People who originally come from Latin America are often called Hispanics or Latinos. But these universal terms disguise the fact that they come from many different places and have diverse backgrounds, religions, races, genders, and classes. Many people of Latin American descent choose to identify themselves first based on their home country or region before using the terms "Latino/Latina/Latinx" or "Hispanic."
By far the largest group of Latinos in Minnesota have Mexican heritage. Others have joined them from Puerto Rico, Ecuado, El Salvador, and Guatemala, among other Central and South American countries.
The first sizable group of Latino immigrants to Minnesota came from Mexico in the early 1900s. Many of them came as seasonal workers who harvested beets for sugar factories before moving on for other seasonal field work. Some of these migrant workers decided to stay in Minnesota and become permanent residents. They provided labor not only in the agricultural fields of the state, but also for the railroads and in sugar and meat packing factories.
Alfonso de Leon came to the United States in 1918 and originally settled in Texas. He and his family worked in beet fields in Wyoming, Colorado, Iowa, and Minnesota in the 1920s before moving to Minnesota for good in 1929.
The de Leon family was planning to return to Texas and continue working in the beet fields after the 1929 season, but Alfonso's son Vicente broke his leg and they were forced to stay until it healed.
My compadre Angel Medina told me, "Stay, because then the child can get better and you can establish yourself here. I am sure you'll find a job here." Jobs were scarce in 1929. By then there were a lot of Mexican families here, not as many as there is now, but there were many.– Alfonso de Leon
Like other Mexican migrant workers, he eventually found steady work at the Armour Packing House and made his home in St. Paul's West Side neighborhood.
Learn more about his story here: Interview with Alfonso de Leon, 1975.
Later Mexican Immigrants
Other immigrants came to Minnesota from Mexico—especially in the second half of the 20th century—for different types of jobs. Rather than working low-income jobs in agriculture and industry, these later Mexican immigrants were religious leaders, business professionals, and students looking for better opportunities. They often challenged Minnesotans' stereotypes of Latinos as poor migrant workers.
Sister Matilda Mejia, also known as Sister Marta, came to Winona as a Lasallian Sister of Guadalupe in 1955. She was assigned to live and work at St. Mary's College with other religious leaders. In her interview, conducted in Spanish, she spoke about her family history in Mexico, her religious work, and her life in Winona.
Interview with Matilda Mejia (Sister Marta), 1976
Born in Mexico, Hector Garcia graduated with a business administration degree from the Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México. He moved to Minnesota in 1976 and worked in a variety of businesses, including his own consulting company. As an educated Mexican-American businessman, he also worked as an executive for non-profit and government organizations advocating for Latino communities, like the Spanish Speaking Affairs Council and the National Conference for Community and Justice.
In his interview, he spoke about his life and work as well as the changes in the Latino community and its reception in Minnesota from the 1970s to today.
I think here there was more of a curiosity as to why I filled executive positions and did relatively well. That was not the kind of Latino that they were used to at the time, whereas, now, it's very common. Now you find Latino executives like yourself and many others in the top corporations.– Hector Garcia
Interview with Hector Garcia, 2011
Other groups of Spanish-speaking immigrants came from areas outside of Mexico, especially the countries of Central America. While these people also came for better opportunities, many of them were escaping the violence and poverty of civil wars happening in their home countries.
Emiliano Chagil was born in Guatemala and grew up in a small Mayan mountain community in the 1960s. He earned a bachelor's degree and an engineering degree in Guatemala City but left the country in 1980 because of the civil war. He got a visa to study agriculture in Minnesota for a year, and always intended to return to help his people and his family back home. But the Civil War in Guatemala kept raging and it was not safe for him to return, so he kept extending his visa.
He began working with the University of Minnesota and found a community of similar people there from Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala who were also in a kind of exile here. At one point in his career, Chagil worked in refugee resettlement for Catholic Charities. He spoke about the different groups of Latino refugees he helped who also fled civil war:
Mario Duarte also fled Central America due to Civil War and unrest. He was born in El Salvador, attended university, worked for several corporations, and raised a family there before leaving in 1982. Duarte and his family escaped to the United States and settled in Minnesota because they had family here already.
As a communication director for Centro Cultural Chicano and the founder of La Prensa, a Spanish-language newspaper, Duarte met people from many different Latino communities in Minnesota. Despite their differences, Duarte believed they should be able to find a way to work together.
All together, we can make a better world in the future, not only for the Latinos, but for the community in general. We need that. Again, we have to start with ourselves - who we are, and then you can share with the rest of the people who you are, and you’re going to get the support not only from the Latinos, but from the rest of the community.– Mario Duarte
Interview with Mario Duarte, 2010
Learn more about refugees to Minnesota using the page link below.
For more information about this exhibit and the others in this series, use the "About" page link.