Latino business, culture enhance Twin Cities


It’s hard to miss the green, white and red exterior of Don Panchos Bakery. The sweet aroma of freshly baked conchas greets you at the door of the shop on St. Paul’s west side.

In the back, Efrain Perez squeezes frosting into two-inch pink roses on a Tres Leches cake. He cuts bolillos and puts them in the oven. He chats with customers as he bags bread.

Perez, 42, said that when he opened the family-owned bakery 11 years ago, most of his customers were Latinos. Now he says his clients are more diverse.

Don Panchos Bakery is part of a vibrant and growing Latino business community in Minnesota. More than that, it reflects the growing presence of Latinos in the United States as a whole.

Latinos first arrived in the Twin Cities in the 1860s, mostly in St. Paul, according to the Minneapolis Foundation. There were an estimated 205,896 residents of Latino descent in the state in 2000, according to the Minnesota Chicano Latino Affairs Council.

Latinos are expected to make up 25 percent of the state’s projected population of 6.45 million by 2035, according to state’s Demographic Center.

The west side of St. Paul has long been a historic destination for the Latino community. But other areas — particularly East Lake Street in Minneapolis — are becoming major business and residential hot spots.

Latinos have become such a part of the community that even major supermarket chains such as Rainbow and Cub Foods stock their shelves with not only Wonder Bread, but tortillas, as well as frijoles, tropical drinks, salsa and other traditional and popular Latino food items.

Alberto Monserrate, president of Latino Communications Network, a media company in Minneapolis, said that the Latino community was very small decades ago. Most of the Latinos who were here were undocumented and worked in meat plants.

Latinos owned 3,984 of the 21,736 minority businesses in Minnesota in 2002, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce. More than 1,000 Mexican-American businesses alone operate in Minnesota and generate about $200 million in sales, according to the Minneapolis Foundation.

The Latino business community helps the local economy by putting more people to work and paying taxes, Monserrate said.

Lisa Sass Zaragoza, outreach coordinator of the University of Minnesota’s Department of Chicano Studies, said Latinos are changing the Twin Cities culture in superficial and deeper ways.

Traditional Latino celebrations such as Dia de los Muertos, a Mexican holiday celebrating the dead, and the annual Cinco de Mayo parade have become part of the Twin Cities cultural fabric.

From the oranges, yellows and pastel buildings along Lake Street to the murals on the west side of St. Paul, Latino culture is making its mark in the Twin Cities area.

“Revitalizing the community economically, socially, politically and culturally are powerful contributions,” said Eden Torres, chair of the University of Minnesota’s Department of Chicano Studies.

Perez, a fourth-generation baker from southern Mexico, established Don Panchos Bakery on Concord Street, now known as Cesar Chavez Street, in 1998. He wanted to move closer to his brothers who also ran successful restaurants, bakeries and grocery stores.

His business grew enough to expand into a second location on the east side of St. Paul, which he later sold. But Perez is still facing some challenges. Becoming fluent in English is a struggle.
But he is more than fluent in running his business. Through a translator, Perez said that the secret to his success is to treat customers well, make good bread and to never have a “cara de limón” – lemon face.

“I love what I do,” said Perez, who named the bakery after his late father. “I have been doing this since I was a kid, and I plan on passing it on.”

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