FREE SPEECH ZONE | Navigating between diverse worlds


I have called Minnesota my home since 2005, with a previous two-year stay while I was earning my master’s degree in public policy at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs. I am approaching my first ten years here, bravely facing the winters that are impossible to imagine when you come from a country that calls itself land of the eternal spring. I come from a small volcanic territory, surrounded by the two oceans, in the middle of America (that is, the continent), called Guatemala. But Minnesota is the land of the 10,000 lakes and when I long for the ocean and mountains, I venture to the North Shore where I go on long hikes, and try to imagine the Lake Superior as a gigantic bay, a calm continuation of the ocean, that with the furor of the wind in winter, produces waves of unusual beauty.

I love this state and the city where I live, Saint Paul. My neighborhood is somehow of an abnormality but it represents what the future of the United States will be like by the middle of the century. The West Side is a multigenerational and multicultural enclave with a declining white population and a high percentage of so called people of color, mostly African American, Latino, East African and Hmong. Few places in the state witness the exchanges, transactions, and vibrant community involvement across this diverse makeup of peoples. Let’s not forget that their children are US citizens and they are the future of this state.

All around the state, I’ve come to meet extraordinary people from different walks of life and from great communities where people still seem to care for each other. As a new immigrant, I face like many others, the challenges associated with unusual origins, roots, socio-economic background, appearance, language and accent, skin color, and the length of your residency in the state. Although, for a newcomer, these difficulties arise in the face of a pretty homogeneous population, those difficulties are also to be encountered across different cultures and ethnicities, particularly when you are framed in terms of a minority (e.g. Uruguayan, Guatemalan, or Ecuadorian) within a minority (Hispanic/Latino).

Many come here because of similar socioeconomic circumstances, aspirations or obligations, and for similar purposes. Understanding those connections amidst singular characteristics or needs, are key to build a pan-Latino vision that could bring a long term advocacy and political plan to activate systemic changes, holding the authorities accountable, in order to improve people’s wellbeing, from access to quality health care to education with equity.

As scholar Suarez-Orozco would say, “immigration is above all a family process: love (family reunification) and work (to provide to the family).” I think that integration of new immigrants to the predominant culture(s) is necessary for the vitality of any community. It is said that it takes a village to raise a kid; it also takes a whole community (school, churches, nonprofits, state agencies, etc.) to create the conditions to welcome newcomers.

Minnesota has a long tradition and reputation in doing so, since the early beginnings of the new territory, when 66 percent of those living in the state were immigrants or children of immigrant. It is well known that in 1906 official instructions to vote in this state were in English, German, Norwegian, Finnish, French, Italian, Polish, and Swedish. It is a Minnesotan tradition to expand and not shrink democratic values. It is hard to understand why in the wake of the twenty-first century, state legislators are seriously thinking about introducing an amendment to our Constitution requiring a voter ID that would potentially disenfranchise vulnerable communities, particularly seniors, students, and the poor.

While immigration in Minnesota is half of the national level (7.3 percent of Minnesotans are immigrants vs. 13 percent nationally), it is painful to see that the descendants of immigrants who faced similar hardships and prejudice, are now those that in places like Lino Lakes have instituted an English-Only rule in municipal business, and consistently would like to do the same thing at the state legislature to make English the official language in Minnesota. Much sadder it is to see that few (fortunately) Latino leaders would welcome or leave completely unaddressed that kind of policy.

Too much is at stake in the upcoming state and national elections. Pretty soon the beating drums of anti-immigration hysteria will populate the air waves to divide communities for political gains. Let’s hope that this state that prides itself of its natural diversity will live up to its ideals and will regain a civil discourse. Minnesota’s cultural diversity represents its survival as a compact and viable place and destination.

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