UI graduate student helps Chin Burmese population in Columbus Junction
Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Cristina Ortiz remembers growing up as part of the lone Latino family in Leon, Iowa, a tiny town in south central Iowa with less than 2,000 residents.

“My paternal grandparents were Mexican-American migrant workers, and the Latino population in Leon was basically my family,” says the 32-year-old University of Iowa anthropology doctoral student who is pursuing research that includes the Chin Burmese refugee population in Columbus Junction, Iowa, her new home during graduate school.

While many graduate students prefer to live close to campus, Ortiz relishes the small-town, community environment.

"I like the familiarity of small towns," Ortiz says. "The people I meet remind me of people I know: my grandparents, my parents, my friends, my mentors. Many rural Iowans I meet reflect a desire for vibrant community I was taught to value growing up."

Ortiz says she became interested in refugee and immigrant communities because of her heritage and her interest in culture.

“I think understanding refugee experiences helps us be more effective in welcoming newcomers to our communities,” Ortiz says.

Cristina Ortiz will present her research Friday, April 5, from 1:30 to 2:30 p.m. as part of a panel presentation in Room 1117 University Capitol Centre during the Refugees in the Heartland Conference. The conference is made possible with support from the Stanley-UI Foundation Support Organization through the Provost's Global Forum. For more information, visit international.uiowa.edu/uichr/refugees-heartland-conference.

In fact, Ortiz believes in this so strongly that she is sharing her research and work at the upcoming University of Iowa Refugees in the Heartland Conference April 4-7. She encouraged a Chin Burmese youth group to participate, and they will perform traditional dances at the cultural fair Thursday. (See a related story at now.uiowa.edu/2013/03/refugees-heartland.)

Ortiz says though many people are aware of the Latino immigrant community in Columbus Junction, far fewer know about the Burmese refugees.

"Chin refugees are fleeing religious and ethnic oppression from the Burmese government," Ortiz says. "Also, the region is very poor and many areas have suffered food shortages as well, especially in drought years. There have been human rights violations and the government has only recently begun moving toward more democratic rule. Nevertheless, the U.S. government still recognizes the Burmese government as a legitimate one."

Ortiz says that the refugees from Burma in Columbus Junction are mostly from an area called Chin State.

She adds that, in English, they use the term Chin as in Chin language, Chin people, and Chin culture.

"There are numerous dialects of Chin with the lingua franca being Hakha Chin. But in Chin, the language and people are called Lai," Ortiz says. "Ethnic and language distinctions are key because, with religion, they form the basis of Chin oppression by the dominant ethnic Burmese. Many refugees from Burma, like the Chin and Karen, are deeply invested in ethnic or regional self-determination, democracy, and freedom of religion."

Ortiz says she is particularly excited about the Refugees in the Heartland Conference because it will be an opportunity for diverse refugees living in the Midwest to exchange experiences, concerns, and strategies with each other.

Meat-packing communities sites of profound change

When Ortiz started doing doctoral research, she was interested in rural meat-packing communities, in part because they are sites of profound change with lots of in-and-out migration by diverse residents.

She adds that the jobs draw people from all over the world and the diversity of small towns like Postville is a testament to that. Because the jobs are so physically demanding, turnover is relatively high in the meatpacking industry, meaning there are always new pools of workers coming to replace those who have left.

"When I came to live in Columbus Junction in June of 2009, I had no idea that there would be Burmese people arriving at around the same time," Ortiz says, "and, as far as I know, no one, not even Burmese people themselves, quite anticipated such a significant movement of Chin people to Columbus Junction."

While she says her experience growing up in Leon was similar in that the community was also quite small, it was very different in some important ways. Of the 2,000 residents in Columbus Junction, Ortiz says almost 500 are Burmese refugees.

"The Latino population in Leon was basically my family, not like Columbus Junction where nearly 50 percent of the community is Latino," Ortiz says. "But I have always been interested in travel and languages and getting to know people."

Study abroad in high school with the Rotary Youth Exchange program and in college laid a path to her current research. As a graduate student in the UI Spanish Department, she went with a Fulbright-Hays group to study Guarani-Spanish bilingualism in Paraguay for a month.

"All of these experiences, combined with my personal and family history, make me very curious about the experiences of migrants and immigrants in rural Iowa because so much of what I was reading and learning was about urban immigration experiences," Ortiz says.

Finding Burma on a map

Before she began conducting her research in Columbus Junction, Ortiz was only vaguely aware that there were refugees from Burma in the U.S.

"I double-checked a map to make sure I knew where Burma was," Ortiz admits of the sovereign state in Southeast Asia bordered by China, Thailand, India, Laos, and Bangladesh, that is also known as Myanmar.

