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Living side by side and looking to connect

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Armstrong School
Luisa Trapero, left, walks down the hallway with Scarlet and Jonathon Ajardo after a meeting where Trapero interpreted for Scarlet and teachers at Armstrong School in St. James, Minn.
Photo by Jackson Forderer

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When Luisa Trapero was elected to the school board in this small, southern Minnesota city in November, she became the first Latino ever elected to citywide office there, despite a population that's nearly a third Latino.

Trapero, in fact, is one of the few Latinos elected to local office anywhere in outstate Minnesota. While many of the state's smaller cities have substantial and, in some cases, longstanding Latino presences, in many of these same communities, whites and Latinos live parallel lives without crossing cultural lines in significant ways.

"It's really rare to see a Latino coming forward to do this," said Trapero of her run for the school board. She came to Minnesota as a teenager from El Salvador, by way of Los Angeles, and translates for the school and police department. "I feel excited to take on this new challenge and also am learning about everything we as a school need to accomplish."

Outstate Minnesota's Latino population--from Mexico mainly, but also the Caribbean and Central and South America--has grown dramatically over the past two decades, drawn largely by the food industry. In some communities, Latinos make up a quarter or even a third of the population. More than 35 percent of people in Worthington, in the southwest corner of the state, are Latino. Among cities over 1,000, Pelican Rapids, St. James, Long Prairie and Madelia rank next; all have greater proportions of Latinos than the state's urban centers.  

Yet, in many places, people describe communities that have only begun coming to terms with demographic changes. Language barriers are a confounding factor, since they make it hard for new and old residents to address even rudimentary issues.

Also, many Latinos have been somewhat mobile, perhaps viewing their new homes as temporary. That seems to be changing as children make their way through school and extended relatives come to Minnesota to live. Immigration status can be an obstacle to participation, and so can long working hours and cultural norms. "Over there (in Latin America), school is school and home is home," said Trapero. "You don't have these kinds of committees over there. We don't know the system."

"It's really rare to see a Latino coming forward to do this."

"Particularly with recent immigrants, a large proportion of people have very little education and an impoverished background," said Hector Garcia, executive director of the state's Chicano Latino Affairs Council (CLAC). "Many are coming from countries where democracy is not the rule, where it is nonexistent or in the initial stages of evolving. All of those things make it difficult to have adequate representation. It's emerging, but very slowly and insufficiently."

When it comes to white residents, the response to newcomers has ranged from celebratory to hostile. Some people seem to have been holding their breath, waiting for their cities to return to the way they were in the 1980s. But that attitude is slowly changing as more communities, especially those with aging and historically declining populations, come to believe that Latinos are an important factor in their economic survival.

"Go to Willmar or Faribault or Owatonna and their downtowns have big gaps," said John Flory, special projects director for the Minneapolis-based Latino Economic Development Center (LEDC). "Who is interested in opening businesses in those spaces? Latinos and Somalis."

In short, embracing change is becoming a practical necessity, rather than an altruistic nicety.

Sue Harris
Sue Harris holds onto Sawyer Gibson to quell his crying at Armstrong School in St. James, Minn. Harris is the Community Education Director for St. James Public Schools.
Photo by Jackson Forderer

Over the past 10 years, "Minnesotans kind of finally woke up after living side by side with very little connection and with a discomfort with one another," said Jack Geller, rural sociologist and head of the Liberal Arts and Education Department at the University of Minnesota, Crookston. "In 2000, there was a mindset that this is transient and that someday things would go back to what they were. By 2010 people have had the realization that that was probably an illusion. Minority communities have taken a firm hold."

Garcia believes Latino-white relations are improving. "But at the same time, they are getting worse, because people are scared. And some people are very angry. There are some dramatic instances of aggression, people getting beat up, people not being paid for the work they do. People are sometimes mistreated because of their appearance, profiled by the police. There are a variety of instances of that nature."

"This is a very persistent, systemic type of problem," he said. "Everybody knows it. There is a pattern of communication that is leading us astray and that we need to analyze and redirect. I see its correction as something very doable."

"Minnesotans kind of finally woke up after living side by side with very little connection and with a discomfort with one another."

Indeed, the realization that change in many communities is permanent has spurred a host of efforts, large and small, to bridge Minnesota's cultural gap. University of Minnesota Extension has been conducting interviews in four outstate cities to gauge the degree to which Latino leadership plays a role outstate city life. Researchers plan to release their findings in the coming months

In St. James, residents send both whites and Latinos to leadership training with the Grand Rapids-based Blandin Foundation, including Trapero. "Whenever we do community projects, we make sure Latino folks are invited to get them to the table," said Community Education Director Sue Harris. "That hasn't always been successful."

Still, nowadays, rather than separate cultural festivals, the city aims for a blended single festival. "Now it's about trying to do things together at a town celebration, rather than separately," Harris said. "We used to be more separate, but now we are more collective. It's not where it could be, but it's a far cry from where it was 15 years ago."

