Three years ago, Gladys Godinez was part of a team of community members who were preparing for the possibility of a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raid in their hometown of Lexington, Nebraska. They feared that Lexington would be a target community due to its large Latinx population and wanted to have a rapid response strategy in place, should a raid occur.
For immigrants and their communities, the threat of ICE raids creates an atmosphere of intense fear and anxiety that leaves people scared to go to work, participate in community life, and even leave their homes. But as the rapid response team made their preparations, a young activist named Carina had an idea that transformed a climate of grim anxiety to one of joy. “We need to have a party,” she said. “We need to celebrate our diversity.”
Godinez responded “I’m all in if you’re all in,” and the annual United by Culture Festival was born. The festival was a huge success, with around 10 percent of the town’s total population participating in the first year, and even more performers and visitors joining the next year. The festival was a celebration of cultural diversity, a statement that stood in direct opposition to the ICE raids and the ideology behind them.
This is what defines Gladys’s work as a community organizer. Born in Guatemala City, she immigrated with her family to Inglewood, California before settling in Lexington, Nebraska as a child. But she never felt that Lexington could be her hometown. “I was never welcomed,” she said. But now she’s working to change that. “I want younger Latinos and Latinas, refugee families to feel welcomed in their hometown because they grew up here.”
She and her husband returned to Nebraska to raise their two children, and help build a more inclusive and welcoming community. Gladys has been working toward this goal since the age of 15, when she co-founded a group called Nuestro Futuro (Our Future) which focused on changing how Latinx people were portrayed in her rural town. She has also worked with Solidarity with Packing Plant Workers, an organization that resists injustices in meatpacking plants, and founded Noticias de mi Pueblo, a Spanish-language newscast that shares local news across Nebraska.
Most recently, she created the new Courageous Mujer Podcast, which is about “embracing, celebrating, and supporting Latinas in the Heartland.”
You can hear about these various projects and much more in the latest episode of Everywhere Radio, a podcast produced by the Rural Assembly in partnership with the Daily Yonder. Gladys is the latest guest to join host Whitney Kimball Coe to talk about the good, scrappy ways people are practicing leadership in rural communities across the country.
You can find Everywhere Radio wherever you get your podcasts, including Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, and Spotify. Start listening and subscribe today to never miss an episode. The latest is available below, along with a full transcript of the conversation.
Gladys Godinez: The national dialogue, if you look up rural, we’re seeing fields, we’re seeing maybe white farmers or small towns with small businesses, but we’re not seeing the refugee, Somali refugee business in our downtown area. We’re not seeing the Latino dentist that just opened up their own dentistry, or we’re not seeing the attorneys that are currently in the center of these rural locations that are impacting and developing and helping our small communities.
Whitney Kimball Coe: Welcome to Everywhere Radio. That was today’s guest, Gladys Godinez. Everywhere Radio is a production of The Rural Assembly, and I’m your host, Whitney Kimball Coe. Each episode, I spotlight the good, scrappy and joyful ways rural people and their allies are building a more inclusive nation. I met Gladys after she sent me an email following Rural Assembly Everywhere back in October. She reached out to tell me how moved she was by a session that focused on BIPOC women in rural America and the role that they play in building and sustaining community.
Gladys: Seeing the need for this conversation, this panel of BIPOC women organizing in rural areas throughout the United States, something that Jessica Martinez said, and you put it in your email, is that we have this picture of rural America and we feel invisible. We’re not in it. And as a Latina Guatemalan immigrant living, working, being a part of rural America, sometimes we do feel invisible. And to be able to have the platform to be able to speak about those changes that we’re making within rural America and the contributions that we’re making, because we have such an image of Latinos or immigrants because we’re given that image. But if you don’t get to know us, if you don’t get to see us, if you don’t get to talk to us, then you will never know that we’re right here contributing to the economic impact of small rural towns throughout the United States. So, it hit me. I appreciate it.
