Luisa Trapero came to the St. James area from El Salvador, by way of Los Angeles, with her mother in 1992 when she was 14 years old. Now she’s running for a seat on the local school board.
Once elected — she is one of three candidates running for three seats — Trapero will be the first Latino to serve in an elected position in the small southern Minnesota city, despite the fact that its population is nearly a third Latino.
Forty percent of the school district’s enrollment this year is Latino.
The situation in St. James isn’t uncommon. Many outstate cities have had sizable Latino populations for decades, often coalesced around a large food processer. Yet it’s rare to find a Latino person holding elected office outside the Twin Cities. Moorhead elected a Latina school board member, Sonia Hohnadel, 10 years ago, but she is no longer on the board. Owatonna’s school board includes a Latino who was appointed to the post but isn’t running for election.
“There is a lack of Latinos statewide in leadership roles,” said Samuel Verdeja, chair of the Minnesota Civic Engagement Coalition. “It’s a vacuum.”
Some see this as a sign that outstate Latinos and whites aren’t mixing well, but rather functioning in parallel communities, a topic Ground Level will be exploring in the coming weeks.
“It’s really rare to see a Latino coming forward to do this,” said Trapero of her election bid. She discounts discrimination as a factor, pointing instead to language barriers and Latinos’ often grueling work schedules.
Latin American cultural norms play a role as well, she said. “Over there, school is school and home is home. You don’t have these kinds of committees over there.”
Verdeja cites intimidation and fear of drawing attention to illegal immigration as factors, too. He was part of a round table discussion earlier this year, organized by the Minnesota Latino Caucus, designed to open pathways to Latino leadership. More than 80 people attended, representing around 50 communities, according to organizers.
“There has been a lack of response by city officials when it comes to appointing and electing Latinos in their cities to help them merge the two communities,” said Verdeja. “Most cities are saying, this is what we want to do but we don’t know how. It was great to get city officials at the table.”
The city of St. James is making an effort, said Community Education Director Sue Harris. “I am very proud of the communities of St. James and Madelia and Butterfield. We have done a great job of embracing the new element in town. It’s not easy. There are difficult obstacles, like prejudice. But people have been here long enough. We consider these folks our friends and neighbors.”
Trapero, who translates for the police department and school and is working on a business management degree from Rasmussen College, is hoping to open the door for others. “I want to make sure people in my culture know it’s OK to integrate into the system,” she said. “Don’t be afraid of it. I want to show them it’s OK to be engaged in this kind of stuff. We all have kids in the school system. Everybody has to be on the same page. If we want improvements to the school and structure, we have to be involved in the committees.”
She credits mentors and recent leadership training from the Grand Rapids-based Blandin Foundation for spurring her on. “I want to make a difference,” Trapero said. “I want people to see that you can make it, no matter where you go.”