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Minnesotanos: Latino journeys in Minnesota

By far the largest and most established group of Latino Minnesotans is of Mexican heritage (70%). The next largest groups are from Puerto Rico (about 4.3%).

Mexican American migrant farm workers harvesting asparagus near Owatonna, circa 1955.
Mexican American migrant farm workers harvesting asparagus near Owatonna, circa 1955.
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

Most of the earliest Minnesotanos were migrant farm workers from Mexico or Texas and faced obstacles to first-class citizenship that are still being addressed.

To overcome these obstacles, Latinos built institutions—from churches to unions to arts collectives to service organizations like CLUES (Comunidades Latinas Unidas en Servicio) and the LEDC (the Latino Economic Development Center) — designed to create spaces for survival and organizing for first-class citizenship. The spread and success of these institutions have allowed for consequential organizing by Latinos for a visible and powerful place in Minnesota.

Who are Latino and Latina Minnesotans? They are people with roots in Latin America — from many nations and with different experiences — who came to form an identity shaped by migrations, immigration, and struggles for first-class citizenship. Latino is a contested term and is best understood as an ongoing negotiation among the different groups that claim it.

Since about one-third of the United States was once part of Mexico, many Latinos can trace their U.S. citizenship back to 1848, some 10 years before Minnesota became a state. With the exception of Puerto Ricans, who are U.S. citizens by birth, there is considerable diversity of citizenship within all the other national groups that make up the category.

In 2013, about 60% of Latinos in Minnesota were born in the United States. Indeed, many Latino families have within them people with different immigration status. Differences in religion, language, gender, sexuality, race and class make Minnesota’s Latinos a rich and complex community. By far the largest and most established group of Latino Minnesotans is of Mexican heritage (70%). The next largest groups are from Puerto Rico (about 4.3%), Ecuador and El Salvador (2.9%each) and Guatemala (2.7%).

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Work, immigration, and migration

Like most migrants, Latinos moved to Minnesota looking for work. Historian Dionicio Valdés noted in 2005 that Mexicans in Minnesota have been largely working-class people. Though they came searching for a better life, only a few found one and stayed; the vast majority moved on and kept looking. What was true for Mexicans has been true for most other Latinos as well.

Believed to be the first Latinos to make a permanent home in Minnesota was a musician, Luis Garzón. While touring with a Mexican orchestra in 1886, he fell ill in Minneapolis. After recovering, he fell in love with a Minnesota woman and they made their life together in Minneapolis.

Garzón’s case proved unique. Most Latinos arrived to work in the state’s extractive economies — especially agriculture, food processing, and transportation. More recently, they have worked in construction. Displaced by the Mexican Revolution (1910–1920) and later by poverty and instability, Latinos were pulled to the U.S. by the promise of seasonal jobs and eventually permanent employment. Latinos moved to Minnesota haltingly at first. After 1990, their numbers increased.

The sugar beet industry drove the initial Latino migration to Minnesota. During the early 20th century, beet growers recruited Mexican and Tejano workers (betabeleros) to migrate north out of Texas and Mexico. Once in the United States, they helped with cultivation and harvest. With little paid work in the winter and facing considerable discrimination, most of them returned south every year.

Historian Jim Norris wrote in 2009 of one immigrant’s experience bringing his family across the border. He had to pay an $8 head tax for each of his family members. They endured being weighed, measured, washed like cattle and photographed. After receiving a receipt for the head tax, they were allowed to cross the border. In this manner, more than 200,000 Mexicans, some of whom ventured north to Minnesota, legally entered the United States between 1920 and 1930.

Men, women, and children alike did the hard work in the beet fields. It required working on one’s hands and knees when thinning the plants; bending over with a short-handled hoe when weeding; and stooping to harvest the four- to eight-pound beets by hand. All of this labor took place in the unpredictable Minnesota weather and in the company of mosquitoes.

