small farm town would’ve found empty storefronts separating Larrison’s Diner, a hardware store and a few junk shops dressed up like antique stores.

An abandoned grain elevator in Seymour, Indiana, where signs in Spanish, like this one for Liliana Varela’s bakery, are becoming commonplace. (Benjamin Skirvin)

These days, this town of 17,500 is in the middle of an unexpected revival. Display windows have replaced plywood planks, and once-empty showrooms now bulge with goods like novena candles painted with images of the Virgin of Guadalupe and the jerseys of Mexican and Central American soccer teams. Restaurants, grocery stores, and bakeries have opened in the last seven years. Most of them are Latino businesses, supply’s answer to a demand caused by a rapid and sudden influx of immigrants into small towns all over Indiana, the Midwest and the rest of the United States.  Locally, they serve the 2,500 immigrants, mostly Mexicans, who have moved to the Seymour area to work in its factories and farms.

The Latino perspective

Liliana Varela owns a small Mexican bakery in a grey corrugated-steel building a few blocks from downtown Seymour. She’s young, only 22. And she was carried across the American border as an infant, cradled in her mother’s arms. Varela, American business owner, is an illegal alien.

Liliana Varela, 22-year-old entrepreneur and formerly illegal alien. (Liliana Varela)

Varela tells her story while on the go in her one-room bakery. She’s winded after biking the two miles from her parents’ house. Catching her breath, she laughs at herself; she should just buy a car, even though she doesn’t have a driver’s license. “It’s silly,” she says. “If I get pulled over, it won’t matter. They’ll just give me a ticket for driving without a license.”

Varela’s customers, mostly Mexicans, watch warily as she changes out racks of pan de muertos and puerquitos. She is, after all, speaking in perfect English to an “anglo,” the word used by many immigrants to refer to the town’s white residents. When asked about their silence, Varela says, “I think there’s more to it than language. I think they keep to themselves.”

It’s a rigid caution that extends to many of the town’s immigrant business owners.  Of ten other entrepreneurs approached for this story, none agreed to an interview. One grocer answered two questions before simply walking away.

Varela is an exception.

Living in two worlds

“I live in both worlds,” she says. On the one hand, she managed to graduate from Seymour High School, get a job at the school district and get into Indiana University. She says she has many friends among the town’s white community. She also interacts regularly with government officials, like building and health inspectors. If these people suspect her secret, they don’t let on. When a food festival was held earlier this year, several white restaurant owners encouraged her to participate and even provided her with tables and a tent.

But she’s familiar with the black market for IDs, driver’s licenses, birth certificates, even passports. “People will buy a new identity every time they need one,” says Varela. Sometimes, her employees don’t show up for work because they’re afraid it will get raided, and they will be exposed as illegals.

The display case inside Liliana Varela’s bakery. She’s trying to appeal to white customers as well as Latinos, hence the Barbie cupcakes in the left-hand corner. (Benjamin Skirvin)

The IDs probably come from “coyotes,” who no longer just transport people across the border, says Maria Casillas, a researcher at Indiana University. The coyote system increasingly involves finding IDs, jobs and housing, too, she says. “We started to see actual (American) employment agencies which would cross the border and say I can get you a job, or they would say I can get you a house,” says Casillas. “The job might pay ten dollars, but they would say it paid six and pocket the four. Of course, once you were in the country, everything was taken care of.”

Family financing

Fake and stolen identities are only one thread in a world built around avoiding documentation. Consider Varela’s case. Like many immigrant entrepreneurs, she didn’t turn to a bank when she needed capital to run her business. She turned to her family. Growing up, her parents, who run a jewelry business in Seymour, told her to avoid bank loans. They said that it was to protect her from building up too much debt at too young an age. “They’ve always wanted me to avoid banks, avoid interest,” she says.

Casillas says its typical for illegal immigrants to leverage home-grown networks for capital.

Varela faced problems obtaining a personal bank account — a PNC branch turned her down for lack of a Social Security number, but Fifth Third Bank gave her one. The PNC branch later let her open a business account. But she doesn’t accept credit cards at the bakery, because no local bank will issue her a credit card reader, due to her lack of a Social Security number.

