Sunday, June 13, 2004

St. Paul Pioneer Press | 06/13/2004 | El nuevo Minnesota

St. Paul Pioneer Press | 06/13/2004 | El nuevo Minnesota

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Posted on Sun, Jun. 13, 2004


• AUDIO: Hear "Monterrey Polka" by Francisco "Kico" Rangel
• PDF: In Context: Facts and figures on Mexico
• AUDIO: Hear "Crei" by Francisco "Kico" Rangel
• POETRY: Read a sampling of Latina poems
• AUDIO: Hear "Jalisco No Te Rajes" by Francisco "Kico" Rangel
• AUDIO: Hear "Abrete Sesamo" by Francisco "Kico" Rangel
• AUDIO: Hear "Bendice" by Alma Mia
• AUDIO: Hear "El Jalisciense" by Mariachi Flor y Canto
• AUDIO: Hear "Piel Morena" by Orquesta Sabor Tropical

El nuevo Minnesota

This week's visit by Mexican President Vicente Fox is highlighting the state's burgeoning Latino population and its growing influence on commerce and culture.


Pioneer Press

Refugio Mendez was born in Mexico, worked southern Minnesota farms as a teenager and now lives on St. Paul's West Side.

His story is like that of thousands of Mexicans who have arrived in Minnesota in recent years — except for his 60-year head start.

Mendez's family began coming to Minnesota as migrant laborers in the 1930s, joining relatives who had assured them of finding work. They settled for good on the West Side in 1942.

"I wouldn't want to live in any other state," said Mendez, who will turn 82 on July 4. The close-knit Mexican community has been "like a family. Everybody together."

Mendez exemplifies early pioneers who helped forge personal ties between Minnesota and Mexico that date to the late 1800s and prepared the way for today's growth. With Friday's visit of Mexican President Vicente Fox, the continent-spanning relationship is set to take on more formal status. Besides new trade agreements, state officials and community advocates alike hope the visit will lead to the opening of a Mexican consulate general office.

The Mexican community that Mendez joined decades ago accounted for less than 1 percent of the state's population for most of the last century. Since 1980, the total has grown more than four times to more than 95,000, according to the U.S. census, and is approaching 3 percent of all Minnesotans with no sign of slowing.

It is unclear how many Mexican immigrants living here illegally were counted by the census. Federal immigration officials, examining all immigrants, estimated there were 60,000 undocumented residents in the state in 2000.


The rapid influx has carried Mexican flair and flavor far beyond traditional Latino communities on St. Paul's West Side and in Minneapolis neighborhoods and rural outposts.

Newcomers have helped to create new Latino centers on St. Paul's East Side and in South Minneapolis, where, as on the West Side, Latino markets and Mexican restaurants are booming. They have transformed and revived a number of rural towns and counties, boosting work forces at meatpacking plants and increasing small-town school enrollments.

Now, as in Mendez's day, jobs and family ties help explain the attraction of a chilly northern state for those coming from south of the border as well as for Mexicans and Mexican-Americans moving from California, Texas, Illinois and other states.

Mexican newcomers have encountered challenges in language, education, housing and economic development. The wave of less-educated, lower-skilled immigrants funneled into lower-paying farm, food-processing and manual labor jobs overshadowed the achievements of middle- and upper-income Mexicans.

For Mexicans as a whole, the 1990s brought slower-rising incomes, lower rates of high school and college graduates, homeownership, management and professional employees and English-speaking abilities. The scarcity of Mexicans in elective office in the state, despite the population's rapid, sweeping growth, is a concern to community advocates.

"It's good, as long as people have work so they can make a good living," said Mendez, who worked for years at a South St. Paul meatpacking plant before becoming a fixture at Minnesota's quintessential annual event — the State Fair. In 1968, he and his wife opened a Mexican food stand that his son Simon and grandson Carlo now operate.

"My grandfather told me that a lot of people didn't know the difference between a taco and a burrito back then," Carlo Mendez, 24, a nursing student, said. "Now when we put new stuff on the menu, they know what it is."

"We've done 36 years at the State Fair," said Simon Mendez, 56, a registered nurse at Regions Hospital. "My goal is to shoot for 50 and then hang it up."

Minnesotans of Mexican heritage make up more than two-thirds of the state's Latino population, one of the fastestgrowing in the country in the 1990s, increasing 166 percent to a total of 143,000. The growth here is part of a Latino surge across the Midwest, with Wisconsin, Iowa, Michigan and Illinois also more than doubling their totals.

While the surging population may have attracted Fox's attention to Minnesota, some think another number also drew his notice — the millions of dollars that Mexicans and Mexican-Americans send to relatives every month.

Angel Sanchez, who with partners Ramiro Hernandez and Rodolfo Hernandez has six money-transfer stores in the Twin Cities and 16 in Mexico, estimated that Minnesota customers wire $3 million a month to Mexico. That represents maybe a quarter of the total amount Minnesotans send every month, said Sanchez, 41, who with his partners employ more than 100 people at more than a dozen businesses, from jewelry and clothing stores and a restaurant to Bymore Supermercado on St. Paul's East Side.

"Every two weeks, they send $300 and they keep $200," Sanchez said of a typical customer's payday visit.

"It's pretty good money in Mexico. I believe the president finds out there is a lot of money going out, so that's why he wants to see what's happening here."