And I’m very grateful not only to be here, but also to have heard those four powerful women from storytellers to individuals that now are in the forefront of having not only just one culture speaking up, but various cultures, and that interracial ability to move, to make that movement keep moving forward. And that movement being inclusion. Seeing everybody, welcoming everybody and including everybody in your community. And that’s a big part of what I do. Why it clicked is because I needed to see somebody that was doing very similar stuff that I was doing, and it was inspiring. I have a lot of organizer friends and mentors in the state of Nebraska and we connect on a weekly basis to make sure that we talk to each other and inspire and collaborate and work together. So then we can also see each other and other kids, youth, can see that we’re trying to make a change in rural Nebraska because we live in a very conservative state and we know it, but that doesn’t mean that our contributions or our livelihood or the ability that we’re here is not warranted or is not a merit to rural Nebraska. So that’s how I see it. That’s how I see the connection. And I definitely needed to send an appreciation email to you for that.
Whitney: I’m so glad you did because it connected us and it made me curious really about you and the work that you’re doing locally in Lexington, Nebraska. And then, and I know you just said you’re connected to organizers across the state. I wonder if we think about the way our national dialogue is shaping up, or when we think about rural, speak about rural, how is that national dialogue reflective or not of what is actually happening on the ground in your state and in your town?
Gladys: I think the national dialogue, if you look up rural, we’re seeing fields, we’re seeing maybe white farmers or small towns with small businesses, but we’re not seeing the refugee, Somali refugee business in our downtown area. We’re not seeing the Latino dentist that just opened up their own dentistry, or we’re not seeing the attorneys that are currently in the center of these rural locations that are impacting and developing and helping our small communities.
In a lot of rural communities where we have corporations such as meat packing or manufacturing areas, we see a large immigrant and refugee population. And at times it gets reflected in a negative space rather than saying, “Hey, if this plant wasn’t here, if our population, the immigrant refugee population wasn’t here, where would our downtown be? Where would our economy be?” So I really think that’s lacking at a national level and it would be great to start changing that narrative that we are contributing in a lot of ways. And it is awesome to see. We just had Martin Luther King Jr. Day. It is awesome to see our children play together and learn from each other, and to be able to learn and grow with a diverse set of individuals.
Whitney: I wonder if you could give me just a snapshot of what your life is like in Lexington. What is your day like and all the spaces where you are, but being an activist where you’re being a member of the community?
Gladys: Well, it’s hard now with COVID. Snapshot now entails me being in the basement and organizing as much as possible. But digital organizing is a new way of the world for us. But in regards to how I make an impact in my life or in the daily life of my city and my state, in the community, I am very active. We have built a festival. So I co-founded a United by Culture festival. That was two, three years ago that we started that. We needed something to be able to celebrate. And that grew from a rapid response group. So that was from a group of young women. We sat down and we talked about, okay, what are we going to do if an immigration raid were to happen in our town? Lexington, Nebraska is 60 to 70% Latino and 10% African descent. We knew that we could be a target community for an ICE raid.
So we started prepping and one of the young ladies, her name is Carina, so I want to give her the credit. She mentioned, “Gladys, we need a party.” And she said, “We need to celebrate our diversity.” And I’m like, “I’m all in if you’re all in.” So we started organizing a festival and it was again, young professional women that wanted to celebrate their cultures in their community. And that’s what we ended up doing. It was a free festival for the whole community. We had 1,000 people come and we have a 10,000 people community, that’s our population. So we had 1/10th of our community join us, and it was a blast. And then the next year, the chamber, Nebraska Humanities, the Nebraska Arts Council, they were all part of it. And we had double the budget with more individuals that were able to join in another free event to celebrate our diversity.
So that’s locally, that has been my intention from day one is to come back to my home state, my hometown, and to be able to talk to my community and say, “How can we acknowledge our presence? How can we say we’re proud of who we are, where we’re from, and then how can we initiate those bridging building steps to be able to move our community forward?” Because unfortunately we live in silos, the Latino community here, the Somali community there, and the white community here. So we have to be able to make spaces where we all feel safe and we all learn from each other. And that was one of the ways that I have been able to help my community here in Lexington, Nebraska.
Whitney: Oh, I love that. And I love that you all just decided to throw a party. That’s just a wonderful thought. I wonder how does throwing a party connect to helping you prepare for a potential ICE raid or what is that through-line?
