SALVATIERRA, MEXICO — When the hog slaughterhouse closed in Windom, Minn., last spring, Adrian Luna hopped in his Kia Sorento, the car he bought with American wages. It would take him nearly 2,000 miles south, out of the Minnesota prairie, across the southern plains, over the U.S. border and into this agave-studded valley of Mexico that he calls home.

After embracing his family, Luna went straight to Our Lady of Light, the stone church overlooking the town's leafy plaza. Legend has it that the 18th-century baroque structure, with soaring twin bell towers, was built by order of a local man after witnessing a Virgin Mary painting burst into light.

There, in the presence of the miraculous, Luna knelt and prayed. "To give thanks for returning safely," the 42-year-old said.

He then began looking for work.

When the HyLife pork plant in Windom shuttered a year ago, declaring bankruptcy and laying off 1,000 people, the plant's hundreds of guest workers faced a distressing choose-your-own-adventure scenario: stay in the U.S. illegally, gain a new visa or temporary legal status, or return to Mexico.

One year later, HyLife workers are scattered in a loosely tethered, continent-wide diaspora scrambling for new work. Some are still picking up the pieces; others are working to regain the financial and professional footing they'd found with the hog plant in western Minnesota.

The plant, like many others, served as a nexus for modern agriculture's global web. Manitoba-based HyLife bought hogs raised on Midwest farms that were slaughtered by migrant labor, delivering pork to consumers in Tokyo, Toronto and Beijing.

For HyLife workers, the abrupt end of their American dreams left many with half-finished plans: sending kids to college, building homes, supporting aging relatives.

For Luna, who one year later manages a grocery store in Salvatierra, the biggest pain remains the dashed hopes.

"We were a problem that they did not know how to solve," Luna said.

Becoming part of Windom

Today, former Windom HyLife workers can be found working at processing plants in Michigan and in the oil fields of Texas, and milking cows in Iowa. But their journeys all started back at a HyLife plant in Salvatierra.

On an April morning, trucks rumble past the now-shuttered plant. For years, the plant processed pork for local markets. As COVID swept through the U.S. meatpacking industry, HyLife recruited workers to its Minnesota plant, promising over two years of wages that would generate six times more income than they made in Mexico.

It was a rare economic opportunity. The H-2B program is used by landscapers and lake resorts in summer, and meat and seafood processors. It's a legal ticket to work in America. Hundreds took the offer.

When Maria del Carmen Calderon, 40, first arrived in Minnesota on a cold October day, she marveled at the snow, something she'd only seen in movies.

"It was so nice to feel the snowflakes fall on our skin," Calderon said.

Maria del Carmen Calderon put her son through university by working at the Windom HyLife plant. But her plans were cut short when the plant went bankrupt, and she had to move back to Mexico.

Then she got to work. In her new hometown, built among cornfields and Lutheran churches, she and other workers glimpsed the good life. Calderon saved money to put her son through university for a computer engineering degree.

Her time there, however, ended prematurely when HyLife announced it was closing.

Tiffany Lamb, Windom's development director, said the closure triggered a round-the-clock scramble by local, state and federal officials — "some of the best minds in the country" — to find legal pathways for HyLife workers who wanted to stay in the U.S.

"A lot of folks just did not know what they needed to do," Lamb said. "They didn't want to do wrong. But they didn't know how to do everything right, either."

One answer involved putting a tranche of workers on H-3 educational and training work visas with the Clemens Food Group in Coldwater, Mich., where these workers now help operate a pork plant. Some remained in Windom, securing work permits. Others found jobs in Texas.

But over 130 workers, including Luna, went back home to their historic, impoverished town in central Mexico's valley of Huatzindeo, where heat and cartel violence oppress adobe-lined streets. There, they had to begin again, returning to a life they thought they'd escaped.

Salvatierra is a historic and picturesque town in a state now plagued by crime. "Violence in this country has been increasing little by little, more and more," said Ana Melisa Pardo Montaño, a social science researcher in Mexico City.

A 'pueblo magico' turned violent

Salvatierra, a city with roots traced to Franciscan friars in the 16th century, rises from grain fields and cattle pastures. Spanish-built cathedrals pierce the blue sky while distant, hazy mountains ring the town.

In 2012, the Mexican government declared it a "pueblo magico," a distinction reserved for towns with deep cultural or artistic history.

A continent-wide worker diaspora

When the HyLife pork plant in Windom closed last year, migrant workers scattered across the continent looking for work. Many returned to central Mexico.

Jake Steinberg, Star Tribune

In recent years, though, the town has grown dangerous.

A dozen people were killed at a party outside town in December. In 2020, Mexican authorities unearthed a mass grave that held nearly 60 bodies. By most counts, the state of Guanajuato has among the highest homicide rates in Mexico.

The mood in Salvatierra fluctuates between leisure and sorrow. On one cobblestone street, cafe diners recline in the shade of an old convent. On another thoroughfare, police block traffic as investigators tend to a crime scene — another homicide.

While debate over immigration in the U.S. is often subsumed by rhetoric about border security and national identity, on the south side of the border, it's about economics and safety. Workers leave to build a better life, fleeing violence or entrenched joblessness.

"The truth is we find certain concentrations of violence in various places in [Mexico]," said Ana Melisa Pardo Montaño, a social science researcher at National Autonomous University in Mexico City.

Before 2020, Montaño said, Guanajuato was a relatively safe state and known for tourist areas such as San Miguel de Allende. Observers point to the presidency of Felipe Calderón, from 2006 to 2012, when federal forces cracked down on drug syndicates, spurring turf battles.

