Hispanic Population Changes Minn. Community

MELROSE, Minn. (AP) — Duck into a Melrose restaurant for lunch these days, and the menu is more likely to include flautas de pollo than sauerkraut and kielbasa.

Stop at the corner grocery store, and you might pick up some beef foot or dried chili peppers along with the usual carton of milk. Visit the school, and you’ll see students of every color in every classroom. Spend a few minutes at any of these places, and you’ll hear and read Spanish and English.

In the past two decades, Melrose has changed from an overwhelmingly white city with strong German ancestry to a diverse community with a growing Hispanic population.

According to recent 2010 census data, the city’s Hispanic population more than doubled in the last decade. Hispanics now make up nearly a quarter of the city’s total population of 3,598.

The influx of Spanish-speaking residents has changed the community in countless ways. But unlike some cities, Melrose hasn’t struggled with painful racial tensions or clashes of culture. That could be linked to a welcoming attitude demonstrated by city and church leaders, as well as efforts to help integrate immigrants into the community.

“We have not had that type of hostility toward each other,” said John Jensen, the city’s police chief.

Melrose isn’t alone in its demographic change. Other Stearns County cities have seen similar increases in Hispanic residents since 2000. Typically, the communities have a large factory that offers employment to immigrants, such as Jennie-O in Melrose. Dairy farms also frequently employ Hispanic workers.

Cold Spring, home of a Gold’n Plump poultry plant, had 40 Hispanic residents a decade ago and now has 287, according to the census bureau. Sauk Centre’s Hispanic residents increased by 800 percent from 21 to 189.

Elsewhere in Central Minnesota, the cities of Long Prairie and Willmar also experienced burgeoning Hispanic populations.

The trend mirrors what’s happening on a state and national scale. Hispanics accounted for more than half of the U.S. population increase over the last decade and crossed a new census milestone: 50 million, or one in six Americans.

Minnesota’s Hispanic population swelled by almost 75 percent in the last decade, meaning the fast-growing group now accounts for 4.7 percent of the state’s 5.3 million people. That’s up from about 3 percent in 2000.

Melrose’s demographic shift began in 1995, when the Jennie-O plant began hiring Mexican immigrants in large numbers, recalls former Mayor George O’Brien.

Early on, community leaders including O’Brien decided the influx of new residents posed a challenge that should be met head on. They formed Communities Connecting Cultures, a nonprofit that tries to build a bridge and overcome distrust among cultures. The group convinced Jennie-O to hire a liaison to help the plant’s Hispanic workers.

Ana Santana, a 2001 Melrose High School graduate, also works as a community connector for CCC. She helps people with everything from filling out applications to interpreting at a doctor’s appointment.

“It’s something different every time,” Santana said.

Other leaders stepped forward, including the Rev. Vince Lieser of St. Mary’s Catholic Church, who used his pulpit to preach tolerance and acceptance. He started a weekly Mass in Spanish and a celebration of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

Sister Adela Gross came to St. Mary’s 11 years ago hoping to put her Spanish skills to use. She helps Hispanic residents make appointments, interpreting for non-English speakers and helping residents find housing and even furniture.

The church’s leadership role helped set a tone of acceptance, Gross said.

“Since they were welcoming, that was an example to the rest of the community,” she said.

A retired Nebraska couple, Peggy and the late John Stokman came to Melrose with the purpose of helping Hispanic immigrants. They helped organize tutors for immigrants learning English. John Stokman used his banking experience to help Hispanics apply for home mortgages. Peggy teaches citizenship classes.

Nowhere has the city’s growing diversity been more evident than in the Melrose school district, where about 21 percent of the students are minorities.

With help from $143,000 annually in state funding for schools considered “racially isolated,” school success and integration coordinator Wendy Barutt and four other staff have spent the last three years helping Hispanic students be successful. That’s included everything from arranging tutors to starting a soccer program to organizing college tours.

The benefits go both ways, Barutt said. She has both Hispanic and white tutors, and Hispanic students often help white students with Spanish homework.

“The more information the kids can have and the more understanding and acceptance, the better we’re all going to be,” she said.

There are still sometimes tensions, but no gang problems or race-based fights like some schools have experienced, Barutt said. She sometimes hears about disparaging comments made by both white and Hispanic students, but calls it normal high school stuff.

