In the Spotlight

News & Features
People Are Showing They Care
By Frank Clancy
Part of MPR's Hidden Rainbow Series.

In her position as an outreach worker for Heartland Community Action, a nonprofit social service agency, Maria Jasso is paid to handle crises. Need a deposit for an apartment? A month's rent because of an emergency? Your pipes break? If you're in Willmar, go see Jasso (pronounced "Hosso").

Most of her clients are Hispanic. Many are new to Minnesota. Not unlike Jasso's family was half a century earlier.

Jasso, born in Corpus Christi, Texas, was raised in McLeod County, about 60 miles west of Minneapolis. She lived in several small towns, graduating from high school in Brownton (population about 700). The Jassos were, she says, the first Hispanic family in the county.

Times have changed. Each year Minnesota's rural Hispanic population grows, and that's especially true in Willmar. Many Hispanics come north to work in the beet fields, others to work at one of several turkey processing plants. "Years ago, it used to be that people came and went," Jasso says. "Now we have a lot of people who come here and just stay."

Jasso,55, has lived in Willmar since 1974. She has four children and 11 grandchildren, one of whom now lives with her.

"I think Willmar's getting better. I think Willmar's trying to get over that bridge."

- Maria Jasso, social service worker
Willmar's not perfect, Jasso admits. Anglo residents complain - unfairly, she thinks - that newcomers don't speak English. "Give them time," Jasso urges. "It takes time to learn." She hears about social service agencies that routinely treat clients with disrespect. There are reports of housing discrimination.

Yet while Jasso spends her days immersed in crisis, she remains an optimist. "I think Willmar's getting better," she says. "I think Willmar's trying to get over that bridge. People are trying to understand more. They're really showing that they care. I see it as a positive, what they're doing. People are getting to know us. I think we're letting them know more about our culture, and what we're like. And they're learning."