"Violence in this country has been increasing little by little, more and more," Montaño said.

The uptick in violence has crushed economic opportunity and fueled emigration, including the people who found their way to Cottonwood County, Minn.

A bell tower rises above the streets of Salvatierra. The buzz of commerce in town belies economic anxieties.

In Windom, Estefania Morales, 26, saw life blossom. With HyLife wages often exceeding $2,000 a month, she bought a car. She and her partner had a baby. But when the plant closed, she returned home.

One year later, sitting at her parents' kitchen table down a narrow street in Salvatierra, with a truck parked next to the refrigerator, life suddenly feels small. Her 18-month-old son, born at the Windom hospital months before the HyLife plant closed, naps in a nearby bedroom.

"I would like for him to learn English," Morales said of her boy, who has dual citizenship. "I would like for him to go to school in the U.S. … He can travel whenever he wants to to the United States."

Morales tried working 12-hour shifts at a Salvatierra factory when she returned, but the long hours were too difficult with a baby. She now sells tortillas and flavored ice outside the doorway of her home a few hours a day.

When working at HyLife in Windom, she could buy a new pair of shoes with an hour's wages. Now shoes require a week of work.

"The quality of life over there is so much different than it is here," Morales said.

Estefania Morales cuddles her 18-month-old son, born at the Windom hospital months before the HyLife plant closed. He has dual citizenship.

A labyrinth of money owed

In the Salvatierra market, patrons wander between stalls of dried chilis and fresh onions. A butcher cuts up pork chops, a pig's head near his block. But all over town, the commerce belies economic anxieties.

Former HyLife worker Maria Lourdes Silva, 52, says she wishes to return to the U.S. because work here is scarce, especially for women over 50.

"The problem now is finding a job," Silva said. "I have a garage right now that I haven't finished. I don't have glass in the doorway."

Many guest workers rely on recruiters, but locals know to be careful.

People in Salvatierra told the Star Tribune about a local man who was robbed and killed when paying a bribe to recruiters for a guest-worker program.

Last fall, the Biden administration announced new protections for H-2B workers in the U.S., including a crackdown on illegal recruiting of guest workers. The state of Minnesota has also sought repayment of HyLife workers through a bankruptcy case in Delaware.

In a March bankruptcy hearing, Rick Wright, a financial adviser for the liquidating trustee, disputed the state's argument that HyLife workers are still owed money. "I would expect that if employees had not been paid, they would have filed a claim," Wright said.

Later in the hearing, Judge Thomas M. Horan reminded the courtroom that for many workers, English is not their first language.

"I am also assuming," Horan added, according to court transcripts, "that the materials that went out to them advising them of the administrative claims bar date was in English."

When the Star Tribune later asked, in Spanish, the former HyLife workers in Salvatierra to raise their hands if they'd been contacted by anyone about the bankruptcy case, not one hand lifted.

In a statement, the company, which has since sold the plant, said, "We understand the 2023 plant closure impacted our employees and regret the hardships faced. We operated in good faith and did our best in a challenging situation."

Adrian Luna tries to get a look at an advertisement in Salvatierra seeking workers for the Canadian HyLife plant. Luna said many of the photos on the sign are from the shuttered plant in Windom, Minn.

Dream 'turned into a nightmare'

On Posadas Ocampo, Salvatierra's main highway, the now-closed HyLife plant displays a "hiring" poster for jobs in Canada. The employer requires workers know English.

A few blocks down the street sits Scorpion, the store Luna manages. "It's like a Walmart or Hy-Vee," he said.

Luna's natural charisma fueled his ambition in Minnesota, where he was taking English classes in the evenings at a Mankato elementary school. He still wears his Adam Thielen jersey, the Vikings' purple popping against the orange and red storefronts of his hometown.

On an afternoon in April, Luna lifted packages of water from a pallet, handing them to a fellow worker helping stock shelves. It was the night of the NFL draft, and he wondered aloud whether the Vikings would pick a new quarterback.

"For me," Luna said, when asked what he remembered about Minnesota, "it's the quality of the people and how they treated us."

After the plant in Windom closed, Adrian Luna returned to Salvatierra and works as a manager at a grocery store.

Luna reminisces about fishing the Des Moines River in Windom and attending a Mankato MoonDogs minor league baseball game. He and other workers celebrated Day of the Dead and Mexican Independence Day in the hotel where they lived. On Fridays, they visited a garage for tacos in Windom.

He wishes his final memories of Minnesota were better.

As HyLife hastily laid off workers, many departed for opportunities in other towns and states, leaving the remaining few to carry heavier workloads. One employee worked on the kill floor. He said three people were doing a job meant for 11. They recalled hog carcasses piling up, rules being broken.

"It was like a nightmare at the end of the day," Luna said. "After being a great, beautiful dream, it turned into a nightmare."

After unloading a pallet from the grocery store floor, Luna glances out toward the road as a truckload of armed police rolls past the parking lot. Down the road, caution tape lines the boulevard. Luna's Kia Sorento, with the familiar blue-and-white Minnesota plates, sits in the lot, glistening in the Mexican sun.

Star Tribune staff photographer Elizabeth Flores provided translation for interviews in Spanish.


Reporting Christopher Vondracek and Elizabeth Flores

Photography Elizabeth Flores and Katie Rausch

Editing Kristen Leigh Painter

Copy editing Catherine Preus

Design Bryan Brussee and Michiela Thuman

Graphics Jake Steinberg and CJ Sinner