“That’s unfortunately human nature, but we’re working on it,” she said. “At least we have kids talking now.”

One notable moment came this winter, when a Hispanic student was chosen Snow Daze king for the first time.

“This is a big deal,” she said. “It means that people are accepting.”

The number of Hispanic-owned businesses has increased in the last decade as well. El Portal, a restaurant near Interstate Highway 94, has established a reputation for offering some of the best authentic Mexican fare in the region.

Owners Jose and Rosa Hernandez started the restaurant eight years ago. They say they’ve found the community welcoming.

“It’s a nice, quiet town,” Jose Hernandez said.

Downtown, Martinez Meat and Grocery sells a variety of spices, sauces, candy, soda and a selection of meats that you can’t find at traditional grocery stores, including Mexican sausage and octopus.

Like many of Melrose’s Hispanic residents, owner Maria Martinez came from Michoacan, Mexico, in search of “a better life.”

Martinez and her fiance, Paul Uphus, are planning a 4,000-square-foot expansion so they can add a deli. About three-fourths of the store’s customers are Hispanic, but it draws white and Somali residents, too, Uphus said. Over time, more people have overcome their reluctance or fears that they wouldn’t be able to communicate with the staff, he said.

“As time goes on . it changes,” Uphus said.

A decade ago, Melrose had no Hispanic-owned businesses, said Kelly Neu, executive director of the Melrose Chamber of Commerce.

“That’s how fast we have grown,” she said. Others include the New Look clothing store, King of Wheels automotive accessories and La Morenita, a grocery store.

Despite its efforts, Melrose’s Hispanic community still faces challenges, including a lack of quality housing.

Many Hispanic families live in a mobile home park called Rose Park, where county inspectors declared some homes uninhabitable last year after an inspection found deteriorated conditions, water damage and vandalism.

Barutt said it’s heartbreaking to hear about how some of her students live, including crowded sleeping arrangements and holes in the floor.

The city got permission to demolish 12 vacant homes in the park, but a court restraining order has so far prevented that action, said Gary Walz, Melrose’s community planning and economic development director. Walz said it’s still the city’s goal to provide improved living conditions for its residents.

“They deserve that,” he said.

However, many Hispanic families have purchased homes in the last decade. There’s not a street in Melrose without a Hispanic-owned house, Gross said.

There is a learning curve for new immigrants who don’t always understand American laws and cultural norms, such as regulations on how many people can occupy a home.

“Their norm is to have multiple generations living within the household,” Chief Jensen said. But that can violate U.S. fire codes requiring each resident to have a certain amount of living space and bedrooms to have egress windows.

Having the right paperwork to rent an apartment or apply for a driver’s license is sometimes a problem, Jensen said. He said he’s seen a number of cases of people stopped for driving without a license because they have to get to work, but can’t get a license.

“I think a lot of these people want to abide by the law, but they’re hampered by documentation,” Jensen said. “They just can’t.”

Jensen has been working to overcome a distrust of law enforcement that exists within the Hispanic community, including hiring a Latino police officer who spent four years with the department.

“I think we’ve made great strides in the last 10 years so they will report crimes without fear that the first thing we ask is about documentation,” Jensen said.

Some common misconceptions about Hispanic residents that still linger, including that they don’t pay taxes and are all on welfare, Gross said. She called this “utterly ridiculous.”

But acceptance seems to be growing. Jensen said he doesn’t hear as many complaints about the city’s newest residents as he once did.

“They find out they’re just like us,” he said. “They want to work for an honest wage.”

St. Cloud Times

(© Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

  • Paul

    This is pro-immigrant propaganda. There is indeed a great deal of pain in the small towns of Minnesota due to influxes of immigrants. It is a difficult situation for all concerned. In cities like Worthington the problems are horrific. In the long term immigration is certainly a good thing for our country, but to gloss over the significant problems it creates for our towns in the short term is irresponsible. Every wave of immigrants have faced and created serious challenges, and you do our state a grave disservice by distorting their story.

  • Tom

    How about a story that is concerned for the loss of “strong German ancestry”. If this were an ethnic community being changed by an influx of whites the media would be concerned about preserving their culture. I agree with Paul, this is pure propaganda.