The downside to homegrown finance networks is that Latinos and other immigrant businesses rely heavily on cash, making them targets for crime. Latinos are reluctant to report such crimes, although many police departments have instituted policies designed to protect victims from being reported to Immigration and Customs Enforcement. “As far as the police are concerned, a victim is a victim,” says Casillas.

The Anglo view

For the residents of Seymour, a business owner seems to be a business owner. That’s a shift in a town once comfortably racist. Native son and World War II pilot Harry X. Ford, writing in his memoir, called the Ku Klux Klan in Seymour “…  as acceptable as the American Legion or Boy Scouts, where many families proudly displayed statuettes of hooded figures on their mantle…”

But Bill Bailey, president of the local chamber of commerce, says most racism is a thing of the past. “In the 1980’s, we went through our first cultural blending when a Japanese automotive parts company came to town,” says Bailey. ”In the past 25 years since that, we’ve moved through and past that and we now realize the wasted energy.”

Down at Larrison’s Diner, owner Liz Larrison moves up and down the counter filling coffee cups and carrying plates filled with griddle-fried burgers and bacon and eggs. She doesn’t care who’s sitting in the seat. In fact, Larrison, 55, is excited about the influx of Latino businesses. “I’m into entrepreneurship,” she says. “My father always said that a little competition is a good thing.”

Still, on this day there isn’t a single Latino in the noon lunch crowd. All 45 diners seated in the booths or at the counter are clearly white. Larrison says she frequently hires Latino workers to bus tables and clean dishes. None of them are working the lunch shift today.

There remains a divide in the town, clearly evident at Mi Casa, a restaurant a few doors down from Larrison’s. Despite the Tex-Mex menu, Spanish name, and a Spanish-speaking owner named Hernandez, the crowd here is also all-white. “In the last year, I’ve only seated 10 to 15 tables of Mexicans for the whole year,” says owner Connie Hernandez, a U.S. native. “Ninety-nine percent of my customers are American.”

She says she has no significant contact with the town’s other Latino business owners. “They come in sometimes asking for help with translation,” Hernandez says.

Baily says he doesn’t care if an American bakery or a Latino bodega replaces an empty storefront. But he acknowledges that there is a distance between Anglos and Latinos in the town. “We held a few meetings earlier this year to explain what a chamber of commerce is and we invited all of the Latino business owners. Five or six showed up,” he says. Several joined.

Newly legal?

Last Friday’s executive order by President Barack Obama may change the dynamic between immigrants and Anglos in Seymour, and a lot of other places in the country. Varela’s life has already been changed by Obama’s declaration that American officials won’t deport illegal aliens who came to the U.S. as minors and do not have criminal records.

As of last Friday, she is eligible for a work visa and has begun the process of getting one. Her first order of business: get a credit card machine for the bakery. Longer term, she may go back to college, now that she can qualify for student loans.

She still has worries: Her parents could be deported tomorrow.  Her baker still waits in limbo as he seeks permission to legally work in the U.S. But Varela is full of hope. She can contemplate leaving the U.S. and coming back, legally. “If they let me leave the country, “ she says, “I’m visiting my grandmother.”

  • Guest

    Illegal is illegal.

    • mffitzgerald

      We are happy to sell access to america to people who buy expensive houses ($500,000 or more). Obviously no help to small rural towns.

  • Jaysapir

    Ben Skirvin;
    Excellent, sorely needed reporting. I’ve been following recruitment of so-called illlegals by U.S. corps.
    Nice job working in Obama news. Were you working on story when you learned of it? Just curious-cat.

    Jay Sapir

    • Ben Skirvin

      I was working on a broader story about Latino immigrants running businesses in small town America. As a longtime resident of the Heartland, I’ve found that there are many misconceptions about the middle of the country and that those issues are often underreported. The story sprang directly out of my personal experience working with Latino workers on farms when I was younger.

      Thank you for the compliment,

      Ben Skirvin