Language and Art
When immigrants came to Minnesota, most did not know English, or at least they did not speak it fluently. They would speak their first languages at home and within their community groups, and they would also print materials in these languages to circulate among themselves.
As these immigrants—and especially their children—began to assimilate more into American society, they started losing the ability to communicate in their original languages. While many saw the benefits of speaking English in their new homes, others mourned the loss of their traditional languages and began working to preserve them.
Since many immigrants originally lived in communities with others who shared their heritage, they printed books, newspapers, and other materials in their first language. Churches held services in Swedish, German, Norwegian, and other languages using hymn books and prayer books also printed in those languages. Reading words in languages they were familiar with helped these immigrants learn more about their new homes and stay up-to-date on relevant news they might otherwise have missed.
- Handbuechlein: Gebete und Gebraueche fuer die Schwestern des heiligen Benediktus, nebst Anwe...
- Svenska Amerikanska Posten press room, Minneapolis, Minnesota
- Svenska Amerikanska Posten, full page advertisement, Minneapolis, Minnesota
- Petition from the Polish residents of the city to the Winona Public Library, Winona, Minnesota
- Petition from the Bohemian residents of the city to the Winona Public Library, Winona, Minne...
More recent immigrant groups and cultural organizations also develop printed materials in the language of their immigrant and refugee communities. The Hmong-language books at the Hmong Cultural Center tell important stories about Hmong history, culture, and people.
Minnesota's most recent refugee group, the Karen people from Myanmar, also preserve their history and culture through written materials. Karen authors and illustrators in Minnesota have created several books in their language for their people. One of these is called Elephany Huggy, which was published for young readers in 2015 and is written in both Karen and English.
Spoken language is also an important part of cultural heritage. When people stop communicating in a culture's original language, they also lose the ability to fully understand that culture. Written and spoken words help people pass down values and traditions from one generation to the next. Even though Minnesota's immigrants have learned to speak English and live in American culture, many also work hard to preserve the language of their ancestors so this cultural knowledge can continue.
Preserving the first language of immigrants is not only culturally important, it can also help them thrive in Minnesota. Some organizations have formed to support the educational and social needs of people who do not speak English. One of these was the Spanish Speaking Cultural Club, which Diana Villarreal helped form in 1971.
The purpose of the Club is to meet the cultural, social and educational needs of the Spanish speaking communities. Just because we call it the Spanish Speaking Cultural Club, doesn't mean that only Mexicans can join the club. We have people from El Salvador and Brazil. We also have Anglos who are interested in maintaining the Spanish language, and who are very sensitive to the needs of the Spanish speaking people, who have joined the Club. The Club has become very involved in issues that affect the education of Mexican Americans.
Interview with Diana Villarreal, 1976
The School of Indian Language and Culture (SILC) was formed by the Indian American community of Minnesota to teach children the languages and customs of India. Aparna Ramaswamy attended classes at SILC as a child. In addition to studying language, she also learned a lot about Indian history and politics and made friends within her community.
Q: Did you ever attend SILC, the School of Indian Language and Culture?
A: Yes, I went for years. I went from second grade to seventh grade or something like that, and I loved it. It was such a great social situation to meet all your friends and everything. I studied Tamil. Because I left every year, with Tamil I always start--because I can't read and write it. I can speak and I understand. I can't read and write. So I'd always had to start over from the beginning. I'd come back and I wouldn't remember anything and so it would end and I'd come back and start over again. Something I didn’t get very far with. But I loved the general knowledge class. I loved Indian history and politics and some of the discussions that we had there.
Interview with Aparna Ramaswamy, 1997
Somali teacher Abdisalam Adam was concerned about the need to preserve the Somali language in his community. His interview highlights the conflict many immigrants have felt with their need to fit in to their new home while at the same time preserving the culture and traditions of their old home, especially their language.
In addition to the intangible pieces of cultural heritage like music and language, immigrants also brought physical artworks with them to Minnesota, as well as the knowledge of how to make the art. Traditional artists use their art to tell the stories of their people, their homelands, and their culture. Some teach others how to create traditional art through classes at cultural organizations so the knowledge is not lost.
- Maud Water's weaving class, American Swedish Institute, Minneapolis, Minnesota
- Xiong Lee at Unity Church Unitarian, St. Paul, Minnesota
- Dala painting, American Swedish Institute, Minneapolis, Minnesota
- Hmong needlework, Unity Church Unitarian, St. Paul, Minnesota
- Wycinanki with Doves and Flowers, Winona, Minnesota
To explore more how immigrant culture is preserved on holidays and by heritage organizations, use the page links below.