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Language 'No. 1' in bridging Melrose divide

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Peggy Stokman
Peggy Stokman teaches English to Latino women in Melrose. On this day she was working with two women she has been instructing for about a year. Stokman is quite animated as she works on pronunciation with Rosario (prefers not to use last name). St. Mary's Parish in Melrose, which provides space for the ESL classes.
Photo by Vickie Kettlewell

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Inside La Morenita, a small Latin grocery store just off Interstate 94 in Melrose, Peggy Stokman walked past rows of brightly-packaged candy and a basket of fresh, green garbanzo beans before reaching Rubi Besqueda, the store's owner, at the front counter. Besqueda smiled broadly and the two embraced in a familiar hug.

Besqueda, who lived in Mexico, California and Long Prairie before moving to Melrose five years ago, was pregnant and due in mid-December. "Maybe you'll hit Our Lady of Guadalupe," said Stokman, referring to the day Mexicans celebrate the virgin appearing to a long ago farmer named Juan Diego.

"Maybe," said Besqueda, pleased at the thought.

It's partially thanks to Stokman, a retiree and Twin Cities native, that Besqueda speaks English. Since moving to Melrose more than a decade ago, Stokman has worked to bridge the white and Latino communities and she launched the city's first English-as-a-second-language classes. Besqueda said she and Stokman taught each other their native tongues and along the way became friends. "She is a good person and a good friend," Besqueda said. "She is always helping people."

Now Besqueda struggles only occasionally for a word. "You have feet for walking," she said. "Not having English is like not having hands."

"You have feet for walking. Not having English is like not having hands."

Melrose, like many outstate Minnesota communities, has had a sizeable Latino population for more than a decade, drawn mainly by food processing companies like Jennie-O, Gold'n Plump and Long Prairie Packing. Almost a quarter of the population is Latino, up from less than 1 percent in 1990. That's a dramatic change for a city with a total population of under 4,000.

In some cities, even though whites and Latinos may have lived side by side for decades, the two cultures don't interact much, aside from at school, in the grocery store and maybe on the soccer field. Language differences remain a formidable obstacle. And so does the mobility of many Latino families. With a few exceptions, for example, Latinos tend not to hold city-wide offices in outstate Minnesota.

Melrose is doing better than some when it comes to cultural cohesiveness, but resentments still lurk beneath the surface, said Melrose Police Chief John Jensen. "I don't think it will ever completely go away. It's fear of the unknown and the inability to communicate. If people could communicate, they would find out how much they have in common. Language is No. 1."

Shift change
The shift change at Jennie-O Turkey Store in Melrose, a large employer of Latino workers.It is next to St. Mary's Parish in the center of Melrose.
Photo by Vickie Kettlewell

University of Minnesota Extension researchers are studying just what it takes to bridge a community's cultural gap. They plan to release their findings in the coming months, but one thing they've discovered is that a handful of people willing to cross the cultural aisle can make all the difference.

Stokman is one of those people. She and her husband John, who died in 2010, came to Melrose from Grand Island, Neb., where they'd lived for 42 years, expressly to help. "There was a lot of prejudice in our church in Grand Island," said Stokman, a devout Catholic with a deep appreciation for Latino culture. "It made me sad. We are all the children of God."

"Things have changed in Melrose. People have changed. It's not the same as it used to be."

"We can drag our feet," Stokman said. "But we are becoming one world. It's inevitable."

She and her husband took on the role of helping people in Melrose overcome the language barrier. They launched the Sauk Centre/Melrose Literacy Project and organized English classes at the Church of St. Mary, which holds Spanish language services and has a Mexican-made statue of the Virgen de Guadalupe near the front altar. ("Her skin should be darker but at least she has brown hair," Stokman said.)

With support from the state, the Alexandria Area Adult Basic Education Consortium and others, Stokman helped open a new English Center in a former salt warehouse downtown.

Peggy Stokman
Peggy Stokman teaches English to Latino women in Melrose. On this day she was working with two women she has been instructing for about a year. Stokman gives a geography lesson to Josephina, right, and Rosario (both prefer not to use their last names) at St. Mary's Parish in Melrose, which provides space for the ESL classes.
Photo by Vickie Kettlewell

The center is full of new computers and is painted in vivid colors. Coordinator Jill Roberg-Abahsain, a Sauk Centre native who recently returned from living in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, helps pupils with English, email and GED preparation. "When I left in the '80s, there was no need for ESL," she said. Her students are about half men and half women. "We're getting more farm hands coming in at night. They work all day and then come over here and learn English."

