Latino: Becoming Minnesotan

Latin America

Map of Homeland

Latino Stories

Quick Facts

Latino Population:
U.S.: 48,356,760 (2009)
Minnesota: 223,923 (2009)
Latin America: 580,000,000+ (2010)

Mexican Population:
U.S.: 31,689,879 (2009)
Minnesota: 156,683 (2009)
Mexico: 111,211,789 (July 2010 est.)

Guatemalan Population:
U.S.: 1,081,858 (2009)
Minnesota: 6,014 (2009)
Guatemala: 13,550,440 (July 2010 est.)

Salvadorian Population:
U.S.: 1,718,494 (2009)
Minnesota: 9,221 (2009)
El Salvador: 6,052,064 (July 2010 est.)

Peruvian Population:
U.S.: 564,370 (2009)
Minnesota: 953 (2009)
Peru: 29,907,003 (July 2010 est.)

Major Religions: 71% Roman Catholic; the rest are mostly Protestant.

Ethnic Groups: White 36.1%, Mestizo (Amerindian-Spanish) 30.3%, Mulatto 20.3 %, Amerindian 9.2%, Black 3.2%, Asian 0.7%, Creole 0.2%. The percentages vary greatly by country: Mexico, Peru, Bolivia, Paraguay, Ecuador, and most of Central America are mostly Mestizo and/or Amerindian; Dominican Republic and Cuba are mostly mulatto and black; Argentina, Costa Rica, and Uruguay are mostly white.

Major Languages: Spanish is the predominant language in Latin America except for Brazil, where Portuguese is predominant. Native American languages are widely spoken in Peru, Guatemala, Bolivia, and Paraguay, and less widely spoken in Mexico, Panama, Ecuador, and Chile.

Current Governments: Most Latin American countries are democratic, federal, and/or constitutional republics. Puerto Rico is a U.S. commonwealth. Cuba is a communist state.

Geography and Climate: Latin America covers a huge area - 7,880,000 sq mi, 14.1% of the Earth’s land surface area. Its geography and climate are incredibly diverse, ranging from rainforest to desert to mountains to tundra.

Source: CIA World Factbook 2011 and American Community Survey 2009.

Population Comparison






  • Introduction
  • Religion & Culture
  • History & Geography
  • Finding a New Home
  • Investigate Further


Latinos - mainly Mexican Americans, but also those of Central American, South American, and Caribbean origin - first began to arrive in Minnesota in significant numbers in the 1910s. Today over 200,000 Latinos live in Minnesota; this population includes recent immigrants as well as citizens of long-established Mexican American ancestry. Both Minneapolis and St. Paul are home to thriving Latino communities, and job opportunities have drawn Latinos to smaller cities and towns throughout the state.

“Latino” is a much more important term in the U.S. than it is in Latin America, where most individuals identify themselves by their country of origin rather than as members of a broader Spanish-influenced culture. The term “Latino” includes people from many different countries, cultures, ethnicities and races.

Religion & Culture


About 70% of Latinos are Catholic, and most of the remainder are Protestant or members of another Christian religion. Catholicism plays an important role in the daily lives of many Latinos and many Latino homes include an altar for prayer with statues or images of saints. The parish church has traditionally been the center of the community, and in the United States Latinos often work with the Church to organize services in Spanish and observe traditions important in Latino culture. Sometimes Catholic beliefs are mixed with indigenous religious practices that existed before European colonization.

For Mexican Americans Our Lady of Guadalupe, also known as the Virgin of Guadalupe, is a very important religious figure. According to tradition the Virgin Mary appeared to a peasant near Mexico City in 1531 and ordered him build a church in her honor at that site. This church is an important shrine for Mexican Catholics and this version of the Virgin has become a national symbol of Mexico. Her Saint’s Day is celebrated on December 12 each year by Mexicans and Mexican Americans with processions carrying a statue of her through the streets.

Another important Mexican religious festival is the Las Posadas, a nine-day event which commemorates the journey of Mary and Joseph before the birth of Jesus on Christmas Day with reenactments and processions at church or peoples’ homes. Baptisms, First Communions, weddings and funerals are all other significant religious events in Latino communities.

The Quinceañera is a special tradition found throughout Latin America and commonly celebrated in the U.S. It is a party celebrating a girl’s fifteenth birthday and her entry into womanhood. The party always includes waltzing or other dances and the birthday girl wears a big formal dress and often a tiara. In Mexico the celebration may also include a Mass at church.

