A new wave of Latino artists come into their own

The Latino community in the Twin Cities has a long history, dating back to the 1920s and 30s when Mexican immigrants moved to the West Side neighborhood of Saint Paul to work in meat packing plants and sugar beet fields.

Over the past ninety years diverse groups of Latino immigrants have continued to settle in Minnesota in waves, from Mexico, El Salvador, Puerto Rico, and Colombia among others.

The result is a community in which some are third and fourth generation Minnesotans, while others are still adjusting to a completely new culture.


Susana de León

MPR Photo/Nikki Tundel

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Recently we invited a group of Latino artists to MPR’s UBS Forum to share their own perspectives. Susana de León is both a lawyer and the director of the Ketzal Coatlicue Aztec dance group. De León says with the latest waves of immigrants there has been a revival of traditional culture.

In the dance world, dance doesn’t occur just because we want to dance – it occurs because it’s tied up to a celebration, it’s tied to the way that our community views nature, their space, and their place in the world. And so dance is just a component of a whole worldview, and these worldviews being now replicated, recreated in the places where before there used to be maybe a Norwegian hall, and now there is this Mexican presence, or Puerto Rican, or any of these other things.

There are a number of festivals that have been recreated and provide both for the older generation of Latinos that have been in Minnesota since 1919 or before then, and for the newer generation – because for the youth in my group, most of them were born in the United States and for them it’s like a circle. When they see these art forms, they want to claim it for themselves, because there’s such an exclusion of our voices in many spaces. And so when there is a festival where they suddenly feel part of Puebla or Morelos, and at the same time they can have their friends and older generations with them, it’s a powerful event. And those celebrations are not part of what we hear in the media; they are relegated to our own media and print, our own radio and television channel that we have now.


Maria Isa

MPR Photo/Nikki Tundel

Musician and recording artist Maria Isa calls herself a “SotaRican.” She is one of those younger Latinos who embraces her cultural traditions while simultaneously creating contemporary music. Isa, the child of Latino activists who moved to Minnesota from New York, says she worries about the history of her community being lost.

I was a little bit concerned about how Minnesota was capturing our history back when I was in high school. I would spend time going to the Minnesota History Center and reading through files as far as what is our history as Latinos here. They covered just a little bit of the Mexican migration in the 40s and the West side flats, and I’m going ‘time out here – who’s writing about the migration from the West Side to the South Side of Minneapolis, to the North Side of Minneapolis, to Wilmar, to Albert Lea, and where are the other Latino nationalities?’ There’s a Puerto Rican community, there’s a Cuban community, but none of this was being written down.

I think that inspires the younger generation; we have this power placed in front of us to become the next generation’s leaders and establish ties with other Minnesotans. Who’s guiding us to be able to make sure that our history is being secured as Minnesotans and as Latinos in Minnesota?

Maria Isa is in her mid-twenties; author Sandra Benitez has been living in the Twin Cities suburbs since long before Isa was born.

Benitez says this new resurgence in Latino culture in the Twin Cities comes is a welcome change. The daughter of a Puerto Rican mother and an American father, at the age of fourteen her parents sent her from their home in El Salvador to be “Americanized” on her grandparents Missouri farm.

What I did was I left behind what I was, and what I had always been. And I remember my grandma Hazel – a staunch republican, staunch believer in patriotism – if I would say something like “I’m a Salvodoranian” she would say “oh no honey – you’re an American.” And I would say “yes I’m an American but I’m also Mexicana, I’m also Salvadorena.”

And of course living in Minnesota… I’ve lived here most of my life now. When I first came to Minnesota I married a man who lived in Edina. So I’m Edina, I’m not West St. Paul, and you should see what that does for you. “You consider yourself a Latina and you live in Edina?! What’s going on?!” Or worse, “you are NOT a Latina.” Always this separation.