By 1928, more than 7,000 Mexican workers labored in the beet fields of Minnesota every year. Shortly after that, beet growers and American Crystal Sugar — a significant employer of Latinos — began to keep the migrant workers closer to Minnesota in order to save money and create a regular supply of labor. Soon, colonies of Mexican migrants established themselves in St. Paul and Minneapolis. There, they found substandard housing, limited work, and unfriendly locals.

Some men found work at meat-packing plants in South St. Paul or on the railroad lines in Inver Grove Heights and Minneapolis. Most women could only find jobs as domestic help. Between 1930 and 1960, Mexican workers in the United States suffered forced deportations (repatriation), once during the Great Depression due to a glut of workers and again in the 1950s to deport undocumented immigrants. There is evidence that this impacted some Mexican residents in St. Paul. During World War II, the Bracero Program — a form of government-sponsored contract labor from Mexico — reversed the trend, but forced deportations began again after the war.

After 1990, the Hispanic population in Minnesota rose from nearly 53,000 to more than 270,000. (Hispanic is a Census category, which includes Latinos as defined above and people from Spain.) As in the past, migration was tied to work. But while migrant farm work drove the early comers, food processing, manufacturing, service sector work, and construction attracted more recent Latino migrants to Minnesota.

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By the 1990s, the Latino community of Minneapolis began to grow rapidly. Soon, it surpassed that of St Paul. Urban churches and commercial districts were transformed by the growing numbers of Latinos. This also happened in many rural places, such as Worthington, Willmar, Pelican Rapids, St. James, Le Center and Madelia. In those communities, Latino families helped reinvigorate towns and schools.

In the 2010s, Minnesota features large clusters of Latino families near meat- and poultry-packing facilities. More recent migrants are entrepreneurial and have started businesses all over the state. And though the vast bulk of Latinos remain working class, there are increasing numbers who have advanced degrees. They work in business, the law, government, nonprofits, education, the media, the arts, and healthcare.

Institution building and culture

Once Latinos began settling in Minnesota, they established institutions that helped them survive. In the process, they transformed the state. Among the earliest were five West Side St. Paul organizations founded by Mexicans: Luis Garzón’s grocery store, the Anáhuac Mutual Benefit and Recreation Society (Sociedad Mutua Benéficia Recreativa Anáhuac), Our Lady of Guadalupe Mission, the Guadalupanas, and the Congregation of the Sacred Heart.

Established sometime in the early 1920s, Garzón’s “tienda” was a place for people to meet, shop, and speak in their own language. There, they also found foods and other reminders of home. In 1928, the St. Paul Pioneer Press reported that, sooner or later, every Mexican who stayed for any length of time in St. Paul visited the store.

The Anáhuac Society, founded in 1922, provided a safe place for immigrants to gather. It offered advice about the neighborhood, announced employment opportunities, and nurtured the local culture. For dues-paying members, it also provided sickness and funeral benefits.

Eight years later, the Guild of Catholic Women issued a report that led to the founding of the first Mexican mission in Minnesota. In 1931, they celebrated the first Spanish-language mass in the state at Our Lady of Guadalupe. Later that year, a group of West Side women formed the Guadalupanas, a service organization that supported both the church and the local Mexican community. By 1934, the men of the mission founded the Congregation of the Sacred Heart.

Together, these organizations became spaces where Mexican immigrants were not only safe but also surrounded by familiar sights, sounds, smells, and tastes. In a foreign land, they helped foster community amidst the challenges of poverty, isolation, and racial discrimination. There, Latinos could speak their language, dance to familiar music, worship in accustomed ways, purchase ingredients to cook foods from home, and find fellowship with their compatriots (paisanos).

Around the same time, an institution took on an outsized role within the local Latino population. Neighborhood House, a long-established settlement house serving immigrants on St. Paul’s West Side, welcomed newly arrived Latinos. It provided space for the Anáhuac Society and helped the newcomers navigate a strange land. Similar mutual-aid societies created by Mexicans in the early years of the twentieth century are being recreated in twenty-first-century Minnesota by Latino immigrants from Central and South America.

