LONG PRAIRIE Todd County, which sprawls across central Minnesota, is known to most lakes area residents as "that neighbor to the southwest."
But Todd County is becoming known for another reason. With one of the fastest-growing Hispanic populations in Minnesota, Todd County is an area microcosm of a national trend, providing an area picture of a much larger trend sweeping across the United States and Minnesota.
Ricardo and Reyes de la Garza moved to Long Prairie in May 2002 to work with the city's Catholic church, St. Mary's of Mount Carmel.
Reyes de la Garza spent many of her summers as a teenager in Minnesota with her parents working in sugar beet fields. After the couple got married, the de la Garzas lived in Wisconsin for two years before returning to Texas for 35 years.
Ricardo became an ordained deacon with the church after he retired from HEB Grocery Co., in San Antonio. The couple decided to return to Minnesota when they heard St. Mary's was looking for a Spanish-speaking deacon because they said they had understood there were many Hispanics here and knew they could help with things like translation and adapting to the culture.
"They need somebody to listen to them. It's not always money, or something they need, but they need somebody to listen to them," Ricardo said of the people he works with and meets who also recently moved to the area.
The pair visited Michoacan, an area in Mexico where many of the new Hispanics in Todd County are from, in January to see what it was like for many of their friends and neighbors before coming to Minnesota. They said many of the people they work with came with hope of a job.
Ricardo de la Garza said often the biggest hindrance to adjusting to life in Minnesota is the language barrier. While many Hispanics who come from Michoacan are a mix in terms of educational background and wealth, he said many are people from very rural communities who have never learned to read or write.
"A lot of people ask, 'Why do you not take English classes?' but it's not because they don't want to," said Ricardo de la Garza. "It's because of the barrier, because many of them can't read or write." Many of the people who come with an education start learning English immediately, through classes offered at St. Mary's or at the schools at night, said de la Garza.
Todd County has an increasingly large Hispanic population, with most settling largely around Long Prairie. Most come because they know family and friends who have moved to Todd County before them. Many find work at Long Prairie Packing Co. and Jennie-O Turkey Store, packing plants in Todd County and Stearns County that have large Hispanic work forces.
The Hispanic population is the fastest-growing minority population in Minnesota, according to census figures. In 1990, there were 53,884 people claiming Hispanic heritage, a number that jumped to 143,382 in 2000.
Sonia Reyes, director of the Todd County Multicultural Liaison Office in Long Prairie, estimated there are nearly 1,000 Hispanics in Todd County, and Long Prairie Mayor Don Rasmussen said there are probably 300 in the city itself. Minnesota census figures show a growth from 58 Hispanics in Todd County in 1990 to 463 in 2000, a growth rate of 698.3 percent.
By contrast, Crow Wing County saw a 119 percent growth of Hispanic people between 1990 and 2000, from 174 to 381. Only Le Sueur, Nobles and Pope counties had higher growth rates in the Hispanic population, though the number of Hispanic residents might be higher in other counties.
Census estimates placed Todd County's population at 24,569 for 2001, and 97.5 percent was white, or Caucasian. The next biggest racial group in the county was Hispanic, at 1.9 percent. Three percent of the population statewide is Hispanic.
The first Hispanic family moved to Long Prairie nine years ago, said Sonia Reyes, and relatives and friends from that family's hometown, Michoacan, in southern Mexico, followed looking for work and stability.
Sonia Reyes was hired as director of the county's multicultural liaison office because of the experience she had working to reconcile the community and Hispanics in Melrose for five years, she said.
For the Long Prairie community, the change in demographics has caused growing pains. But now that a few years have passed and Long Prairie natives have had time to adjust, the aches and pains are beginning to ease, said Rasmussen.
"I think the community as a whole has been very welcoming, so to speak," said Rasmussen. "There is, however, those few that are not as welcoming. There have been no problems, just talking."
Rasmussen said the growth in population and the increase in diversity in Long Prairie, and Todd County as a whole, has been good for the area -- most people moving to the city are arriving with long-term plans to settle in Long Prairie. There have been several Hispanic families who have bought homes and started businesses in the city.
"It's something that we need to address and work with," said Rasmussen, who also is involved with the League of Minnesota Cities diversity task force which recently published a booklet for cities to use as an aid in immigration influxes.
"It won't be too many years that there will be people of another culture on the city council, on the school board, on the church boards. They will be part of the community and people who were upset now will forget it ever happened," Rasmussen said.
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