Gladys: Right. Yeah. So that’s a very good question. And the reason why is because we were having heavy conversations. We had just had the Trump election and that hit a lot of our immigrant population really hard. We didn’t know how to respond because we knew that it was going to impact our populations. So that’s where we saw the turn. We didn’t stop prepping for the raid. We didn’t stop prepping for something because from there, the next year, the raid happened in O’Neill, Nebraska, which was about four and a half hours away from Lexington. And about 100 plus families were separated at that time. And it was August of 2018, right before our festival, a month before our festival. And I was able to go and the festival still went on and I was able to go and lead the response to the raid because we had built that network, because we had done the work. And I was able to help with the O’Neill raid. We were able to help with a legal clinic, a resources clinic. We were able to do financial assistance. And to this day, the United Methodist church with Pastor Brian still has a food pantry going on a weekly basis for that community.
Whitney: Your connection to the immigrant population in Nebraska is also very personal because you yourself are from Guatemala. And I wonder if you’d be willing to share just a little bit of your story of immigrating and settling and deciding to come back to Lexington, Nebraska. You said you left and you came back. Just a little bit of your story would be great.
Gladys: Sure. So yes, I was born in Guatemala City, Guatemala. And I was seven years old when my parents decided to, I’m going to say immigrate to the United States. And I lived in Inglewood, California for about five years or so. And after the riots in LA, that’s when they decided to move to Lexington, Nebraska. And we were poor, it was low income family. So we moved. It was interesting. My dad moved first and then my family, the rest of the family moved second. And we moved via train. So here I am 10 to 11 years old from California to Lexington, Nebraska, middle of December and not realizing that it was going to be cold and freezing. So I needed a coat and I didn’t have one. It was very interesting. And then it was a culture shock. So the community of Lexington was having this big immigrant population coming through because of the packing plant here in our community. So we lived in a trailer, we lived in another trailer and then my parents kept working. I apologize, that’s my dog upstairs.
Whitney: It’s okay.
Gladys: And then we kept working, well, my dad and my mom kept working. And now they own two homes, and they’re living here and they have five children. And I can’t tell my story without telling a little bit of my siblings’ story. So I am the middle child. My oldest brother, his name is Carlos, and he owns a restaurant about 30 minutes away. So he’s an entrepreneur. A very popular restaurant in the community of Carney. And then my second to oldest brother, he is a construction manager for a very popular construction company out of Omaha, Nebraska. Myself, I’m a community organizer. And then my younger sister, her name is Rose. And she’s an attorney, a policy analyst for the ACLU of Nebraska. And then my younger brother, he is going to Columbia for a psychology master’s and he’s looking for his PhD. And the reason why I have to share that is the importance of not only supporting our immigrant families, but just noticing the impact that we can have if we’re given the chance.
So then I went to college, political science. I got happily married. We moved to Wisconsin. We picked a state that one of our family members lived in. So we opened up the map. We picked a state and Wisconsin was it. And we lived there for about five years. We had two babies. We wanted to have them around family. We wanted to know that they were loved. Living by yourself is sometimes hard. So we moved back and with intention. So I’m from Lexington, Nebraska. I felt like an outcast before. I never thought Lexington, Nebraska was my hometown because I never felt that way. I was never welcomed. And I wanted to switch that conversation. I want younger Latinos and Latinas, refugee families to feel welcomed in their hometown because they grow up here. My little brother was born here and I don’t want him to feel like this is not his hometown. So my voice is cracking because it’s very intentional, the reason why.
Whitney: Yeah. Oh, thank you so much for sharing that and for telling us about your siblings and your decision to return and what you found. And I wanted to spend just a little bit more time about what you found in your return. What does welcoming and inclusion look like right now for you and what do you hope it will look like in the future?
Gladys: Sure. That’s an awesome question because it is something that a lot of people want to ask in regards to city administrators and Chamber of Commerce. So how do we bring individuals back to our communities? How does that happen, Gladys? And to me, it’s open doors, it’s open resources. I’ve had more than five businesses tell me, that are Latino-owned here in our community, that they have felt that the city administration has not been welcoming and has not helped them and supporting them because they were of color. And that’s hard because here we are trying to build, trying to keep pushing and that’s not easy for them to tell me or share with me.
