Ground Level Blog

Latinos and whites: Getting beyond parallel play?

In a study from a few years ago on the growing Latino population in Minnesota cities, one small-town resident likened the situation between whites and Latinos to "parallel play."

That's what child development experts call it when you put two toddlers together in a room of toys and they play well -- by themselves but not with each other.

Since the Latino population in the state started to rise rapidly two decades ago, that's been a significant part of how many Minnesotans experienced the growth of diversity - two communities existing side by side but often not forming significant bridges or connections. It was true in the town where I grew up and it's been true in many of the other outstate Minnesota cities that have experienced Latino growth.

Prompted by some research being conducted by University of Minnesota Extension's Center for Community Vitality, Ground Level is looking at examples of where that may be changing. We've been talking to people around the state and plan to publish some of their stories next week in a project we're calling "Making Connections." We'll also report on the extension research when findings are available.

In the meantime, we asked sources in our Public Insight Network in rural Minnesota for their thoughts. Where, if anywhere, are new connections being forged between Latinos and non-Latinos?

Perhaps not surprisingly, some residents essentially told us they're not. But others offered up scenes and anecdotes they've been impressed by - from a YMCA weightlifting room in Worthington to a deli in Northfield -- and that show a shifting portrait of the state. Take a look at what people told us and add your own comment about how you see this.

Gerry Ruda, Long Prairie. County commissioner and retired teacher.

The major opportunity for Latinos and whites to interact is the school. We are beginning to see more participation of Latinos in sports and band.

About 10 years ago, a Latino family asked my wife to do daycare for their little girl who was 2 1/2. She did so to give the other children in her daycare an opportunity to be with a Latino child. All of the children interacted beautifully. The girl's family has included us in birthday celebrations, First Communion, and other events. Even though my wife no longer does daycare for this girl, we still are in touch with this family.

The father is bilingual as is the little girl. The mother still does not say much in English, but she follows along with a conversation in such a way that you know that she understand what is being said.

About 17 years ago, several Latino families came to Long Prairie to work at Long Prairie Packing or Jennie-O in Melrose. The City of Long Prairie and Todd County sponsored a liaison program to assist with the integration of the Latino population into the community. Even though the person involved with that program became more of an advocate for the Latinos than a liaison between the two cultures, this program set the stage for the future. In the past few years, the major employers have been increasingly careful in screening employees to make certain that the employees are documented, we have seen a major out-migration of Latinos. Latino students are excelling in school. I rarely hear the white population putting down the Latinos today.

Herminio Nunez Lopez , Worthington. Interpreter.


We do cross paths everywhere here in Worthington, after all, this is a relatively small community. We are talking schools, businesses and community events.

I hold a job that requires me to be bi-cultural. I know people who work side by side with members of the general community. The person who delivers the mail, the nurse at the hospital, janitor at schools, the accountant and business men whom are all Hispanics.

With the huge influx of immigrants from all around the world here in Worthington, it is bound to have cultural and linguistic barriers, (sometimes) with the very same immigrant community. From Latin American we have people whose mother tongue is not Spanish, therefore this in itself constitutes a linguistic barrier with the Spanish community, let alone to general community. We have African tribes having same differences.

Although we have this challenge we are working on them and making progress, slowly but surely. We have a vibrant community where the world has met, bringing an awesome array of skills and uniqueness, making Worthington one of the most diverse small cities in MN.

Martin Rickers, Worthington. Sales manager

When I was young Worthington was 99.9% white and always had a population around 10,000. Today, Worthington's population exceeds 12,000 and only about 50% of the population is white. So, without that influx of non-whites Worthington would be a much smaller community today. Because of this many Latino and SE Asian businesses have popped-up like grocery stores, restaurants, convenience stores, etc. It is my observation that this has been slow in coming, but today whites feel more comfortable entering those Latino and SE Asian-owned businesses and making purchases. of my favorite restaurants in Worthington is a Mexican place that has excellent food. Other whites I know often frequent the SE Asian food stores, etc. Because of this my belief is that these businesses are places when everyone crosses paths quite often.

I belong to the Worthington YMCA and work out there often, especially in the winter months. I lift weights, do stretching, walk on the treadmill, etc. A large group of Latinos also work out about the same times I do weekly and I have been befriended to some degree by a group of Latino guys who are much more avid weightlifters than I am. They cooperate with me on using the various weights and have helped me understand better the technique needed to be more effective in my weightlifting regimen. I have appreciated their advice and friendship at the Worthington YMCA!

