St. Paul’s Neighborhood House offering crash course in cultures


Tell me, do you know:

  • More young Minnesota Hmong couples are choosing to be “married” according to cultural tradition and even in church, but don’t follow through with getting a state marriage license, so in the eyes of U.S. law they are not married.
  • Calling a man Hispanic or Chicano may offend, but Latino is a generally accepted, more inclusive term for Hispanics and Mexican-Americans. Still, it’s best to ask.
  • More than 50 percent of all Somalis in the United States live in Minnesota and some feel it’s improper to shake a stranger’s hand in greeting.

That’s only a teasing bit of the information I picked up recently in a five-hour culture and history short course about Hmong, Latino and Somali populations in Minnesota, taught at Neighborhood House, a 114-year-old social service agency on St. Paul’s racially and ethnically diverse West Side.

Community Sketchbook focuses on the economic and social challenges facing communities, especially low-income communities and communities of color, and how people are trying to address them.

It is made possible by support from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, The Minneapolis Foundation, and some Minneapolis Foundation donor advisors.

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Why, you might ask, would anyone sign on for such a thing? To answer that, start by taking a look around you at the changing complexion of Minnesota.

Searching for recent Minnesota emigration data, I tripped against the Minneapolis Foundation’s 2010 report, “A New Age of Immigrants: Making Immigration Work for Minnesota.” (In the interest of full disclosure, the foundation is a sponsor of Community Sketchbook.)

From the report, verbatim:

  • 10.3% of the Twin Cities’ population in 2008 was foreign born.
  • 18,020 individuals emigrated to Minnesota from other countries in 2009.
  • Immigrant-owned businesses in Minnesota employ approximately 21,000 workers and generate sales and receipts of $2.2 billion.
  • Concordia University economist Bruce Corrie has calculated that Asian-Americans and Latinos in Minnesota account for approximately $7 billion in purchases annually.

Voila, that helps explain why, along with the fact it makes them money they use to help fund some of their other programs, that Neighborhood House staffed 133 culture workshops last year for individuals, businesses and corporations.

So far this year it’s been 96, with more classes planned and including Karen, American Indian, Ethiopian and Oromo cultures. Class prices differ with my five-hour class costing $130.

Our class was an overview of Hmong, Latino and Somali peoples and had eight students: a communications person with the city public works department, a staffer from Transit for Livable Communities new here from Chicago, a University of Minnesota Extension expert, a new teacher, a business woman, an immigrant from Peru, a new Neighborhood House staff member and me.  

At day’s end I talked with three of them.

Rosa Miyashiro (right), Japanese by descent, came here after growing up in Peru. She’ll be doing a counseling internship at Harding High School in St. Paul. “That was the motivation,” for coming, she says, to learn more about the students she’ll be working with.

“It was a lot to learn in one day, both deep and scratching the surface,” said participant Michael Darger (left), extension specialist at the University of Minnesota in community economic development. He learned many things, he said, including that most Somalis don’t celebrate birthdays.

Bill Neuendorf (below, left), with Transit for Livable Communities, came because, “We firmly believe it’s a global village.”

Among topics for elucidation: history, culture, first-hand experiences, social organization, tradition, demographics, religion. I couldn’t possibly cover it all here.

Just know that the power points are detailed and informative, though presentations could have benefited from other media, say music or a short video, or been enlivened with spicy Mexican food, say, or a beautiful Hmong story cloth.  

We met Garat Ibrahim, a Somali, who practices the religion of Islam, praying five times a day to Allah, as do all devout Muslims beginning at age 14. He told us depression and anxiety are common to Somali refugees here, having been victims of war in Somalia.

Kalue Her outlined her Hmong people’s beginnings in Laos, China, Thailand, Vietnam and elsewhere, their aid to American soldiers in Vietnam, the settlement of 60,000 or more in Minnesota, as well as traditions. Did you know that, traditionally, the mother of a newborn eats only chicken soup for a month?

Enrique “Cha-Cho” Estrada, born in St. Paul, grew up on St. Paul’s West Side and still visits relatives in Mexico. As a teen he experienced racial stereotyping and discrimination. A graduate of Cretin High School and a local college, he says of his people, “Latinos are loyal customers,” though “we’re not great savers and we don’t have a lot of trust in banks.”

(Photos by Cynthia Boyd)