Latinos in the Northland: Invisible no more

Rita Garcia was pronouncing her last name wrong, certainly. It couldn't be Gar-SEE-ah, not on the Iron Range in the 1950s. No, had to be GAR-sha. Strangers who liked to pat Rita's long, jet-black hair insisted that she was American Indian, not of...

Rita Garcia was pronouncing her last name wrong, certainly.

It couldn't be Gar-SEE-ah, not on the Iron Range in the 1950s.

No, had to be GAR-sha. Strangers who liked to pat Rita's long, jet-black hair insisted that she was American Indian, not of Mexican heritage. Latinos just didn't live in northern Minnesota in those days.

Actually, they did. But until recently, greater Minnesota's Latino population was so small it was almost invisible. Today, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, Minnesota has one of the fastest-growing Latino populations in the country.

Many, like Garcia's father, came to Minnesota looking for a job. Some, also like Garcia's family, stayed to build a life.


According to the most recent estimates from the Minnesota Census Bureau, in 2005 there were 2,769 Latinos living in the seven counties of Northeastern Minnesota, including 1,732 in St. Louis County. In the seven-county area, the Latino population has increased 15 percent since 2000, even as the total population in those counties inched up only slightly or even decreased.

Many Latinos are drawn to Minnesota's agriculture and food-processing plants, said Rogelio Muñoz, executive director of the state Latino-Chicano Affairs Council, but those jobs are concentrated in the southern and central parts of the state.

Anecdotally, "we know that large proportions of the landscaping industry and roofing industry are Latino," said Barbara Ronningen, a state demographer. Other employment sectors filled in large numbers by Latinos are food services and the hotel and hospitality industries, according to a report by the Minneapolis Foundation, a statewide center for philanthropy. "Many of these industries are reliant on the state's growing Latino workforce," the report said.

But without a large supply of those kinds of jobs -- and jobs where strong English skills aren't required -- Latinos are drawn to Duluth and Northeastern Minnesota for a wide variety of reasons.

Monica Palen, a naturalized citizen who lived in San Diego, gave up a successful dental practice in Tijuana, Mexico, to settle in Twig with her husband, a native of the area. Tere Dawson left Peru in 1973 for an education and stayed in Duluth to raise her family and pursue her career. Carlos McDonald filled a Duluth company's need for an electrical engineer just days after he moved to Duluth from Costa Rica in 2006, though today he is frustrated with the U.S. immigration system.

"Starting in the 1990s, we began to see really large numbers" of Latinos showing up in census counts, Ronningen said.

That's no surprise to Susana Pelayo-Woodward, who grew up in Mexico City and moved to Minnesota in 1983.

When she first arrived, she thought she was the only person of Mexican heritage in the area.


"The community [Duluth] could be pretty lonely," said Pelayo-Woodward, now the director of the University of Minnesota Duluth's Hispanic/Latino/Chicana Learning Resource Center. When people heard her accent, they would ask: "What are you doing in Duluth?" For years, Pelayo-Woodward felt as through she knew or at least knew of every local Latino. But more recently, she began hearing about people shedidn't already know.

Today, Pelayo-Woodward regularly gathers with a local group of women from different parts of Latin America who went through those lonely times in Duluth. When they get together at each other's homes, the kitchen overflows with chatter in Spanish, savory foods and fellowship.

Some local companies are looking to take advantage of the increase in local minority populations, including Latinos.

"Our organization has recognized these trends over the last five or six years, in particular," said Sandy O'Leary, workforce development specialist with SMDC Health System.

Given Northeastern Minnesota's aging workforce and general population, coupled with more demand for health-care services, "we're trying to encourage people into health-care careers and are reaching out to less-than-traditional labor pools," including the Latino and American Indian populations, O'Leary said. "We're looking at them as a recruitment potential."

Strategies include working with community groups to help potential employees find housing and child care and, recently, providing up-front tuition for employees pursuing critical professions such as nursing and physical therapy.

target of racism

People in touch with the local Latino population say it's a group that is still the target of racism and stereotypes.