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As these institutions matured, Latino cultural expressions took on a more public face. In 1939, St. Paul witnessed the first of many Fiestas Patrias, holidays that celebrated Mexican Independence. The celebrations included a parade that traveled from the West Side to downtown and back. Its route passed through Harriet Island, where there were musical performances, dance, and traditional foods prepared by the Guadalupanas.

Alphonso de León, Sr., a Mexican migrant from Texas who came to work the beet fields in Minnesota and settled in St. Paul in 1929, remembered celebrating Las Fiestas Patrias so that Mexicans would not forget their native land. More visible manifestations of culture emerged when local people, with their own labor, built Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in the 1930s and rebuilt it in the 1961.

Spanish-language media — radio, print, and television — expanded and led to the growth of a Spanish-language ad business. All of these intuitions and cultural outlets would play a role in the ongoing fight for equal economic opportunity.

Only after stable communities emerged were Latinos able to build institutions of their own. At the same time, they formed meaningful alliances with the majority population that could serve as a necessary foundation in struggles for first-class citizenship.

Struggles for first-class citizenship

During the New Deal, the local labor movement started recruiting Mexican and Tejano workers. Historian Dionicio Valdés has noted that the AFL and the CIO organized the beet workers in St Paul and Minneapolis and quickly convinced most workers in both cities to join the union. This drive sparked hostility among the beet growers and American Crystal Sugar.

In the 1950s, two national organizations began chapters in Minnesota: the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) and the American GI Forum. Both organizations were devoted to uplifting and assisting the local community. Neither was particularly militant, but both connected Minnesotans to larger national movements and contributed to community stability and pride.

The real struggle for equal rights and first-class citizenship coincided with the rise of the Chicano Movement in Minnesota in the 1960s and 1970s and continues in the 21st century. The term “Chicano” has derogatory origins but was appropriated by Brown Power activists in the 1960s and 1970s. It refers to a Mexican American identity and to a movement for social justice and cultural autonomy.

In Minnesota, the Chicano Movement had its origins in the destruction and then rebuilding of the St Paul West Side community. For decades, that city’s Lower West Side, or the Flats, had been the heart of Minnesota’s Mexican community. In the 1960s, the Flats were slated for “urban renewal” and subsequently destroyed. It was during the reconstruction of the West Side community—amid national currents of Latino activism and sparked by the United Farm Worker strikes and a national grape boycott—that the Chicano Movement was born in Minnesota.

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The Chicano Movement took many forms. Brown Berets worked to create safe, drug-free streets on the West Side. Grass roots organizing led to the opening of La Clinica, a community health clinic for those who have difficulty accessing traditional health care, in 1969. Artists painted murals in St Paul streets and alleys that not only beautified Latino neighborhoods but, in their creation and in the stories they told, reinforced pride and insisted on inclusion. Chicano activism led to the creation of Aztec and folkloric dance troops and Latino theater companies that used their art to build community and share stories.

In rural Minnesota, the Chicano activists addressed the challenges faced by farm workers and their families beginning in the late 1960s. In 1997, Centro Campesino was organized in Southeast Minnesota. The group set out to provide an organizing space and basic services for rural Latinos while advocating for better living and working conditions.

Some of the most significant achievements of the Chicano Movement in Minnesota resulted from student activism. This effort led to the creation of the Department of Chicano–Latino Studies at the University of Minnesota (1971) and a minor in Chicano/a studies at St. Cloud State University (1995). Reluctant administrators created these programs and provided increased levels of support services for Latino students, faculty, and staff only after boisterous demonstrations and the occupation of Morrill Hall at the University of Minnesota, as well as a seven-day hunger strike at St. Cloud State University.

