(MPR photo/Chris Welsch)
The classroom at the Long Prairie-Grey Eagle High School smells of French toast and syrup. It’s Thursday morning and a group of Latino women and their young children have just finished a breakfast designed to improve their English skills.
The class is taught by Anne Villalobos, who was born in Sauk Centre and learned Spanish when she was a Greyhound bus driving instructor in Texas. She uses fixtures of everyday American life – grocery store ads, a recipe for French toast – as learning tools.
“They say, ‘This is what I need to know,’” says Villalobos. “I’m very honored to do this work.”
There are approximately 1,000 Latinos in Todd County, mainly in and around Long Prairie. The city now has two Mexican groceries, a clothing store, and a bakery. Half the younger students at school are Latino.
And yet, the white and Latino communities remain largely separate, in part because many residents literally can’t speak to each other.
“The biggest problem is communicating,” says Martha Orozco, who arrived from Michoacán, Mexico in 1996. She has four kids, all of whom were born in Long Prairie and attend the local school. “I love living in this town,” she says. “It’s a very tranquil place. It’s good to raise kids.”
Orozco describes her arrival in Minnesota, which was during winter, in enchanted terms. “There was a lot of snow,” she says. “When I saw the trees, they were so beautiful. It was like a storybook.”
Margarita Galvan, also from Michoacán, has been in Long Prairie for a decade. Many local Latinos hail from the same part of Mexico. “We’re from different towns, but the same state,” she says. “Most of us heard of Minnesota, heard of good jobs and education and a safer life. Our kids have a better future here.”
Where whites and Latinos have blended most seamlessly is in school, says Long Prairie-Grey Eagle Superintendent Jon Kringen. “You won’t see segregation among the students. Hispanic kids are friends with white kids.” These same children, many of whom are bilingual, act as interpreters for adults stuck behind the language barrier.
“I don’t think there has been integration in the community as there is in the school,” says Kringen. “It’s a comfort zone thing, not a racist thing.”
Galvan, who has three kids and just bought a house with her husband, is learning English in order to better navigate local culture. “Where we rented prior to this, the landlord started to learn Spanish and I started to learn English,” she says. “I want to learn to read and write more properly.”
In other words, Galvan wants to fit in. “For the most part people are friendly,” she says of Long Prairie’s natives. But, “I would like them to not view us as different. We work together. We go to school together. We are here and part of the community.”