"In Minnesota, the majority of Latinos are U.S. citizens, or U.S.-born," Ronningen said. "A lot of people don't recognize that. They get the perception that everyone is undocumented."

In 2000, the most recent estimate available, the Hispanic Advocacy and Community Empowerment through Research organization estimated there were between 18,000 and 48,000 undocumented Hispanic workers in Minnesota, out of a population of about 143,000.

That's perhaps the most common stereotype about Latinos, but Katerina Livadaros encounters others even from children in the Duluth school district. Livadaros is a specialist at the Adelante Cultural Center, one of four cultural centers in the Duluth Public Schools. Adelante means "coming together" in Spanish, and the center reaches several thousand students each year.

"We try to teach kids about stereotypes," Livadaros said. "Not every Latino drives a lowrider and wears a wifebeater, or wears a sombrero and rides a donkey."

That can be a hard lesson, especially when popular culture figures like comedian George Lopez like to riff off those notions, she said. Instead, Livadaros points out that kids from each culture tend to do the same things, just in a little different way. Kids in Minnesota and kids in Mexico both like to play soccer, for example -- only here, you'd probably join a soccer team, and in Mexico, you'd get together in an empty lot for a pick-up game.

Still, racism against Latinos is "very alive in this community," Pelayo-Woodward said. "It's very subtle, but I do find it."

The memory of how schoolchildren flung the worst of racial slurs at her stings Garcia even today, decades later.

"In the sixth grade, I was being constantly derided because of my ethnicity," said Garcia, who today lives in Stillwater and runs a company that provides professional services for small nonprofit agencies, with a focus on the Latino community.

She doesn't believe that would happen today, at least not as explicitly. Instead, she finds that young people believe all Latinos are poor, "because that's what they see on television or read in the newspapers."

left dangling

Among adults, a different sort of suspicion has emerged.

"Right now, everyone assumes that if you have a Hispanic surname, you are an illegal immigrant, unless you prove otherwise," Garcia said. "This whole immigration discussion has caused that to happen."

McDonald, 42, and his family are feeling the effects of that ongoing discussion. He and his family moved to Duluth from Escazu, Costa Rica, last year to be nearer to McDonald's sister. He responded to a want ad for an electrical engineer and was hired a week after he arrived in the United States.

Only one problem -- McDonald had only a visitor's visa, not the citizenship papers that would allow him to legally work in the United States. His company officially contracted for his services from another company in Costa Rica, and they sent his paychecks to an account there.

McDonald's wife is a permanent resident, but his and his daughter's citizenship status were in limbo as he waited for their immigration papers to be processed. They had already waited two years -- long before they moved -- and McDonald has heard he might need to wait three more years. He is angry about that.

"My complaint is the uncertainty," McDonald said.

If the government doesn't want to accept him as a citizen, fine, he said. But hedoesn't want to be dangling for five years while he waits to find out. Meanwhile, McDonald and his family returned to Costa Rica about every six months so his visa didn't expire.

This month, McDonald's luck ran out. Immigration officials denied his and his daughter's visas as they tried to return to Minnesota. They stayed behind in Costa Rica while McDonald's wife finished the trip. For the past week, she has scrambled to sell their possessions, cancel subscriptions and prepare to move back to Costa Rica, where everyone will wait to see what happens with their immigration papers.

"It's a secret that everyone knows about, but everyone denies," McDonald said. "There's a need for labor. If there was no need, there would be no immigration."

Muñoz expects the strong growth in Minnesota's Latino population to continue.

"Minnesota is one of those states that cares about people," Muñoz said. "There's no other state that talks about discrimination like Minnesota, and the quality of life is great here, too."

Yet, to those not used to the winter weather and the culture of northern Minnesota, the shock of moving and adjusting to the area -- even if it comes with more economic security -- can be severe.

"Latinos are very resilient and quick to integrate," Muñoz said. "If they cannot integrate, they can't survive here."

JANNA GOERDT covers the communities surrounding Duluth. She can be reached weekdays at (218) 279-5527 or by e-mail at jgoerdt@

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