Crete provides fertile environment for newcomers, minorities to thrive

Jan 27, 2017 | Latinos, Rural Nebraska

By Emily Case

Late afternoon light pours into the Diaz Brothers Barbershop in downtown Crete, Nebraska, making the goldenrod-yellow walls of the small shop glow.

Owner Julian Diaz has just finished cutting a customer’s hair and is sweeping the floor of the small shop, which has two stations — one for him and one for his brother, David Diaz.

His four-year-old business is growing, and he enjoys the work. His job allows him to see many different kinds of people every day.

“I get to cut the hair of people from everywhere from Africa to Asia,” he said. “I really like what I do because of that.”

This diversity is a reflection of Crete’s expanding minority communities. An abundance of job opportunities at nearby plants and factories, along with a safe environment to raise families, has attracted to Crete a significant number of Latinos (35 percent), a fair number of Vietnamese and a handful of Burmese, Sudanese, Somali, Serbians and Bosnians.

To help the community’s growing group of newcomers, the City of Crete created a new position: a community assistance director whose main job is to provide services for minorities and anyone in need of help.

It’s thought to be the first government position of its kind in Nebraska, Crete officials said. And it is just one of many efforts Crete has made to welcome newcomers since populations started to shift.

City officials hired Crete native Dulce Castañeda for the position at the end of June. Castañeda is a Latina and Crete High School alumna who obtained her bachelor’s degree in communications studies and sociology at Northwestern University in May.

While the new position is still evolving, Castañeda’s job duties revolve around assisting people in need. Her responsibilities are to provide services for newcomers, help make individuals self-sufficient and foster relationships between the community and city government.

Dulce Castañeda and Reynold Nuñez

In a meeting with Economic Development Director Shawnna Silvius, Dulce Castañeda translates information about developing a small business for Crete community member and aspiring entrepreneur Reynold Nuñez. Castañeda helped 146 people in her first three months as Community Assistance Director. / Photo by Emily Case

The idea to designate a community assistance director started with City Administrator Tom Ourada. In December 2015, he attended the National Immigrant Integration Conference in New York City, a conference focused on welcoming efforts. At first, Ourada felt as though Crete had nothing in common with the larger cities represented, but he soon realized they faced similar issues.

“I sat at a table with two people from Chicago, a person from Minneapolis and a person from New York City,” he said. “They said we all have the same challenges, [but] yours might be on a smaller scale.”

Ourada was inspired by other city governments that created departments dedicated to helping minorities. He realized that he could make big-city ideas Crete-sized and spent months developing a department head position dedicated to helping new community members. The position’s function would be to help newcomers with questions and minorities with problems they might not feel comfortable asking others.

“It starts with the simple things”

Now four months later, Castañeda spends the majority of her day helping people with things like registering to vote, starting a new business, applying for Medicaid, finding translating services or filling out job applications.

“Everyone needs something different, or comes in for one thing and doesn’t realize they need three or four other things,” she said. “It starts with the simple things.”

Her priorities as community assistance director are to establish trust in the minority communities and spread the word about the position.  A strong rapport is necessary, she said, particularly when the individual needs help with a more difficult situation like domestic abuse or having undocumented status.

Because of the position’s design, she reports directly to Ourada. This helps build confidence in Castañeda’s services because reporting to the city council or mayor might require private problems to be released as public information.

Castañeda’s position isn’t Crete’s only effort to assist newcomers, city officials said. The school district, police department and churches have been working with city government for years to help its minority communities.

And because of this collaborative approach, Crete received the Roots of Justice Award in October from Nebraska Appleseed, an immigrant and refugee advocacy nonprofit.

This award was given in recognition of Crete’s welcoming efforts. While usually awarded to an individual, the selection committee made an exception when it determined there were many people responsible for Crete’s efforts, Mayor Roger Foster said.

An evolving community

Implementing the community assistance position in Crete has been a natural progression for a city that has been changing over the past 25 years. Crete’s demographics started to shift around 1990, when Latino families started moving there for jobs at places like Smithfield Foods and Nestlé Purina.

The population size of about 5,000 was also appealing to those raising families, since that meant low crime rates and less expensive housing.  While Crete remains family-friendly, its population has skyrocketed to 7,037 in 2015, a 15.3 percent increase since 2000.

Castañeda said that services for minorities started appearing in the community before her family moved into town in 1996, but services were more sparse. She remembered being pulled from class to translate for new families whose children were starting school in Crete.

And although the city now has a much richer network of minority-friendly resources and attributes like bilingual bank tellers, Castañeda’s mother remembers a different Crete 20 years ago.

Carmen Castañeda

Carmen Castañeda has been a secretary at Crete Public Schools for over 16 years. Her bilingual skills are a great benefit to the high school, which was 52 percent Latino in the 2015-2016 school year. / Photo by Emily Case

Carmen Castañeda didn’t have anyone besides her children to help translate in situations like doctor visits. During school hours, she was on her own.

“Every day I needed to find someone (to help). I went to the hospital and I just tried my best,” she said, laughing. “Yeah, I don’t know how I handled it.”

Carmen Castañeda said that although people were usually friendly, a laundromat owner once asked her to leave as she was washing clothes. And the local paper had its share of nasty letters to the editor when more Latinos started settling into the community.

Dulce Castañeda remembers reading those letters, too.

“There were letters to the editor that … sometimes were hurtful in regards to population changes,” she said. “And then slowly people just kind of began to accept it, that the change was happening and there wasn’t anything they could do. More than that, embracing the change.”

Ourada agreed. His minority-focused ideas often receive support from the community, he said. However, he added that he still has conversations with people who “feel threatened” by changing populations or don’t see value in Crete’s approach.

“People have said, ‘You are catering to the minority,’ which isn’t really true,” he said. “We’re trying to help anybody and everybody succeed, but we help most the people that need the most help.”

Crete’s next steps

Now that Dulce Castañeda has started to settle into her position, Crete officials are looking ahead to their next projects to help minority populations. At the top of their list is creating interim housing to accommodate Crete’s influx of newcomers.

Crete’s leaders are also trying to encourage more Latino leadership to represent the needs and views of Latinos. Dulce Castañeda currently holds the highest governmental position in city government and there are no Latinos on the City Council, although some serve on city boards and committees.

While the community assistance director’s services are for all newcomers, most of her interactions have been with the Latino community. There is a growing Vietnamese community in town, but it has generally been more difficult for non-Latino minorities to remain settled in Crete at this time. Lincoln, which is 30 miles away, is often a better option because it has more ethnic grocery stores and established communities.

Julian Diaz

Julian Diaz said it was a risk to invest in Diaz Brothers Barbershop, but he is now supporting his family on his income alone. Now in its third and largest location on 13th Street, the shop has a lot less competition in Crete than it would in Lincoln. / Photo by Emily Case

The individuals who remain in Crete, however, find welcoming and helpful people throughout the community— from government leaders to entrepreneurs like Julian Diaz, the barbershop owner.

Crete has been an ideal place to open up shop, he said, because as a Crete native, he already had strong connections. He has grown his business over the last four years and now supports his family as a single-income earner with the barbershop’s profits.

Providing support for entrepreneurs is another focus of Dulce Castañeda’s services, and one of many examples of the value she has brought to the community, Mayor Foster said.

“Dulce’s been very busy and (her position) is one of those things you didn’t realize how much you needed until it’s there,” he said. “We have new businesses (in Crete) and those numbers continue to grow.

“Immigrants are much more likely to start a new business and take a risk. They’re entrepreneurs and we’re lucky to have them. … They’re good members of our community, and we see our community as everyone and not different parts.”