Luisa Trapero
Luisa Trapero works as a Spanish interpreter at Armstrong School in St. James, Minn. Trapero is running for a seat on the school board for the St. James Public School District, where is enrollment is 40 percent Latino.
Photo by Jackson Forderer

Other efforts employ a wide range of strategies. The LEDC is working with the city of Long Prairie's economic development director, Lyle Danielson, to expand a Latino agricultural cooperative. Ana Santana, a Jennie-O employee in Melrose, sits at a desk in a downtown office most afternoons answering questions from new residents about everything from taxes to landlords. In Morris, University of Minnesota Spanish instructor Windy Roberts helped start two cultural groups designed to get people, white and Latino, talking to each other. A community effort in Northfield called TORCH has successfully raised the Latino graduation rate there. And a bakery in Worthington serves as a cultural hub where Latinos and whites meet for Mexican pastries and Long Johns

Progress has been incremental and it's come despite static and setbacks in many places, whether stemming from racial prejudice, concern about undocumented workers or the perception that immigrants are a drag on the local economy since they may be low-income. In Long Prairie, for example, white residents complained about the prospect of Latino growers in the city's community garden. "But their prejudices have been dashed," Danielson said. "They have come back and apologized."

"This state is a very generous state, compassionate and philanthropic. But that is not the only thing we need."

Garcia of the CLAC has held community forums around Minnesota in order to hear what Latinos have to say about the cities where they live. "I think there are places that are making headway, like Northfield," he said. "They have created an environment where the contributions of Latinos can flourish."

 But in other locations, he has found the opposite. "My opinion is that communities where there is resentment toward Latinos and marginalization of Latinos shoot themselves in the foot. They generate conflicts and marginalization and they stifle creativity. In today's economy, that is not very wise to do."

Asked to describe what makes the difference between a Northfield and a more hostile city, Garcia said, "I think that probably has to do with visionary leaders who are strong, who don't cater to the fears and anxieties of the community."

He thinks even Minnesotans who embrace immigration need to view the issue differently, through a practical lens rather than a compassionate one. "If anything now, there are by far greater reasons to take advantage of the potential contributions of immigrants," Garcia said. "This state is a very generous state, compassionate and philanthropic. But that is not the only thing we need. We also need pragmatic interest in the added value immigrants bring to the table."

"It's not only that the compassionate approach has some shortcomings," he said, "but it also gives ammunition to the opposition. Because people will say, we don't want you to be helping these guys. We have enough needs of our own without helping them out. It's self defeating, particularly at a time when many people are indeed in great need."

One way to change the conversation involves getting more Latinos into elected offices so they have a voice in how their communities are run. While the national political weight of Latinos has become more apparent in recent years, leadership on the local level still has a long way to go. That may have to do with the relative newness of the Latino populations in outstate Minnesota and the lack of what some call "precedents of success," local political role models to follow.

In June, the Minnesota Latino Caucus invited city officials and others from around the state to St. Paul to discuss various ways of encouraging leadership. More than 80 people attended, representing around 50 communities, according to organizers.

"There has been a lack of response by city officials when it comes to appointing and electing Latinos in their cities to help them merge the two communities," said Samuel Verdeja, chair of the Minnesota Civic Engagement Coalition, who worked with the caucus round table. "Most cities are saying, this is what we want to do but we don't know how. It was great to get city officials at the table."

The city of Montevideo in western Minnesota sent 11 people to the event, including its mayor, the Spanish-speaking Debra Lee Fader. "Because we do have quite a bit of Latino culture in our area already--our sister city is in Uruguay--we are looking to create more cultural diversity," Fader said. "It was a nice chance for everyone to have some communication together."

Latinos make up just under 10 percent of Montevideo's population, and Fader said the city has appointed one Latino to a city government position, a woman who serves on the police committee. "We are doing pretty well," she said. "We can do better, I know." She hopes greater cohesion will not only improve communication but "increase the creation of jobs and goods and services, all of those things that will make us more economically self-sufficient."

Montevideo resident and Minnesota River and social justice advocate Patrick Moore said relations in his city have had their high and low points. For example, after a Latino didn't display his float's American flag properly during a city parade, another resident wrote a negative letter to the local newspaper.

"We need to focus on creating a safe place for action," Moore said. "It's a new idea. I think we need to make it fun and make it a competition." When it comes to surmounting the language barrier, he said, "We need to say, let's have a language bowl where people who are just learning Spanish and just learning English can come together in a competition with prizes and food and make it a party. We need to switch the tables on people, engage the public in a fun way."

 For her part in St. James, school board member-elect Trapero hopes she can serve as a political role model and inspire other Latinos to follow her lead. "I want to make sure people in my culture know it's OK to integrate into the system," she said. "Don't be afraid of it. I want to show them it's OK to be engaged in this kind of stuff. We all have kids in the school system. Everybody has to be on the same page."