  • Sick and tired

    They’re still illegal except for the anchor babies. Illegal. Doesn’t that make sense to anyone. They’re here illegally and in my book will never be welcome if they can’t follow the law. You’re right…they can’t get documentation. They’re here illegallly. Try and go and live in MX illegally. The Mexican’s won’t let it happen. I absolutely hate going to our cabin now in Spicer because of the illegals! YUCK!

    • Amanda


    • me

      No where in this article does it says this town is full of illegals. You know, some people are authorized to be here and not all Hispanics are immigrants.

      • Mike

        I know…they just assume that, because they’re immigrants, they MUST be illegals. So sad that people can be so blind.

    • Russ

      Really, in Spicer??

  • Mike


    Please define “horrific”.

  • Tom

    How about mentioning the story in 06 where they discovered an organized drug trafficking ring and pulled about $700,000 dollars worth on methamphetamine out of Melrose of all places. Who knows if that was the correct amount but that was the headlines. Why do you think that would be. Because of all the immigration happening there, the article talks about how most arrested were illegal aliens. Also this article brags about the hispanic businesses in town, one of the businesses mentioned is one in which the owner was arrested on drug charges in the article i am speaking about. Just google Melrose and drug bust and you will find the article. How do you think some of those businesses were probably funded. If you want to do an article to point out the benefits of immigration, why not choose a better city. 2006 was not that long ago.

  • Paul

    Tom: CRIME. Visit the Nobles County Jail website.

  • Paul

    Whoops, sorry Tom, I was replying to Mike. I look forward to the day when the Worthington police no longer feel the need to keep submachine guns in their trunks. An absurd situation for a town this size. The problems usually fade when immigrants become part of the community and their children embrace their new lives and country. Unfortunately, Swift’s penchant for hiring illegals has made this an ongoing problem for over twenty years.

  • me

    Ignorance runs amok. The US has a fairly large Hispanic poulace not due to immigration but to the SW portion of the country from Florida to California. Not all Hispanics want to stay in Texas or Arizona and some have moved to the midwest. Quit presuming all Latinos are foreign born and therefore immigrants. Am I one? No but I grew up in Arizona where you’re just as likely to see a tan man as a white one. Just as you shouldn’t presume Garcia is an immigrant, I don’t presume a Gustafson is because it was something new for me when I moved to Minnesota.

  • Paul

    This is a very good point. Citizens of our nation, native born or otherwise, are not immigrants simply because they move to a community for economic opportunity. That is an integral part of our economic freedom. It is a sad fact however, that many of the Latinos who are moving into our towns are illegals or the anchor children of illegals. To point out the significant problems (such as crime) that this brings with it is not ignorant. It is the reality of existence in a small Minnesota town impacted by their presence. The rosy picture painted by this article is a wishful illusion. Until the issue of illegal immigration from Mexico is resolved, all Latinos in our country will continue to suffer from it’s effects and stigma.

    • Mike

      Where does your information come from? Or did you just make it up because you just “have a strong feeling” that it’s true?

  • Ben

    I’ve known a few illegal immigrants in my day. I’ll tell you what…they’re a lot kinder and harder-working than most Republicans (who forget that that Hispanics owned this continent looooong before Europeans).

  • Paul

    Mike: I live in a small Minnesota town (Pop. 4500) that has become quite diverse. We have new residents from around the world. They come from Iraq, Eastern Europe, Southeast Asia, Africa, and Latin America. It is a good thing. My information about the negative aspects of illegal immigration from Mexico comes from the experience of living with it in our community. I “have a strong feeling” that once our issues with immigration from Mexico are resolved, the problems associated with it will be resolved as well. Worthington is a neighboring city that has serious problems caused by illegal immigrants. These problems are well documented in the Worthington Daily Globe. I feel that the article glosses over the issues created by illegal immigration in the Hispanic populations in our small towns. It is not just crime that is a problem. It is heartbreaking for example, to see a student that I have established a rapport with disappear from my classroom because their parents are being deported or they have fled to avoid deportation.What a waste. I want the problem solved.. I don’t want them to go away We need them. I find it interesting that your only contribution to this discussion is to question my credibility.

    • Mike

      Paul: The reason I questioned your credibility is because you made a general statement, but didn’t support your claim with data. What I find interesting is that you, being a teacher, were surprised that I called you out on lack-of-evidence.

