She struck up the conversation by the frozen tortillas. This was back in 2005, on a Sunday evening in springtime, at Town & Country Foods in Bozeman, Mont.
Leah Schmalzbauer was teaching at Montana State at the time. She’s now a professor of American studies and sociology at Amherst; immigration is her area. When she landed in Bozeman (her husband was there to create a strategic plan for Yellowstone National Park), she figured she’d have to travel elsewhere to study migrants up close—to more diverse places, to cities.
But for weeks at Town & Country, she’d noticed Latino workers shopping too, dressed for the construction trades, speaking Mexican-accented Spanish.
“At first, they were terrified to talk to me, because they were such a small number in the community, and here’s this white woman approaching them,” she recalls. But Schmalzbauer chatted easily in Spanish. She explained she’d been to Mexico. She sowed rapport.
“I wanted to learn more about this community, how it got to Montana, because it was so not on my radar screen even as someone who studied immigration. What was on my radar screen was New York, Boston, L.A., Miami, Houston—the places people had written about.”