So to me, the opening of the door and the resources be the Chamber of Commerce having Spanish language stuff, promotional materials to be able to provide and then they can be included. Throughout our history, the Chamber of Commerce only allows the members to be English speaking. So then you have to fill it out. And then there’s awards at the end of the year. Well, there’s not a lot of Latino businesses gaining those awards if they don’t even know how to sign up for the chamber and be part of that membership. So it’s those steps that the Chamber of Commerce that cities can do in regards to feeling welcomed.
And I think we can start young. We can start at the age of five when they’re in preschool. And if they’re talking to you in Spanish because that’s the language that they love and that’s the language that they learn in, then let’s not say, “Hey, you can’t speak Spanish here.” Let’s say, “Let’s try speaking English. And we love your language. It’s a beautiful language. Let’s learn English here. And you’re more than welcome to speak Spanish with your friends.” So there’s a difference that we can make because in high school and in middle school, I was not allowed to speak Spanish. And to this day, there’s still some of those things happening within our communities.
Other things are shortening of names. My daughter’s name is Esperanza. Esperanza Cox. And it’s really quick for somebody to say, “Can I just call her Espie?” And then it’s so quick to just lower the value of my daughter’s name and then I have to fight about it. And then my daughter has to fight, say, “Nope, my name is Esperanza.” Why not just acknowledge, “Hey, your name is Esperanza. I’m going to struggle a little bit saying your name for the first few times, but then just be patient with me and then I’ll learn how to say your name correctly.” And then let us be, let our identities be who we are. Because again, we’re only going to contribute to our communities. We’re only going to come back if we feel welcomed and loved. We’re only going to continue to assist in whatever it may be because we may be the next city administrator. We may be the next executive director of that chamber, but we need to feel welcomed and loved in our communities.
Whitney: As you look back on 2020 and the COVID crisis, and now we’ve got a changed administration too, nationally. Do you feel like we’re getting closer in some way to having deeper understanding about demographic shifts in our communities? Are we getting closer to figuring out how to become more inclusive and open? Are we taking steps back in some ways?
Gladys: That’s a big question.
Whitney: Yeah I know. Take that and run with it.
Gladys: Well, no, I appreciate it, but it is a big question. I am unsure if I’m going to be able to answer it fully, but I do think that in regards to health inequity, I have seen it since my grandma. My grandma passed away, but due to a lot of issues that were happening at that hospital and because of lack of translation, lack of interpretation, and lack of knowledge from us as young individuals, we weren’t able to interpret properly or maybe things just didn’t connect. There was a language inaccessibility at that time. There was lack of accessibility to healthcare for my grandma. And I believe she died before her time because of health inequity.
Now fast forward and there have been emergencies throughout my life. In a lot of those emergencies, I have seen, and I have been treated a certain way because I am Latina. And I’d love to give you examples, but I just know that I have been treated a certain way just because I’m Latina in different hospital settings, including when I gave birth to my kids. One of the nurses said, “Well, are you sure you’re able to pay for this or are you sure you don’t, you have insurance?” And it was those little microaggressions that continue to go throughout our lives to recognize and acknowledge that there is health inequity throughout the United States.
Hence why we started a Spanish newscast on YouTube here in Lexington first. And then now we have it in six other communities in the state. And those things got me to the point of being part of the governor’s health equity task force. And now I’m able to be at the table of having conversations about inequity. One of the biggest steps is acknowledging that there is racism. And if I’m answering your question correctly, are people acknowledging it or are they saying “what are you talking about? There is no racism in the medical field.” And I want to say that unfortunately, individuals are not acknowledging racism because they don’t see it because it is so systemic because it is in the roots of it all. We are comfortable with the current system. Therefore we don’t see what is uncomfortable. We don’t want to see what is uncomfortable. So it has been really hard to be able to get that message across because there is racism. People are dying and it is due to the racism and the health inequity that is happening in the medical field.
