In the Spotlight

News & Features
Can We All Get Along?
By Kathryn Herzog
May 4, 1999
Click for audio RealAudio 3.0

In some Minnesota counties, all the residents are white. In some cities and towns, the minority population has just begun to grow.

Immigration to west-central Minnesota hit its peak in the late 80s and early 90s with some unofficial reports indicating an increase in the Hispanic population of 800 percent.

Kandiyohi County saw the most dramatic population change as food processors like Jennie O and Golden Plump hired factory and farm workers who ultimately settled in and around Willmar. Over the years, Willmar has struggled with its race relations and become a model for other rural towns as they grow more diverse.

IT'S LUNCH HOUR AT THE TALK TOWN CAFE in downtown Willmar. The tables are full as people talk over noon-hour specials and homemade pie. Waitresses call customers by their first names.

It's a scene repeated across the state; a predominantly white middle class town that's experienced a surge of immigrants over the past two decades. But you wouldn't know it sitting in one of downtown Willmar's busiest diners. The numbers say Willmar has become more diverse, but it seems that socially, life in Willmar remains segregated.

Obregan: There are a lot of reasons why Willmar, it is a place to be, it is a window of the world in rural Minnesota.
Pablo Obregan is a Lutheran minister at the Paz y Esperanza Church in Willmar. He opened his church in 1992 as a place for immigrants both new and old. But it's mainly Hispanic people who show up for Sunday services as readings and music are in Spanish.

But Obregan says integration is about more than just language. It's about being comfortable with something new.
Obregan: Some people didn't know how to react. Changes are very difficult. Changes can be scary, and people are going to try to put their defenses up.
Obregan says there was a significant lack of communication between Willmar city leaders and the Hispanic community as people began to arrive in large numbers in the late 80s. He says initially, Spanish-speaking residents had little support to find adequate housing and adjust to new schools.

Willmar has experienced great change over the past two decades. With the growth of industry, many new immigrants have found jobs and settled down. Willmar is a regional hub in west-central Minnesota with a population of about 20,000. About 10 percent are people of color. By the year 2000, it's predicted students of color will make up 20 percent of enrollment at Willmar schools.

Willmar has long carried the stigma of what a town should not do when the population becomes more diverse. Even residents of Willmar recognize their city's reputation for intolerance.

Obregan and other city leaders admit Willmar does have it skeletons. But Obregan says people in town haven't hid their feelings about what it means to live in a city that's changing.
Obregan: Sometimes people haven't meant to be negative but they are being honest and a lot of the things that have been said or expressed has been negative comments, you know, very discriminatory statements about people from other cultures but by being honest, I think there was a channel to start a conversation with those that were open to communicate about those issues.
Luz Jimenez is President of the Hispanic Alliance in Willmar. She's lived in town for more than 10 years organizing farm workers, working on get out the vote campaigns in the Hispanic community and more recently helping new immigrants receive their GEDs. But the hours of extra work with little reward have weighed heavy on Jimenez in the recent weeks. She says its hard when the media seem to focus only on problems in the Hispanic population - gang trouble and crime, for instance - without paying attention to organized events like Cinco de Mayo or other cultural celebrations.
Jimenez: We are tired and we are working with the community and we try to do good things. So and I don't think they are nobody appreciate the effort we make, so especially the other part, the Anglo part. But we still working in this. We still doing something here in the community and we will see what happen.
There is a hopelessness in Jimenez' voice as she recalls a recent incident at a local Chinese restaurant.
Jimenez: So when we come to this restaurant, the family there they say, "Why this Hispanic people come to Minnesota?" And I try to ignore them. But this hurts my feelings and then they say these people smell like rats. You know they talking loud. We can hear very well. And I was with, there with my family. You know things like that upset me.
As the tears come, Jimenez emphasizes there are many good people in Willmar and that she has many white friends. But she says Willmar is not a healthy place to raise Hispanic children.
Jimenez: Sometimes I can't explain. Sometimes I feel myself, you know, like I don't want to be Hispanic. I want to be another person, another culture. Because first when I come to Minnesota, I feel this is the land of opportunities. I can do everything what I want here. So, but when I move to Willmar and after that, you know, a lot of people, you know, they don't like us. Fear and mistrust common reactions from people in towns unfamiliar with new cultures.
Residents of Willmar often cite language as a source of tension within the community, and over time it's even brought the national spotlight to Willmar as the community's frustration made its way to the courts.

The Willmar Police Department attempted to ease the language barrier by hiring the force's first Hispanic police officer in 1990. Two years later, the officer filed a discrimination lawsuit against the force claiming he was the victim of racial harassment by other officers and falsely accused of taking bribes from the Hispanic community. The case was settled out of court but the officer eventually left the force and the city.

In 1996, 13 Hispanic families in Willmar filed a lawsuit against the local school district, alleging Hispanic students were singled out for harsher discipline and that their children's academic needs were not met. The case was eventually settled out of court, and required greater contact between school officials and Hispanic parents.

Life-long Willmar resident and former mayor Richard Hogland says the lawsuits marked Willmar as a city closed to newcomers, but over time, he says they helped change Willmar for the better.
Hogland: I would have probably told you about 10 years ago, I thought we were a welcoming people and we said we can take anything, but then after some of these people come in, some of the things that did happen, a lot of them weren't welcome. Sometimes they said "Go on back home" or "Go back where you came from." But I think a lot of that has been overshadowed now and most people welcome the people in our community.
Pablo Obregan says Willmar - like many Minnesota towns - still has a ways to go before all aspects of city life become integrated.
Obregan: I think that we are out in the spotlight and I think we have learned to be in that position. And as people travel around our rural and country roads, you will find people from different parts of the world living in the prairie of Minnesota.
Willmar has that small-town American feel. Businesses line the streets and neighborhoods look neat with well-tended yards. But Willmar's reputation as a city closed to new comers remains. The Willmar City Council recently approved a new statewide ad campaign to help improve the city's image. And while people of color in Willmar have gained a greater voice within the school system and created their own community organizations, they remain the city's invisible newest residents.