Hispanic Heritage Month: Since 1886, Latinos have continued to increase presence in Minnesota

a group of people with flags march in downtown St. Paul
On Sept. 15, 1972, members of the Brown Berets, a socio-political organization tied to the Chicano Movement, march in a Mexican Celebration Parade in downtown St. Paul.
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

Latinos are often seen as recent arrivals to the state. But the first Latino to permanently make Minnesota his home did so in 1886.

Luis Garzon, a 19-year-old oboe player, arrived with an orchestra from Mexico. They had been invited to play at the gala Industrial Exposition. While here, Garzon became ill. The orchestra moved on, leaving Garzon behind to recuperate. As fate would have it, he met a young Minnesotan named Clara Wagner. They would marry and Garzon stayed until his death in 1954.

Since then, Latinos have continued to be drawn to the state by jobs. The result has been a steady increase in the state’s Latino population. According to the 2020 census, more than 300,000 people in the state identify as Latino — an increase of 24 percent since the 2010 census.

Latino is used as an umbrella term to group people with cultural ties to Latin America and some Caribbean nations. The majority of Latinos in the state are of Mexican descent. But Minnesota’s Latino population also includes individuals with Puerto Rican, Salvadoran, Guatemalan, Ecuadorian, Colombian and Cuban heritages.

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Each decade saw a new industry recruiting Latino workers. Over time, many settled where they worked. In the mid-1900s, many Mexican immigrants came to the Midwest to work on the railroad, said Cristina Ortiz, an assistant professor at the University of Minnesota, Morris. Once here, many did what is known as “settling out,” she said.

“They might have lived in boxcars near railroads at the very beginning. They settled out into neighborhoods. And have been doing so for a very long time ever since then,” Ortiz said.

Ortiz has studied Latino experiences in the United States as well as rural Latino communities in the U.S. Midwest. And she has a personal connection with Latino migration to the Midwest.

“My paternal grandmother and grandfather were American citizens that were migrant workers who went back and forth between Mexico and the United States,” she said. “They settled in Mason City, Iowa. And so part of my professional interest in Latinos in the Midwest, specifically in Iowa and Minnesota, has come from familiarity with their story and wanting to understand more about my heritage and what their experience would have been like.”

As economies evolved, so did the type of work Latinos did.

In the 1980s meatpacking plants moved from urban settings to rural Midwest communities, Ortiz said. In the 1990s employment shifted to the dairy industry.

“Over time, Latinos went from being primarily employed in things like seasonal agriculture and railroad work, to being employed in factories,” she said.

This resulted in the Latino population appearing new or bigger in some communities, Ortiz said. She pointed to Morris, Minn., where veterinarians and skilled professionals from Mexico came to work in the dairy industry.

“And then the Latino or other immigrant community begins to grow and expand beyond those primary employment situations. And so to those communities, it seems new and different. And [it feels] like they're the first and only people experiencing these challenges and differences and cross-cultural communication and these kinds of things. But it's been going on for a very long time in the Midwest,” Ortiz said. 

And as for that young oboe player who made Minnesota his home in the late 19th century, Garzon would go on to be involved in local symphonies. He would also open the first market in West St. Paul to serve the area’s growing Mexican community. It became a gathering spot for people to catch up, get the latest news and buy familiar products.

Garzon is buried in Lakewood Cemetery in Minneapolis.

Vicki Adame covers Minnesota’s Latino communities for MPR News via Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues and communities.