In 1977, Conrado “Conrad” Vega became the first Latino to serve in the Minnesota Legislature, where he represented his Dakota County district in the senate until 1986. Edwina Garcia became the first Latina elected to the legislature in 1991 and served her Hennepin County district until 1998. In 1978, the Chicano Latino Affairs Council (renamed the Minnesota Council on Latino Affairs in 2015) was created as an official state agency to advise the governor and the legislature on issues of importance to the Latino community. It is worth noting that, given their small numbers, Puerto Rican Minnesotans have been particularly adept at gaining political office, at the legislative, county, and local levels. The political power of Latinos continues to grow in Minnesota, with men and women serving at all levels of government.

We can understand much about Latino Minnesotans by looking at two organizations: CLUES  and the LEDC.

CLUES emerged in 1977 from the vision of a Latino graduate student who wanted to provide culturally and linguistically appropriate social services for the Latino population of the Twin Cities. At first, CLUES was an association of professional Latinos committed to the community. In 1981, it incorporated and hired an initial staff of four employees committed to bilingual and bicultural service delivery to Latino clients. Since then, CLUES has grown to include over ninety employees earning living wages and six hundred volunteers. It houses the Mexican consulate and provides services for thousands of Minnesotans each year, with offices in St. Paul, Minneapolis, and West St. Paul.

In 1987, CLUES helped to form HACER, a community-based research organization affiliated with Ramsey County, Metropolitan State University, and the University of Minnesota. CLUES provides adult and youth education, a myriad of health care programs, citizenship training, a referral service, and elder housing, among other programs. Since its founding, CLUES has been an essential resource for Latino Minnesotans and for all Minnesotans seeking to understand and engage with Latinos.

Like so much in the Latino community, the LEDC began when a small group of community members formed an institution deeply connected to culture. Sagrado Corazon de Jesus (Sacred Heart of Jesus) Catholic Church in south Minneapolis opened its doors in 1994. The small congregation immediately committed itself to the spiritual, social, and economic development of its community.

With experience, congregants began to focus on economic self-sufficiency as a route out of poverty and toward inclusion. To that end, they began to seek allies and funds to open Mercado Central on Lake Street. The market opened in 1999 and remains a hub of economic and cultural activity for Latinos in Minnesota. In 2003, the LEDC was formed.

In the 2010s, the LEDC has maintained its focus on economic self-sufficiency by assisting entrepreneurial Latinos. Its work has helped dozens of business, from auto repair shops to a tortilla factory, begin and expand. The LEDC also manages a successful scholarship project for Latino students and many endeavors in rural Minnesota. Like the early institution builders on the West Side some seventy years earlier, the LEDC represents progress though community organization and cultural self-knowledge.

Latino workers had a mixed relationship with organized labor until the early 2000s. Progressive elements in the labor movement, led by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU, active in home healthcare, janitorial work, etc.), UNITE-HERE (hotels, restaurants, airports, textiles, etc.), United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) (meatpacking, grocery stores, etc.), and Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en la Lucha (CTUL, an organization of low-wage service sector workers) found willing partners in the Latino community. Together, they struggled for workplace justice, immigration reform, a living wage, and access to drivers’ licenses for undocumented Minnesotans. As the Minnesota working class has become diverse, elements of the labor movement have worked to become more inclusive.

Latino organizing and activism continue in our own time. On April 9, 2006, thirty-five thousand Latinos and their allies gathered at the state capitol to demand comprehensive immigration reform. Organized within the Latino community through word of mouth and utilizing Spanish language media, the rally shocked most Anglo Minnesotans with its size, scope, and degree of organization. The event marked the maturity of Latino political power in the state.

The struggle for immigration reform remains a major issue. Significant organization is being done in the state by student “Dreamers” — Latinos who moved to Minnesota as children without documents and seek to regularize their immigration status and that of their parents. Since 2008, organizations like Mujeres en Liderazgo and Mesa Latina have organized around the state to improve the lives of Latinos. Since 2015, they have been working to gain access to drivers’ licenses for undocumented Minnesotans.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.

MNopedia editor’s note: Words in Spanish are gendered; Latinas are the female equivalents of Latinos. For the sake of simplicity, this essay uses the term Latino or Latinos to refer to both men and women.