"I hope that in some small way, my research will help rural community members be able to welcome each other into their lives and communities more thoroughly and leverage the resources they have to ease the tension that is always a part of change."
—Cristina Ortiz

Ortiz says that the Chin refugees in Columbus Junction are almost all secondary refugees, meaning the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) resettled them in cities around the U.S. and then people made their way to Columbus Junction.

"One of the largest Chin communities in the U.S. is in Indianapolis," Ortiz says. "As a secondary destination, rural communities do not have access to the same level of infrastructure or social services support to ease refugee transitions."

This is where Ortiz's research comes in. She wants to look at a town holistically, instead of focusing only on newcomers, to identify how people construct community amidst change. She is especially looking at how the refugees contribute not only to the economy but also how they are impacting all facets of the community and relationships with other residents.

Ortiz says that the Columbus Junction community has been working hard to ease the process of refugee settlement. Several Burmese-owned businesses now dot the main street of Columbus Junction, adding to the fusion of cultures and diversity.

"The people in charge of a variety of different services and institutions in the southeast Iowa area also meet bi-annually in Columbus Junction to touch base, coordinate efforts, and trouble-shoot issues," Ortiz says.

Like Latinos, African-Americans, and others, Chin people were drawn to Columbus Junction by employment at the Tyson plant, Ortiz says.

"But while that is a big reason people come here, many people like the rural lifestyle and for a lot of people from rural areas around the world, life in Columbus Junction presents the opportunity to return to a more familiar way of life than living in a big city."

One of the particular challenges for Chin refugees is that they have a less commonly spoken language, she says.

"Resources like dictionaries, books, and teaching materials are more difficult to find than for more common languages like Spanish or Mandarin," Ortiz says.

She says it also means that especially in rural communities with limited resources, it can seem like an imprudent allocation of time and money to encourage speakers of English to learn Chin language and culture as opposed to Spanish, which is seen as more broadly useful beyond immediate needs of a particular immigrant community.

"I got involved teaching English through a conversation with the local Community Development Office," Ortiz says. "They wanted to encourage Chin speakers to participate in adult English classes by offering one specialized to newcomers. So I taught it, and we met once a week. We’ve since re-combined classes so that Spanish-speakers and Chin-speakers are in the same English classes."

Ortiz adds, "For some people the Iowa experience is, and perhaps has always been, multilingual, multiethnic, and multicultural."

Ortiz points out how Iowa has been home to German-speaking communities with thriving German language newspapers, communities with church services in Welsh, Mennonites and Amish who speak Pennsylvania Dutch, Muslims, Orthodox Jews, Spanish-speakers, Dutch, Swedish, and Irish immigrants, and a multitude of others.

Research in a coffee shop

She writes in her dissertation, “There are an increasing number of people for whom being Iowan or experiencing Iowa includes things like making pupusas or tamales, attending a Virgen de Guadalupe celebration, eating Ukrainian pelmini soup, competing at the UI's Nachte Raho, recognizing Chin National Day, eating dates at Iftar dinners during Ramadan, painting a green line down Main Street for St. Patrick's Day, and feting the lunar new year at Tet celebrations. I have attended rural farmers markets where I can buy Amish zucchini bread next to a stand where I can buy fresh tamales or Mexican-style corn on the cob with cheese and chili."

In fact, Ortiz wrote part of her dissertation while sitting in a rural Iowa coffee shop listening to a small group of Mennonites speak a dialect of German.

Ortiz says she sees the Burmese refugee community contributing to the labor force as well as to cultural, spiritual, and social life, with many Burmese families making Iowa their new home.

"As mostly Baptist Christian refugees, many of them have been deeply involved in service initiatives including supporting fellow refugees like last summer when some children in Marshalltown drowned," Ortiz says. "Many Chin refugees are also starting businesses or building on the infrastructure of religious organization to undertake other projects like teaching native language literacy, encouraging young people to pursue higher education, and cultural preservation initiatives."

She adds that Chin refugees are using technology including video-chat, email, YouTube, audio recordings of events, Facebook, and iPhone apps to stay connected with each other and spread news and information about their communities to others.

Ortiz, who will graduate in May 2013, says she hopes to teach cultural anthropology. She adds that the Burmese community and other refugees and immigrants are enriching her life—as well as that of others—as much or more than she is helping them.

"I have just been humbled by the kindness of the people I’ve met at my field site and their resilience in the face of so many obstacles," Ortiz says. "The people I’ve gotten to know are so creative and hopeful and faithful. I hope that in some small way, my research will help rural community members be able to welcome each other into their lives and communities more thoroughly and leverage the resources they have to ease the tension that is always a part of change."