When Eugenio Lopez and his family moved to Worthington 17 years ago, only a few families of color lived on their block. Arriving from Canton, Miss., southwestern Minnesota seemed like another world.
“We kind of felt like [we were] outside of the group of these people,” said Lopez, whose parents came to the United States from Guatemala. “But, they took us in and they welcomed us with open arms.”
These days, Lopez’s street is a mix of neighbors able to trace their roots to Central America as easily as Central Europe. Like all of Worthington, it’s been transformed by people of color who’ve found work, built businesses and bought homes, and whose kids have sustained the public schools in an era of declining white student enrollment.
Their rapidly growing numbers and economic muscle, however, have not yet translated into political power. While people of color are the majority now in Worthington, politics in the city and across Nobles County remain nearly all white and male. That came into sharp focus in the last election cycle when three women of color ran for city, county and Minnesota House seats, and all lost.
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The reasons for that are more complex than racial or ethnic bias or the power of incumbency. But lack of representation is still a concern for those who need support from government leaders to fund projects and provide resources to fill in gaps for needed services.
There are signs of change. Voters in 2019 backed a bond sale allowing Worthington to build a badly needed school for its growing student body, a measure that had failed for years before with some supporters feeling white Worthington didn’t want to pay for a school needed by nonwhite kids.
People of color are also increasingly willing to run for office. That includes Lopez, 18, who expects to run for mayor someday. “It doesn’t cause discouragement, it even empowers me,” he said of the lack of political diversity now. “It even motivates me even further to actually run for public office here in Worthington.”
People who’ve been fighting for years to break through those barriers, though, know the time, energy and money it will take to win hearts and minds.
An uphill battle
Leticia Rodriguez, 60, frequents Mini Market Lupita, where her friend and owner, Maria Parga, can be seen working behind the counter. Adjacent to the Mexican restaurant is a market with fridges for fresh produce and aisles of specialty items.
Rodriguez said that small immigrant-owned businesses in Worthington like Lupita’s started from scratch and didn’t receive any type of assistance from their elected leaders to get their livelihoods off the ground.
“Worthington has been making changes in approaching people and trying to teach people [where] the resources there are, but for the most part, all the businesses didn’t start that way with any help from the government, or the county, or the city, or anything,” Rodriguez said. “They just started on their own.”
Rodriguez ran for Nobles County Commissioner in 2020, but lost. When she ran, Rodriguez wanted to have her voice heard. She didn’t want to run as a person of color, but just as a person because she felt that local officials didn’t engage all communities and understand what their needs were.
During her campaign, though, Rodriguez began to understand the challenge of winning. She received comments from white voters that she wouldn’t represent them at all and that she’d only be serving people of color if elected. Meanwhile, voters of color expected her to enact policies immediately to solve long-standing issues that required time.
Rodriguez said she counted as only one vote and would need the support of others.
She’s not running again for office and instead, shifted her efforts elsewhere into directly working with community members to see results. But with Worthington changing so much in its businesses, its schools and neighborhoods, Rodriguez is hopeful that eventually the community will elect a person of color into office.
“It’s a changing world,” she said. “It’s not gonna go back to the way it always was. It’s gonna continue to change and evolve and our young people are going to be the testament of that change.”
Worthington Mayor Mike Kuhle has been active in local politics for years but won’t seek reelection when his term expires in December.
“I figure it’s time for some new blood, some new thinking,” Kuhle said. “There’s a lot of people in this community that could do a great job. And that’s including all the different cultures. But they have to step forward.”
They have. Besides Rodriguez, two other women of color recently ran and lost — Aida Simon for city council in 2020 and Cheniqua Johnson for state representative in 2018. However, they are not running for any office in this election cycle.
A turning point
Minnesota towns are fiercely proud of their local school systems. Many in southern Minnesota struggled to keep the doors open as white student counts fell. Students of color helped sustain them. Overcrowding, though, became a chronic problem in Worthington. It needed a new school but for years couldn’t get the voters to agree.
“I had a class that was like 36 students, and there were only around 30 chairs,” Lopez said. “That’s a major concern around the school. There wasn't any space at all and they were running out of closets to convert into classrooms.”