Sanchez said he and a group of Latino business and political leaders hope to present Fox petitions with 10,000 signatures of Minnesotans calling for him to open a consulate. People now have to travel to Chicago to get documents such as a matricula consular card, which verifies Mexican citizenship and helps those who have difficulty getting official U.S. documents conduct financial and other transactions.


As a trading partner, Mexico was the eighth largest destination for Minnesota's exports last year, receiving $342 million worth of goods, well behind Canada, the state's biggest trading partner.

Much of Mexico's economic importance to Minnesota rests with immigrants who take part in the state's work force at some of the highest rates in the country. Many came to take jobs that paid relatively better than work they could find in Mexico or in Southwestern states.

By Minnesota standards, though, the jobs are relatively low paying. Mexico-born men made up 10 percent of all male cooks and food-preparation workers in Minnesota in 2000, according to the census. They also made up 13 percent of all food-processing workers, a classification that includes manufacturing jobs like meatpacking.

Minnesota's poultry, pork and beef processing plants rely on Mexican immigrants. The increasing Latino presence in meatpacking came as real pay fell significantly in that industry. Inflation-adjusted hourly wages dropped about 30 percent in meatpacking between 1982 and 2002, the largest drop of all manufacturing industries during that time, according to a Pioneer Press analysis.

Farm work in Minnesota helped Refugio Mendez and his family to survive. He was maybe 14 when they first traveled to southern Minnesota, near Albert Lea, to work in fields producing beets, corn and other crops. They came every March and returned to their Texas home each October.

Many migrant workers had traced a similar path since the early 1900s, recruited to work in packing plants and on railroads, to fields where they tended beets, asparagus and other produce. Companies such as the American Sugar Co. lured thousands of Mexican immigrants to Minnesota with the promise of jobs. People fleeing the Mexican Revolution also crossed the border to find work.

When work dried up in Texas for Refugio Mendez's family, an uncle recommended making the move to Minnesota to find permanent jobs.

"There was a chance to work in the packing house, so we stayed," said Refugio Mendez, who often goes by his Mexican nickname of Cuco. American friends soon shortened that to Coke. Later, co-workers at the meat plant simply referred to him as Mike.

Today in rural Minnesota, the Mexican influence in towns such as Owatonna is even greater. A poor economy in Mexico and the loss of farm jobs there has propelled workers north.

Jesus Torres, 18, who left Mexico in 2001 and just graduated with honors from Owatonna High School, works part time at Centro Campesino, a nonprofit that helps migrant and immigrant farm workers and their families. Torres said he hoped Fox's visit would bring more attention to his compatriots in the United States.

"The Mexican government needs to focus on the people here," Torres said. "He's doing a great job with the people in Mexico. But there's a lot to be done here."

Students need support, Torres said, and they need a way to connect back to their roots in Mexico and stay in touch with their homelands.

"Even though we're not living there, we're still affected by Mexico," Torres said.


In their adopted home state, Mexican-Americans hold no statewide offices and not a single seat in the 201-member Legislature.

"Voter registration is a real hot issue this year," said Rep. Carlos Mariani, a St. Paul DFLer of Puerto Rican descent who is the only Latino member of the Legislature. A wide variety of Democratic, Republican and nonpartisan groups are working to register Mexican-Americans and other new citizens.

Not having more Latinos serving in elected posts at the Capitol is a shame, said Conrad Vega, the first Mexican-American elected to the Minnesota Legislature.

The son of immigrants from central Mexico, Vega was born in South St. Paul, was the first in his family to get a four-year college degree and went on to become a teacher before running for the state Senate in 1976. He won in what was a predominantly white district that included South St. Paul, Inver Grove Heights, a portion of West St. Paul, Hastings and Rosemount.


The traditional heart of the state's Mexican community was St. Paul's West Side Flats, long a home to newly arrived immigrants. Stores catered to the newcomers. The New Ray Theater showed Mexican movies. And bars with names after Mexico locales such as Jalisco and The Monterrey popped up.

Francisco and Cresencia Rangel emigrated to the West Side Flats so he could take a job at a nearby meatpacking plant. They raised a musical family that has become a staple among Mexican-American celebrations for years.

The Flats "was one big family. There were a lot of Mexican people," said their son, Francisco "Kico" Rangel, who was born and raised on the West Side. The family band would play for festivals and weddings, while his mother often would cook the meals. There was a real sense of community, he said.

"My dad always told me to be proud to be a Mexican," said Faustino Avaloz of St. Paul. His father, Gabriel Avaloz, crossed the border into the United States around 1900 as an infant. Living in El Paso, Texas, until his early teens, the family moved to Chicago and eventually to St. Paul for work at the Cudahy meatpacking plant.

Simon Mendez said he remembered stores selling tortillas made in West Side homes and people returning from trips to Texas loaded down with spices and peppers.

"Everybody got along pretty well because everybody was poor," Simon Mendez said.

Today, Simon Mendez said he and his father see more Latinos on the West Side, as they do around the Twin Cities and in outlying small towns.

They are less likely to recognize them now, as they did in the old days.

"We just keep coming," Simon Mendez said.

"There are so many new faces. The Twin Cities do a pretty good job trying to help everyone as much as they can. The only thing in the back of my mind is, you hope we can help everybody."

Phillip Piña, Mike Hughlett, Amy Mayron, Bill Salisbury and Janet Roberts contributed to this report.


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