Being Latino in Minnesota

St. Paul, Minnesota, USA — Event goers head home, passing one of the many murals in the District del Sol, a neighborhood located on St. Paul’s West Side. (MPR Photo/Nikki Tundel)

Chicano, Latin@, Mestizo, Boriqua, American, Sudaca, Xicana. Mom, entrepreneur, community builder, multilingual, student, adventurer, optimist.

We’ve been asking Latinos around the state to tell us how they identify themselves and these are just some of the words they’ve chosen.

According to the Census, Hispanics are the fastest growing group in the United States and in Minnesota. MPR News wants to paint a portrait of this incredibly diverse group.

We’ve already heard from people from all over the state and we plan to present their stories online next month (and it’s not too late to share your story here). But until then, here’s an introduction to just a few of the people who have shared their stories with us.

Among other questions, we asked Latinos in Minnesota to pick five words they use to describe their identity.

(Photo courtesy of Joe LaTorre)

Joe Latorre, Coon Rapids
Five words: Colombian, Norwegian, Minnesooootan, Latino, American

“I’m just like any other Minnesotan of our past…we all came from immigrant families with strange customs and manners yet we all eventually learned to love the Twins and Vikings, to complain about the weather, to long for our lake cabins, and to embrace the concept of Minnesota Nice with all our diverse neighbors,” Joe Latorre writes. “100 years from now I believe we’ll view our Riverside Somali, East Side Hmong and South Side Latino roots as much a part of Minnesota as our New Ulm Germans and Iron Range Scandinavians of the past.”

Latorre grew up in Coon Rapids in the 1980s and ’90s and didn’t know much about his Colombian heritage. His father came to the United States from Colombia in the 1960s as a student, eventually marrying Joe’s Minnesotan mother. But Joe, who was born in Minnesota, didn’t speak Spanish and didn’t visit his father’s homeland while growing up. He spent a year in the country recently to explore his Colombian roots and is now connected with other Colombians in Minnesota and even joined a Colombian folkloric dance group. He’s also applying for a visa for his fiancé whom he met in Colombia during his visit.

When asked about his background Latorre said he considers himself, “Half Colombian, half Norwegian. I get weird looks after that and it’s a great conversation starter, which I start by saying “Yeah, for Christmas our family makes tamales and lefse!”

 

Patricia Perez-Jenkins, Woodbury
Five words: Latina, woman, attorney, strong and independent, child of immigrants

Patricia Perez-Jenkins was born in the U.S.  and has lived in Minnesota for 10 years. Her parents came to the United States from Mexico without a visa in the ’70s and were beneficiaries of the 1986 amnesty. She thinks Latina is the best word to describe her background. “I am too Mexican to be considered white American and I am too American to be considered Mexican,” she writes. “‘Latina’ is a way to keep that in mind. It is a word that unites us and put us in the middle.”

Perez-Jenkins still feels a separation between herself and white Minnesotans.  “I am an attorney and as so many other minorities have experienced, I have been confused for the client, the interpreter, anything but what I am, the professional,” she writes. “I would note that racism and discrimination have gone underground but we still notice it. It has become more subtle, said with a smile, and presumes to be innocent mistake. It doesn’t feel innocent to us who experience it and it makes us feel more divided than anything else.”

(Photo courtesy of Marco Gutierrez)

Marco Gutierrez, Maple Grove
Five words: Dad, husband, Costa-Rican-almost-American, supply chain professional, Michigan MBA, industrial engineer

Marco Gutierrez is from Costa Rica, though he spent almost five years in the United States as a child while his father completed his PhD. Following in his father’s footsteps, he came back to the U.S. with his wife when he was 28 to earn his graduate degree. They are now Minnesotans with a nearly six year-old daughter and this has changed the way he sees himself.

“When I lived in Costa Rica I didn’t define my ethnicity at all,”  writes Gutierrez. “Since living in the U.S. I’ve gotten used to the question, but it’s hard for me to answer because the choices I’m given on standard forms don’t mean much to me.”

Gutierrez feels himself navigating between two worlds. “From a cultural standpoint I’ve always felt half-American and half-Costa Rican. Therefore, depending on who I’m with or the situation I tend to identify more with one or the other side of me,” he writes. “Before our daughter was born my feelings of living in two worlds weren’t as strong. However, now they are very strong. I want to make sure she knows her heritage. I want her to feel proud of that. And if we ever move back to Costa Rica, I also want to make sure she knows she came from Minnesota.”

(Photo courtesy of Francisco Gonzalez)

 

Francisco Gonzalez, Cottage Grove
Five words: Spanish, Taino Indian, Yoruba African, Puerto Rican. My ancestry reflects the rich diversity of Latin America.

The way Francisco Gonzalez sees his ethnicity has changed over time. “Growing up in the racially-mixed but largely culturally homogenous Puerto Rico, I had never thought of terms of race or ethnicity,” Gonzalez writes. “On the island, if you were born/raised there and shared the culture, then you are simply ‘Puerto Rican.’ I heard the term ‘Hispanic’ applied to me for the very first time in 1988, when I first moved to Minnesota. I found it interesting that people from the majority culture would lump together Mexican immigrants and Puerto Ricans (who are U.S. citizens) when talking about so-called ‘illegal immigration!’ I like the phrase La Raza Cosmica (the Cosmic Race), [a] term coined by the Mexican writer José Vasconcelos, to refer to the peoples of Latin America, recognizing that many races and cultures are blended together to create modern-day Latinos.”

 

(Photo courtesy of Elena Favela)

Elena Favela, International Falls
Five words: Latina, lesbian, professional, student, aunt

Elena Favela’s family has lived in south Texas for generations, back to when it was still part of Mexico. She has been in Minnesota for about three years and is the dean of a community college. She finds that people in Minnesota do not quite know how to react her.

“Many times, people cannot guess what my ethnicity is, so if they are brave enough, or if we have established rapport, they will ask me,” Favela writes, “People will assume I am not white because I have dark features, but I’m tall – about six feet in heels. People generally do not associate height with Mexican. Once we’ve established my ethnicity, they will begin to ask if I know how to make tortillas, or chalupas. I’m actually not a very good cook in general. One time a co-worker asked me to be a translator for a Spanish-speaking student, but I am not fluent in Spanish. Another time, a former boss was praising me for being a “self-made woman”. He assumed because I am Latina, I grew up poor, was a first-generation college student, etc.  I feel as though I disappoint people because I don’t quite fit into their ideas of who or what I should be once they know my ethnicity.”

Look for more stories of the Latino experience in Minnesota next month. In the meantime, you can share your experiences here.