By the time Lopez was in high school, the measure failed five times. He and other youth had enough. Lopez couldn’t vote because of his age, but he decided that he could still do something to help.
“I’m going to talk to my neighbors. I’m going to people in my neighborhood, at church, [to] get them to be informed [about] what is actually going on in school, because many people are just based on the money,” he said. “They don’t hear when it’s students, when it comes to what is going on in school, what is happening.”
After canvassing, calling and knocking on doors, talking to adults at church, Lopez and his classmates were also able to make some breakthroughs in conversations.
“I think parents and adults started to kind of understand, that’s not how you grew up,” he said. “This is how we are growing up right now, and if you want to prevent this, your vote is important.”
Weeks before, a high-profile Washington Post article with the headline “Immigrant kids fill this town’s schools. Their bus driver is leading the backlash” stung the Worthington community, which prompted a response from Kuhle in the Minneapolis Star Tribune that “without immigrants moving to Worthington, we would likely be a community in decline.”
Weeks later, voters approved nearly $34 million in new bonds. A new school is being built where Lopez’s younger sister will be attending as a fifth grader. She won’t experience overcrowding like he did. She was his biggest motivation to get involved.
“Being part of the movement and leading something, it's something that brings joy to me so that my sisters don't actually have to bear and suffer what I actually go through, so that they can have an easier path forward,” he added.
Organizations like Seeds of Justice — a collective born after leaders envisioned supporting leaders of color in the area and empowering leaders of immigrants, refugees and people of color — Voices for Racial Justice, and Unidos MN have been working in the area to meet community needs.
Leaders organized mobile vaccine clinics during the COVID-19 pandemic, helped register people to vote, hosted food drives and answered questions about applying for housing assistance.
Yet, Adyiam Kimbrough of Seeds of Justice, said that getting a person of color elected is still a priority and having someone with voting power is still a necessity.
“At the end of the day, we can do all the organizing that we want, get all the grant funds that we want, but when we actually want to do something big in our community … we can’t do that without the support of our local government,” Kimbrough said. “At the end of the day, we do need folks that understand us and that value the marginalized communities to get things done.”
More than a decade ago, people of color made up one-third of Nobles County residents. Now, they make up nearly half. In Worthington, the county seat, nearly two-thirds of residents identify as people of color.
‘I do want to see a change’
Minnesota’s identity shifted, becoming less white and more diverse over the past decade. About 76 percent of Minnesotans identified as white and non-Hispanic in 2020 compared to 83 percent in the 2010 census. Each county statewide became more diverse during that time, but the fastest changing is Nobles County.
Eugenio Lopez said he loved growing up in Worthington, despite not always feeling like the community reciprocated. While he and his family put down strong roots — his parents became homeowners six years ago after saving up a down payment — there were times in his life when he was reminded that people in Worthington lived very different lives.
In 2006, an immigration raid at JBS Pork Processing struck fear and tension in relationships between community members and their government officials. During the 2016 presidential elections, Lopez also had personal experiences with racism in town when walking off a bus on his way home from school.
“A kid shouted out, ‘When Donald Trump is elected, you and your family are going to be deported!’ And then that night, I just went into my bedroom, I started crying. I was like ‘Why would people do that? Why would they say that?’ And also my sister during the election of 2020, she also had to go through that same thing. A Caucasian student said to her, ‘Why are you and your people here? You should go back to your country.’”
Lopez wants it to be better, but to be better Worthington needs to have someone who can represent everyone’s voices. Not all of them have been heard yet.
“Actually having a voice in there, I think it’s completely important,” he said. “Because, just to have one group of people making a decision, or shutting off another group who don’t have any decisions at all or they don’t care about them, it’s just benefiting yourself, but not for other people.”
Lopez plans to attend Minnesota West Community and Technical College in the fall and eventually go for his political science degree at a four-year school. But after, he still plans to come back to Worthington and run for office.
“I’ve always called Worthington my home,” he said. “I’ve always put my dedication, hard effort in this town, and I do want to see a change.”
Correction (March 21, 2022): Worthington's new school will serve grades 3-5. An earlier version of this story had described it as a middle school. The story's also been updated to note Cheniqua Johnson lost her Minnesota House election bid in 2018.