I notice that many Latino people when they are in their small groups oftentimes speak Spanish. This is very observable in local grocery stores, etc. in Worthington. Latinos really seem to like the many parks located within Worthington, especially those on Lake Okabena. I have noticed a lot of Spanish being spoken there also because these areas attract large groups of people at one time. I also notice that older Latinos speak Spanish as a rule, but younger people tend to speak more English.

Dale Siegfreid, Austin. Certified public accountant.

(Where in your community, if anywhere, do Latinos and whites get together or at least cross paths?) Everywhere - grocery stores, city parks, community events (4th of July fireworks, etc.)

I'm a member of Lions club and we have a Latino member. I patronize Mexican restaurants

We have what's called a Welcome Center that helps (mainly) Mexicans get acclimated to the community

There are positives and negatives to this. We have more crime related to immigrants, our schools have to spend more time on these students leaving less time for some of the gifted, there is more use of food stamps, free or reduced school lunches. Positives include more people employed, cultural diversity.

Dee Slinde, Austin. School admissions officer.

Austin has a Welcome Center for people of any ethnicity to gather together, and a very active Latino community within the local community college, but I think the largest gatherings take place within the churches. Several offer services targeted toward the Latino Community.

In many ways, it seems like a parallel community rather than a genuine mix of cultures, so your observation of whites and Latinos living 'side by side' is more accurate that one would think. While there is no "Latino" side of town per se, it sometimes feels like the cultures/communities are as separated as if they were in different geographic areas, even if living right next door to each other. Diversity enriches life so much, and it makes me sad to have this invisible separation. There is so much to learn from each other!

I am on the Minnesota State DFL Outreach and Inclusion Committee, so I have connected with a few community leaders in that context, but even with that effort, it is sometimes a challenge to connect. Miguel Garate and Yesenia Mendoza of the Riverland Community College in Austin have been very helpful in our outreach efforts.

We held our DFL Caucuses at the El Parrel Ballroom here in Austin, which is a Latino owned business, in hopes of more involvement with and exposure to the white and Latino community by both. We are also making a connection to Pa'delante, a Latino leadership group in the community in hopes of getting our Latino community members more involved and more visible.

Generally speaking, language has not been a barrier, but in some ways, I wonder if the limited success we have in making genuine connections in the Latino community aren't because we, as whites, don't make enough effort to learn about the Latino community, including learning their language.

Molly Stevens, Owatonna. Self-employed.


(Where in your community, if anywhere, do Latinos and whites get together or at least cross paths?)

Next door neighbors. My Latino neighbors have been rude, hostile, and at one point were threatening my own personal safety. I wish I could say that the connections made with Latino folks in my neighborhood have been positive, but they have been negative. Living next door to my home is a household of MANY Latinos, ranging in ages from infant to elderly and everything in between -- multi-generational, multi-family units residing in what is supposed to be a single family dwelling. The constant and never ending rotation of strangers coming and going in the home with which we share a property line has been the source of major culture clash. No one else in this neighborhood lives like that.

I've spent a large part of my life dedicated to and enjoying the Latino/Hispanic culture. I studied the Spanish language in high school as well as in college and independently. I taught English as a Second Language, as a volunteer, for years, to primarily Latino peoples; I lived for seven years in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where I routinely developed relationships with Latino folks and was virtually drenched in the culture. I lived for years in the West Side neighborhood of Saint Paul, Minnesota, near the Boca Chica Restaurant, one of my most favorite places in the World. I lived very close also to the Paul and Sheila Wellstone community center.

I speak some Spanish, and most native Spanish speakers whom I encounter already have learned some English, which is something I admire greatly (English is an extremely difficult language). There are other folks coming to live in our community from far away, such as Somalia, and that language barrier is definitely an issue here in my town, not to mention the cultural differences.

Dana Mikkelsen, Moorhead. Information technology worker.


There have been Latinos and whites in this area for decades. I suppose where you are going to see people together would be at churches, community gatherings, public parks, etc...

I think even though we have a large number of Latino and white community interaction, there is still a lot of very subtle racism. You can see and hear it everyday in the community if you look for it. My former employer worked hard to break down a lot of barriers and cater to everyone no matter their ethnicity. I was proud to work there for that and many other reasons.