Stokman also teaches citizenship classes and has acted as translator, employment agency and all-around problem solver. But she said the foundation had been laid by the city, the Catholic church and pioneering Latino families by the time she and her husband arrived in Melrose. 

"If people could communicate, they would find out how much they have in common. Language is No. 1."

Melrose has made progress, according to community planning and economic development director Gary Walz. "The thing I've noticed is it used to be that (Latinos) moved into the trailer park and stayed," he said. "Now they are buying homes. They might have two or three homes in a neighborhood. There isn't a Hispanic neighborhood here. When they first came, they painted their homes in bright colors. Now they are siding their homes and doing taupes and trying to blend in more."

"Melrose is very friendly," said Alfredo Hernandez, who works at El Portal restaurant, one of a handful of Mexican business in town. "We're starting to become one community. It's progress."

Stokman heaped praise on Melrose's progressive former mayor, George O'Brien, who died last year. "I give so much credit to the city government," she said. "They had town meetings where there were big turnouts and people strategized on, how do we make these people feel welcome? How do we acclimate? How do we grow together?"

"We can drag our feet. But we are becoming one world."

Communication is key when it comes to the difficult job of bridging Latino and white communities, said Jensen, who makes a point of appearing at Spanish-language churches, though his Spanish is limited. "I learned from history (in other cities)," Jensen said. "I knew it was important to build a bond." Early on, he said, "I would assure them that if they were stopped for a violation, they would not be questioned about their documentation. Crimes were underreported because people were afraid the second words out of our mouths would be, 'Where is your green card?' They are here and not going anywhere."

He agrees that cultural relations have improved and credits the Stokmans, O'Brien and others with making meaningful inroads. "The differences are so wide and yet we are so similar," Jensen said. "We would get a complaint about someone butchering a goat in their garage. I would say, 'What's the difference between that and cleaning a white-tailed deer in your garage?'" He did note that some Latinos were washing blood and entrails down their driveways with hoses. "We don't get those complaints anymore. People dispose of their entrails in a proper manner. And they probably shut their garage door."

That's an example of how language isn't the only barrier to making connections. There's a rules-of-the-road factor as well, and in Melrose, the job of explaining those rules often falls to Ana Santana, a Melrose High School graduate who definitely has the gift of hospitality.

 On a recent afternoon, she helped a Latino man with an expiring resident card. The two spoke in Spanish as others waiting on folding chairs outside the office door. For 10 years, Santana has been the cultural liaison for Communities Connecting Cultures, a service paid for by Jennie-O that helps immigrant families navigate the bureaucratic and cultural maze of their new home in Minnesota.

Former Mayor O'Brien pushed Jennie-O to establish the service and Stokman sits on its board.

"When they first came, they painted their homes in bright colors. Now they are siding their homes and doing taupes and trying to blend in more."

Santana, who was born in Fresno, California, saw the job posting while working the production line at Jennie-O. "I thought, 'I can do that,'" she said. "I didn't know what it would entail. I didn't think it would be this big."

Four afternoons a week, Santana assists with resident cards, tax returns and government benefits, along with more mundane matters like doctor's appointments, prescription bottle translations and figuring out how to properly trim a baby's fingernails. "Each day is different," she said. When she's not at the office, people often bang on the door of her house, just a few blocks away.

"If I have a concern, I'll come and talk to Ana and know she's confidential and wise and knows the people better than I do," said Stokman.

Lately, Santana, who is nearly finished with a bachelor's degree in business management from Rasmussen College, has been spending a lot of time helping people apply for "deferred action," a federal program that grants temporary permission to stay in the U.S. to people who came illegally as children and meet other criteria.

A Latino woman with chipped blue fingernail polish entered Santana's office with her daughter, who clutched a pencil-written letter from a friend. Would the letter, vouching for the girl, work with the application?

Santana said it would, but they'd have to bring the friend by in person, so she could notarize it. They returned not long after with the girl and completed the exchange with a familiar utterance around the office, "Gracias, Ana."

"To certain people, a title matters," said Santana, who also translates at Jennie-O. "To me, everyone is the same. If they need me to go into the plant and translate, I'll go. Even to the ugliest spots. Even if I'm wearing my nice jeans and they get bloody, I don't care."

She thinks people in Melrose should be closer than they are. Some of her neighbors, still "look at me like I'm this weird person." Yet, she said, relations have improved since the days when the first Latinos arrived. "As the years went by, more people started coming and more people. Things have changed in Melrose. People have changed. It's not the same as it used to be."