Updated: Sep 13
Twin Falls, Idaho is home to the kind of companies associated with the health-conscious, outdoorsy crowd. After a day of skiing in the Sun Valley, one might hang up their Columbia brand sport coat and settle in with a Clif Bar and a cup of Chobani yogurt. Columbia sportswear, Clif Bar and Chobani are some of the major job providers in the region. As towns go, Twin Falls is relatively small, with a population just over fifty thousand. But it’s responsible for much of the economic output within southern Idaho’s increasingly popular Magic Valley.
The Magic Valley region has seen steady growth, thanks to California transplants that have moved to the area to escape rampant wildfires and escalating housing prices. There’s also been a huge surge amidst Hispanics, which now comprise roughly thirteen percent of the population.
For immigrant women coming to America, seeking opportunity is often complicated. It’s more likely for one thing that you’ll face poverty as a female immigrant, especially if you’re having to raise children while seeking employment. However, if you manage to find work, you’re more likely than your male counterparts to find work in business, management and related fields rather than construction or manufacturing. But this of course assumes having a degree or educational background required to attain this type of work. Not to mention—having an insider connection always helps. If you’re Latina, the odds may be far more stacked against you.
Susie Rios lives in Twin Falls, Idaho. She’s the statewide Outreach Director for the Idaho Women’s Business Center. Rios navigates the intimidation many Latinas encounter acclimating to the current business environment. “When you sign-in to a virtual webinar and see someone that looks like you and speaks your language, it helps build a stronger connection,” says Rios. “But everyone is at a different level. If we find a Latina that doesn’t know how to use Zoom, we can’t get frustrated. We have to be patient and walk her through it.”
Language barriers present a common hurdle, along with technology that may be unfamiliar. But Rios and the team at WBC have been intentional to overcome these limitations. Beyond the practical skills, the substantial work of welcoming comes through establishing trust. Rios’ challenge is that when her fellow Latinas don’t feel empowered, they very quickly want to give up. “It can be very overwhelming. And when they feel they can’t learn something new, they shut down,” she notes.
The stakes to this are significant, especially considering the implications to the economy. Latinx startups now represent the fastest growing segment for small business in the US. Yet news coverage that often focuses on the negative aspects of immigration clouds the visibility of this phenomenon. The fear that now pervades discussions on race and immigration has left Rios and others with a new level of nervousness around politics. “Between the pandemic and [civil unrest], it’s difficult not knowing what’s going to happen,” says Rios. “I wish that people of different views would all come to the table and have a more respectful discussion.”
Rios’ friend and colleague, Alejandra Hernandez is well-positioned to convene community members. As the Executive Director of the Unity Alliance of Southern Idaho, Hernandez endeavors to uplift and advance progress for Latinx peoples in the region. Where it concerns the pandemic, Hernandez affirms the concerted efforts to promote public health. “What I’m happy about is that there’s been a great deal of collaboration among different organizations,” says Hernandez. The efforts to keep peopled informed through media (for example) have been really positive.” Far greater concern rests with not simply promoting public safety but cultivating civic engagement. Hernandez notes it can be difficult at times to entice the public’s interest. Immigrants who work long hours in agricultural or service fields are “naturally tired at the end of the day” and may not be as willing to show up to gatherings, she comments. Low voter turnout can also be a problem, particularly among younger Hispanic adults and lower-income groups. But as the demographics continue to shift, Hernandez believes overall civic engagement—as well as job opportunities—will become greater.
Yet there are caveats inherent to progress given the social dynamics of the community. “When I first came here, I found that Idaho is very territorial,” Hernandez recalls. She came with a master’s degree in Education Leadership, yet had a hard time finding a job in the field. “It’s going to go to someone who has been here for years, just because [he or she] knows someone and has lived here a long time.”
Dynamics like Hernandez describes are not uncommon in many smaller towns. Like many opportunities, much of it comes down to who you know. What often deters many immigrants from trying is the upfront challenge of establishing more personal relationships. Hernandez is naturally outgoing; she finds things like Magic Valley’s thriving arts scene to be highly energizing. But even after years of calling Twin Falls home, Hernandez still at times feels like a stranger. “It helps when I can speak Spanish with a girlfriend—I need that sometimes,” she says.
Both Rios and Hernandez say getting over the feelings of anxiety and isolation are tough, but necessary. Latinas are still trailing behind in positions of leadership among local companies. And while many men can readily find jobs in agriculture or farming, it’s Latinas that often aspire for opportunities in fields like education or business. That’s why programs like WBC’s Mujer a Mujer are critical. It’s just one more way of providing a framework that empowers Latinas to shape their own destiny. “We do have a lot of strong Latina leaders in Idaho, but we still have many that need more empowerment,” says Rios. Not only is it essential to build empowerment from woman to woman, Rios believes that Latinas and other immigrant women need greater societal affirmation. When fear gets in the way of that, it holds back progress. “We see things happening in society that shouldn’t continue. But if we can focus on having the conversations with those are willing, we will see change.”
Please note: this article is published by GigRoots in coordination with Welcoming America. Welcoming America is leading a national movement of cultivating inclusive communities. They work with non-profits and local governments, providing tools and resources to help make cities places where everyone can belong. Through their network, we’ve spoken with local leaders and business owners actively contributing to strengthening their communities.