Hispanic population changes Minn. community

Published 6:32 am Monday, April 25, 2011

MELROSE, Minn. — 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.

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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.”