Minnesota Immigrants: Immigrant Experiences

Work

Once Minnesota's immigrants arrived here, they had to find work. Sometimes they came with a job opportunity already lined up. Other times, the immigrants found whatever work they could do to survive.

Immigrants have contributed in meaningful ways to various industries across the state. Here are some of the most prominent examples of where they have worked.

Farms

Many immigrants came to Minnesota from areas in the world where there was no land available for them to farm. So when Minnesota's rich land opened up, thousands of people moved in for the chance to farm their own property. These immigrants—men, women, and entire families—cleared the forests, broke the land with plows, and cultivated all sorts of food. They grew food for themselves as well as food to sell as a cash crop, including wheat, dairy products, and sugar beets.

Like many Mexican migrant workers, Romaldo Jimenez worked seasonally in Minnesota, harvesting crops like beets in the summer, and moving other places during the winter when the harvesting was done. Mr. Jimenez eventually rented land in Minnesota to farm to make a living for his family. Although he always intended to return to Mexico, he raised 13 children in Minnesota, so he decided to stay here for them.

We were still working the beet fields, but I didn't like the work at all. Beet work is the hardest work the Mexican can get. I was looking for an opportunity to work on my own farm, and I found it.

– Romaldo Jimenez

Interview with Romaldo Jimenez, 1976


Logging

Another industry that depended on the labor of immigrants was the lumber industry. Loggers were often young single men, immigrants and migrants alike, who took advantage of the stable work and reliable income they could get through turning trees into lumber. Logging companies also worked together with transportation industries and helped clear the land for farming.


Mining

Once deposits of iron ore were discovered in northern Minnesota, dozens of mining companies started building underground and open pit mines to get it out. Iron ore open pit and underground mines needed A LOT of laborers to operate effectively. In response, immigrants streamed into the area, populating many brand-new towns in what became known as the Iron Range.

To improve their living conditions, Frank Muvich's parents left Yugoslavia to find jobs in America. Frank's father initially worked as a stevedore on the Great Lakes in Michigan, but the work was so hard he eventually came to Ely and worked at the Chandler underground mine.

Everything was by hand back in the old days. There was no machinery. Everything was pick and shovel and sledgehammer and bar and dynamite. And there was no such thing as machinery. They had carts that they would push by hand.

– Frank Muvich

Interview with Frank Muvich, 1983


Railroads

The railroad industry also relied heavily on the labor of immigrants. Sometimes railroads contracted directly with workers to lay track and repair trains. As the railroad lines became more established, immigrants could also work service jobs on the trains or as technically skilled mechanics.

Born in Mexico in 1922, Carlos Urvina came to the United States under a contract to lay railroad tracks. Once here, he also worked for a streetcar company and as an iron and metal worker. He met his wife Marcelina, who had worked in the beet fields and at the Green Giant Co., in Minnesota. His interview about his life and work (below) was conducted in Spanish with an English translation.

Interview with Carlos and Marcelina R. Urvina, 1975


Stores and Businesses

To support the growing communities of Minnesota, other immigrants opened stores to provide goods and services to others. They operated many different types of businesses, from general stores and grocery stores to shops that specialized in certain skills like blacksmiths and tailors.

Adeline Fremland's father Maurice Tendser was a Russian immigrant who came to Minnesota through Canada in the late 1800s. He first came to St. Paul and worked as a traveling peddler. He then decided to settle in Mankato, where he set up a store and helped other immigrants do the same in their communities.

Interview with Adeline Fremland, 1978


Factories and Industry

Minnesota's growing factories also relied on the skilled and unskilled labor of immigrants. Immigrants both built and operated machinery at factories throughout the state that contributed to Minnesota's industrial growth.

Certain factories in the clothing industry even offered women employment at a time when they were not allowed to do many other jobs. Specialized food-related industries like meat packing and sugar factories also became major employers of immigrants.

In 1927, Jesus Mendez and his family were contracted to work in the beet fields for a sugar company in East Grand Forks, Minn. The sugar factory paid for their transportation and set up a "sort of colony" for workers who wanted to stay for the winter. If they stayed, they would get a better price the following year.

Interview with Jesus and Ramona Mendez, 1976


Working Women

Female immigrants frequently found work in service jobs. Many became cooks and housemaids in the homes of wealthy Minnesotans. Others served the public as waitresses, nurses, and teachers. Often these young women were trying to earn some money until they found someone to marry and settle down with.

Some girls in those days worked out for one-dollar-fifty cents per week and one had to work very hard to get three dollars per week wages. A girl just had enough for a few clothes. And practically all the girls married. They wanted homes, and grew tired of getting up at four o'clock in the morning.

– Emelia Bloomquist

Senja Maki came to Minnesota with her mother in 1892 when she was four years old. At the age of sixteen, she moved to Ely to earn money for herself because she did not have any. Her first job was waiting tables at the Vale Hotel, and then she worked for a store, as a maid, and then another hotel before she got married.

Interview with Senja Maki, 1983


Restaurants, Bakeries, and Saloons

Minnesota's immigrants owned and operated grocery stores, saloons, cafes, and restaurants within their immigrant communities and beyond. They brought food and beverages to the people working other types of jobs. Some of these food-related businesses made food and drinks based on familiar recipes from their homelands. Others introduced new flavors and food specialties, like Chow Mein, to customers unfamiliar with them.


Religious Service

Not all immigrants came to Minnesota to work as blue-collar laborers. In Minnesota's early years, several immigrants came to Minnesota for religious purposes. Missionaries, priests, nuns and others were called or volunteered for religious service in the new state, often to meet the needs of recent immigrants. They built new churches, cathedrals, and convents to serve their communities.

Religious work by and for immigrants has continued in more recent years. Rev. J. Pablo Obregon came from Peru to study at Luther Seminary and became a pastor in Willmar, Minnesota. In this interview, he talks about how he came to live and work in Willmar and how he has ministered to the people in his community.

Interview with Rev. J. Pablo Obregon, 2009


Science and Medicine

As Minnesota developed its reputation as a hub for science, engineering, and medicine in the 20th century, many immigrants have come here to work in those industries. These immigrants often came to the United States as college and university students, and then they found jobs in their fields in Minnesota and decided to stay here.

Jagadish Desai came to the United States in 1959 to study chemical engineering. Initially he struggled to find work as a chemical engineer because in the 1960s, jobs in that field required people to be citizens, and he only had his student visa. He moved to Minnesota in 1962 and finally found work at Gould-National Batteries.

Interview with Jagadish Desai, 2003

After studying medicine in China, Germany, and Japan, Dr. Bingkun Chen started as a post-doctoral research fellow at the Mayo Clinic in 1999. He also received his MBA from the University of Minnesota and became a supervisor of seven research labs.

Interview with Dr. Bingkun K. Chen, 2012


To learn more about how Minnesota's immigrants made a place for their families here, click on the page links below.