Bozeman, Montana

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.”

Leah Schmalzbauer

Scholars now study migration to suburbs as well as
to cities, but Leah Schmalzbauer is among the first
to study rural immigration.

Schmalzbauer went on to conduct 82 formal interviews with Mexican migrants in southwest Montana and write a book about her findings.

Now, she has cast those same data in another light. With University of Chicago sociologist Angela García, Schmalzbauer co-authored a January article in The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science about Mexican migrants in rural Montana and urban Southern California.

It turned out there was a kind of Los Angeles-to-Montana pipeline. Wealthy transplants, often from California, were moving to hipster Bozeman and building houses. But Montana employers couldn’t find enough construction workers. Meanwhile, Mexican migrants were getting pushed out of L.A., where the market for laborers was saturated.

“There were parallel migrations into Montana: the wealthy-lifestyle people and the migrants coming in to service those lifestyles,” says Schmalzbauer. “And Mexicans in construction could double their wages in Montana.”

The people she interviewed had mostly grown up in rural Mexico, she learned. In Montana, “they connected to what they perceived to be rural values, the landscape, the clean air, the lack of density.” As one migrant told her, “Here, it is more or less like Mexico. It is peaceful and beautiful.”

There are drawbacks, however. White Montanans will sometimes say, “In America, we speak English.” That rarely happens in the Golden State. And undocumented immigrants stand out. In this endless landscape, they must drive over long distances: that gives more chances for traffic stops.

Mexican mothers in Montana often opted not to drive. “Women would stay home,” Schmalzbauer notes. “They would talk about home in this complicated way, too, calling it a cárcel (jail). They just were stuck in this space, lonely and depressed. Yet they also said they felt safest there.”

Schmalzbauer is among the first scholars to study rural immigration. Depopulated villages are attracting immigrants ever more: she says the dairy industry in Wisconsin, for instance, would kick the bucket if it weren’t for Latinos, who largely milk the cows.

“Some blue states that went red in the last election are rural states that have shifting demographics due to migration, and I think there’s a pushback,” she says.
“Policy-makers—and scholars—need to look at these rural areas and understand what’s happening.”