Now I still live in Edina, I still live in this little Condo on the corner of 169 and the crosstown – almost in Eden Prairie, almost in Minnetonka, but almost in Hopkins, and Hopkins, as far as I’m concerned is a Latino community. It’s wonderful now to find myself so close. if I want to speak Spanish, all I have to do is go to Hopkins. What I’ve seen develop – and I feel good about this – is this ‘Latino-ness’ is encroaching in a wonderful way, and I don’t feel as separate as I’ve always felt.


Ricardo Levins Morales

MPR Photo/Nikki Tundel

While the artists we spoke to all referred to a dynamic Latino cultural scene, many also expressed frustration at a lack of coverage, and at not having better access to funding.

Ricardo Levins Morales was a co-founder of the Northland Poster Collective, which for thirty years provided the visual imagery for labor movement campaigns. Now he runs his own studio, Art for Social Justice. He says funders need to do a better job of reaching out to diverse artists.

Creativity is organic, it’s going to come up everywhere. But in order for it to grow into a mature artist it needs to get some nutrients. In my barrio in Puerto Rico they cut down a lot of the forest cover because they were promoting ‘sun-grown coffee’ instead of shade-grown coffee. Now when that happens, rain can be a destructive force – it breaks up the structure of the soil and pulverizes it and that powder fills in and creates a crust, which ultimately can damage the plants.

So, likewise, when I think about resources and funding I think about how can we get it into those corners of our community. Let’s go back to a forest model, where the rain coming down hits the top tree cover, and then filters down so that by the time it hits the ground it’s soft and sinks in. In other words large granters should be passing on the funds to the next level of distribution, regionally, ethnically, etc. so that by the time it gets to the neighborhood level, the person in charge of making the decisions knows that Doña Josefina has a granddaughter who is making these wonderful collages and could really use support at this formative stage of her life. When you want to support a community you have to know the ecological structure of that community.


Xavier Tavera

MPR Photo/Nikki Tundel

Photographer Xavier Tavera admits sometimes getting access to funding is simply a matter of overcoming one’s own insecurities – something he learned first hand after moving to Minnesota from Mexico.

It took me five years to apply to my first grant, once I got here. And I didn’t know how to, I didn’t know where or why or what was going to be asked from me, if I asked for one of these grants. I finally got encouraged to do one and I was extremely lucky and I got a McKnight [Foundation grant].

And I was surprised, and I didn’t even reply for a week, until the director called me – “are you going to have it or not?” And I said “yeah but it’s a lot of responsibility” – it’s not like ‘yes give me the money and I’ll come up with something.’ I’m thinking about it – I’m thinking this is going to be a lot of responsibility and this institution is giving me some money and I have to respond in a way that is valid and good.

And just talking personally, culturally we just do stuff, we don’t expect anything else.

I also want to add we are discovering and rediscovering our Latino community. It’s not just this big group of people who happen to all speak Spanish; it’s like we’re on a first date. And we’re starting to see that we share stuff in common, and we share some of the same problems. For instance, how to convince people from our own community to come out to see our work, listen to our music, to read our novels.

Unfortunately one thing many Latino Americans share in common is the less than warm welcome they receive once they leave their predominantly Latino neighborhood. As a lawyer, and in her own personal experience, Susana de León is all too familiar with such experiences.

It’s the way people look at you when you’re out in places less shielded by a larger community, the treatment that you receive, the services that you can obtain, how police responds to a 911 call, how the hospital treats you when you arrive and whether or not there is an available language line you can call to seek help.

But when I go somewhere as an artist, I get treated really well. I am a celebrity and I get the local restaurant to do the dinner, and maybe people who have organized the event to sit with us and ask questions. So as artists we carry the privilege even when we go into very segregated places. As every day folk it’s a different story, but for the most part, people open doors when we’re carrying our drums in the most beautiful way. And the young people, they can see themselves in places – in any place that my dancers walk I say ‘you own this place – you can dance at the Windows on Minnesota on the 60th floor of the building in downtown Minneapolis and you walk in there and you are welcomed – you have a green room to sit in.’ These things are important – for many of our youth that have never walked in those spaces, it changes something.

Perhaps as more Latino art makes its way into Twin Cities galleries and performance venues, the people it represents will find greater respect and understanding from their fellow Minnesotans.