Whitney: I think that was a really incredible answer. And you covered a lot within it, particularly about racism. And I think rural America is often portrayed as a place with high levels of racism, perhaps as a monolith, even of white farmers, as opposed to a place that is full of diversity and shifting demographics and also folks like you who are working very diligently and every day to address the systemic racism that we know exists all across this country. So I wonder, do you see rural America as a place of real opportunity to address these issues and how are you doing that in your small town at the moment?
Gladys: So in Spanish, my mom and I always say “pasito, pasito.” It’s baby step by baby step. We have to do it baby steps. It’s not going to happen overnight. And it may not even happen in my generation. Again, I have mentors that have been doing this for years, one specifically are in the state of Nebraska. Her name is Yolanda Nuncio. She’s been there since I was in high school, doing the same advocating diligently, like you said, and just showing me the way of how we can continue to be the voice, but also showcasing and making sure that others learn how to be a voice.
I think rural America is beautiful. I think it is safe. I think it has so much potential. It has the ability to that’s where we want to be. We want the same things that every other American wants because we are Americans. We want health. We want education for our children. We want prosperity. We want to be able to be part of a bigger family, a bigger community. So it has been, I think there’s potential. We always need to do good work. And we always have to do good work and we have to continue. And I just continue to do my job to be able to help my daughter and my son grow up in a better community. Maybe it’s not perfect, but I hope that it will be better by the time they grow up.
Whitney: I’m wondering about what’s making you happy these days. Where are you finding levity or delight, or where are you having a party? Even though it’s COVID time and you’re in your basement a lot of the time, what’s making you happy?
Gladys: For everybody that has kids and potentially loves video games, Minecraft Dungeons has saved our family’s Friday nights. Minecraft Dungeons all of the time. And it’s hilarious because we’re prepping, whatever’s coming our way. So that’s giving me a lot of love. And honestly, those meetings with organizers throughout the state, sometimes they’re not for planning. Sometimes they’re there for us, so we do intentional meetings to be able to either bring a mental health provider on board to talk to us about how we can process everything that’s currently happening, or there’s other meetings that we’re just checking in and we’re saying, “Hey, how are you? How can I support you? What do you need from us?” And sometimes it’s just listening in and hearing everybody out. So my party is playing some Minecraft Dungeons, or just having some real conversations with my friends and mentors throughout the state.
Whitney: So one more question for you before I let you go, what are you reading right now?
Gladys: Yes. So one of the books that I’ve been reading is Maria Hinojosa, she’s a famous journalist in the Latino world in Spanish speaking journalist media. And she does Latino USA NPR. And she just wrote a book, Once I Was You. And I listened to one of her podcasts with Latino USA. And she said, “The reason why I wrote it, so you don’t feel invisible. So you feel like you can see somebody else doing the same thing that you’re doing.” And that just resonated. I had to buy the book right away after she said that because I have felt invisible throughout my life. Something that my husband has acknowledged and said, “You have this anxiety coming into rooms.” Way 10, 15 years ago. And I said, “What are you talking about?” He’s like, “I don’t know. Something’s going on between you and race and coming into a room full of white people.”
And I didn’t realize it until I started acknowledging that I felt invisible in those rooms but nobody else was talking about that invisibility until this past year where Maria Hinojosa mentioned it, and I’m like, oh my goodness, this is where it’s coming from. And this is also the impetus on me wanting to be a storyteller and me wanting to continue telling our stories and telling stories of other bad-ass Latinas that are doing good work throughout the nation. So I’m reading that book. I definitely recommend it.
Whitney: Oh, that’s wonderful. We’ll add that to our list of book recommendations, for sure. So that is Maria Hinojosa, Once I Was You.
Whitney: Yeah. Okay. I love it. Thank you so much, Gladys. I’ve just really appreciated this conversation. You’re wonderful. And I’m so glad to finally meet you in-person, really. And I hope we get to do some more work together.
Gladys: I would love that, Whitney. Thank you so much for having me. I appreciate being here.
Whitney: Thanks for listening. We’d like to thank our media partner, The Daily Yonder. You can be anywhere, we’ll be everywhere. Thanks for listening.