      Either way, your response to my query was well thought-out and made a lot of sense to me –although I believe that the point of the article was to celebrate Melrose’s growing diversity. It did not specify that these were illegals; just ‘Hispanic’.

      • Paul

        Point taken. WCCO was trying to be positive, and I did rather jump on their case over what is a hot issue down here. I hope Melrose continues to celebrate their diversity and I will pick a more appropriate moment to discuss illegal immigration.

  • Superchik1017

    Loved it! Thank you for this wonderful article!

  • lance

    Question: How much immigration is enough? When our small towns are 50% Hispanic? 75%? Will the influx of immigrants slow down or will small town MN crumble under this wave? Just wondering…….

    • me

      Lance, how is this small town crumbling just because the ethnic make-up is changing? Do Hispanics not spend money at their local grocer? Do Hispanics not go shopping at the malls? Do they not rent or as this article points out, own homes? Doesn’t this all support the community as a whole? And what’s wrong with the town being 75% something? Isn’t it right now about 75% white? Oh, I see, it can be 75% but just not Hispanic. Take my advise, don’t ever move to Santa Fe or El Paso or Phoenix.

  • henry

    sure they spend money in our towns, food stamps, or debit cards given to them, free doctor calls, free dentist, wish I didn’t have to pay my own bills!

    • Amanda

      And you know this how??? I can start to imagine how come everyone claims that only Hispanics receive welfare…. last time I checked it was mostly Africans and African-Americans that get the most of the welfare

  • Dom Miller

    Good for Melrose! I took 4 years of German in High School, 4 Years of French in college, and then a few years of Russian in the service. So why is it that I go to some small towns in Minnesota and see a lot of signs in Spanish? I have no quals about LEGAL immigration, after all my grandparents on both sides came from Norway and entered via Ellis Island. What concerns me is as an American is the acclimation process. Cloisters of immigrants form naturally due to common language and heritage, look at the West Bank in Minneapolis, it is almost all Somali. The old folks are intimidated by the Somali gangs and by a strange culture that has taken over their neighborhoods. Same applies to small town Americana. That culture is vanishing and turning into the corner mercado, Mexican dance clubs, and yes, like Worthington, a hub for drug smuggling from good ole Mexico. No wonder folks get concerned. In the long run LEGAL immigration is great for America, we just need to stop illegal immigration and the mass importation of “refugees” who are simply economic immigrants. My next door neighbor was a Vietnamese boat person, she came over with her father from Vietnam when she was 5. Her Dad was an adjutant to the US military in SE Asia. He earned his citizenship, so did his wife, and 3 kids. All of his kids have served in either the National Guard, or the Coast Guard. They acclimated because they had to. They have Vietnamese relatives and friends, but they never cloistered themselves, they jumped right in to America and supported what she stands for. Do the majority of Mexicans and hispanics of other countries believe in America, or are they just here to make money? Hmm, why not ask some??

    • Amanda

      Drugs get smuggled here, CAUSE WE THE AMERICANS CONSUME THEM… is almost every American stopped being a junkie, then we will not have that problem…

  • Common Cents

    Here’s what I hear people say – “learn English!” but yet that person is talking to someone who is speaking to them – in broken English so clearly, they are trying to learn. And as others have pointed out, there are several states in the US that spoke Spanish well before English ever got there. So, should the Jose Garcias from Santa Fe get up in the Sven Nordstrom’s face and yell at him “speak Spanish?”

    • Josh

      @Common Cents
      Additionally, while English is the dominant language in the United States, the US has no official language. English has absolutely no legal status above, really, any other language. English is our lingua franca.

  • b baumann

    @ Amanda
    And YOU know this how??? We surely live in different towns! Not too many Africans or African- Americans live in my town– But about forty percent Hispanics! That’s how I know!! They’re all over. You can’t back up without bumping into one! Go into the grocery store and see who has two carts full! Then ask me how I know! Go into the clinic and see who fills the waiting rooms. Then ask me how I know! The last time you checked where? It wasn’t around here.

  • Off subject

    @ Paul:
    Happy to see you have your life figured out and know what you want. Blessings from a “PAGE” from a chapter long ago.

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