Pete Theismann, St. Cloud. Parks department employee.

(Where in your community, if anywhere, do Latinos and whites get together or at least cross paths?) At the local colleges, churches and sporting events

I have been a volunteer soccer coach for a number of years. The kids get together to play a game they like. That leads to connections among youth and among the families

Keith Homstad, Northfield. Retired clergyman.

(Where in your community, if anywhere, do Latinos and whites get together or at least cross paths?)

I see this occurring at St. Dominic's Catholic Church - where about 1,000 Latinos worship, and at St. John's Lutheran where about 7 worship. There is a very popular Mexican restaurant, El Tequila, and a Mexican deli, Triunfo, in town. Both are Latino owned and operated. We have about 1,700 Latinos in Northfield, most of them from Mexico and most of them from one rural area.

Curt Lee, St. Cloud. Retiree.


Many communities are seeing the first generation of Latinos taking residence in their towns. However, here in St. Cloud, this is almost a non issue, because of the numbers of Somali immigrants that have moved here. The issue here, is the extreme openly racist issues facing these Somali immigrants and their children.

The level of hatred and racism I've seen expressed disgusts me to the core. I have had little or no experience with the Latino community here in St. Cloud.

While living in the Minneapolis area, I worked daily with many Mexican Americans, and had only great experiences with them. We became quick friends and confidants. They contribute so much to the ever expanding diversity of Minnesota.

Gary Krull, Faribault. Retiree.

My wife and I are retired and we are not social people at all. But we do take notice of the racial diversity within our community, Latinos and Somalis. And, as far as we can see, there is very little "path crossing" anywhere in Faribault. The Latino and Somali communities pretty much segregate themselves intentionally for the most part from each other and the community as a whole, as we see it. Passer-by greetings are exchanged and that is about all as is our experience and from what we see elsewhere.

I did work with a majority of Latinos for five years in the '90s. I enjoyed the experience overall. The Latinos I developed friendships with were full of humor, great family oriented, and very bright, innovative people.

I am a sociologist by education. The language barriers are the most intrusive to building good relationships here, I believe.

Steve Gottwalt, St. Cloud. Communications and benefits consultant, Republican state representative.


Of course, we all get out in the community for a variety of activities, and so there is certainly informal interaction all over town -- much more so than a couple of decades ago when this truly was "White Cloud." Perhaps the most obvious crossing of paths for Latinos/Hispanics is in our Catholic churches and parish activities. St. Joseph Catholic Church in Waite Park, MN (for example) ministers to a large population of Hispanic and Latino newcomers. The parish offers Spanish-language masses and other forms of outreach.

There are so many activities and relationships in the St. Cloud area that demonstrate a steady transition to a community reflecting greater diversity.

Hector Garcia, Hopkins. Executive director, Chicano Latino Affairs Council


(Where in your community, if anywhere, do Latinos and whites get together or at least cross paths?) Library, restaurants and coffee shops, schools, theatre and movie theatre, open market, mall, churches.

Schools and police department have fostered dialogues with Latino and other immigrant communities.

Language is a problem for many new Latino immigrants who do not speak English. Often, their children speak English; this helps but also creates other problems between them.

Robert Rock, Moorhead. Registered nurse.

(Where in your community, if anywhere, do Latinos and whites get together or at least cross paths?) Everywhere.

Many of my friends in the past and present are Hispanic. Most of my daughters' friends are Hispanic.

I know law enforcement has made some strides in having minority officers. But the white line in the sand is still pretty bright in the fire department and the ambulance service. The hospitals still hire almost exclusively white people. The years since affirmative action was overturned have not been kind in our community, it is very hard to find a good paying job as a minority even if qualified.

Susanne Crane, Albert Lea-Austin area. Artist, educator, fitness trainer.

The most integrated places in my opinion are the schools, parks and the local gyms. I'm a personal trainer at a fitness club and really enjoy the diversity of people interested in fitness. I also work with kids in the arts where there are no boundaries.

One day four Latino children began watching while I was painting a mural. They looked interested so I asked them to help me paint. They did a super job and have since introduced me to their parents. We smile and wave whenever we cross paths. It was a great shared experience.

There is a lot of trepidation from the traditional Caucasion townsfolk in this area about the newer immigrants. Most people here are guarded (not very welcoming) but with an aging and declining population I think these new and different people add vibrancy. I welcome them.