Family life

Family is very important in Latino culture. Latino families, including extended family, are often very close. Extended families may live together or visit each other frequently, even if they live quite far apart. Each family member is expected to support and help the others, by giving them money, caring for them when they are old or sick, or in other ways. Sometimes an entire community, including friends and neighbors, is considered to be ‘family’.

Marriage and parenting are highly valued in Latino culture, and the man and woman are expected to play a separate role in the family and in society. Traditionally, the man is the authority figure in the family and earns the money while the woman is devoted to the home and may make sacrifices to care for her children or parents. These strict gender roles cannot always be maintained, especially in the U.S., where families may be separated or women have to work outside the home. Influence from mainstream culture in the U.S. may also lead Latino women to seek more autonomy inside and outside the home.


Spanish is the main language spoken throughout Latin America (the exception is Brazil where Portuguese is spoken). However, many people throughout Latin America speak another language as a first or second language. Native American languages (including Quechua, Aymara, and Guarini) are official languages, along with Spanish, in Peru, Bolivia, and Paraguay. Native languages are also commonly spoken in Guatemala, Mexico, Panama, Ecuador and Chile. Mexico recognizes 62 native “national languages” including Nahuatl.

Latino immigrants who settle initially in areas of the U.S. with large Latino populations, like Texas, may have a fairly easy time getting by speaking Spanish alone. However, in places where the Latino community is smaller, like Minnesota, many Spanish speakers struggle to communicate at work, at their children’s school, or in the broader community. Some Latinos take pride in their language and make an effort to teach it to their children; however, others may see Spanish language skills as unnecessary or they may purposefully avoid speaking or teaching their children Spanish in order to speed up their assimilation to mainstream U.S. culture and to separate themselves from recent immigrants or migrant workers.


Latin American food, particularly Mexican food, has long been enjoyed in the U.S. However, the type of food served at Mexican restaurants may differ significantly from the food normally eaten at the homes of Mexican or Mexican American families. Traditional ingredients used throughout Latin America include corn, beans, chilies, and rice. In the U.S. traditional foods that are time-consuming to make are made and served for special events and holidays. Christmas dinner in Mexican-American homes often includes tamales, a meat or cheese filling inside a cornmeal dough, wrapped in a corn husk and steamed.

History & Geography

Latinos in the United States come from all over Latin America, and each country in the region has its own history. Before Spanish or other European colonizers arrived, a variety of diverse Amerindian groups lived throughout these lands, including great civilizations like the Aztecs, Toltecs, Maya and Inca.

After the arrival of Christopher Columbus in the West Indies in 1492, emissaries from Spain, Portugal, and France began to explore, conquer, and split among themselves all of the land in the American continents. The land was divided into several large territories, and later, smaller separate countries. Colonizers brought the Catholic religion and European languages (mainly Spanish) and governments, and intermixed with the native people. Spain tended to rule their territories with an eye toward exploitation for profit, and embarked on campaigns to force natives to work, sometimes as slaves, in their fields and mines and to convert to Catholicism. Native revolts were common.

Spanish colonists, native people, and African slaves intermixed to different extents throughout Latin America, creating new classes of people, mestizos and creoles. Caste systems arose in some regions, which strictly defined the rights of each class of person and placed people of pure Spanish ancestry at the top. In other areas, like Mexico, mestizos became the dominant group, and people have proudly adopted a mixed cultural heritage.


The land which later became Mexico and the countries of Central America was home to many groups of indigenous people before the arrival of the Spanish in the early 16th century. The largest native group at that time was the Aztecs, a populous and advanced civilization with its capital, Teotihucan, at the site of modern-day Mexico City. The Spanish, led by Hernán Cortés, conquered the Aztecs and claimed all of Mexico, Central America, several Caribbean islands, and the southern and western portions of what is now the United States as New Spain. This entire region was ruled as a territory by the Spanish until the late 1700s, when Spain began to be forced to cede land in North America to rival colonial powers France, Britain, and the U.S. as a result of a series of wars.

In 1810 a war for independence began in Mexico, which lasted for eleven years. In 1821, the Spanish were forced to accept defeat and recognize the independence of Mexico. The five countries in Central America which had been part of New Spain (Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica) each eventually followed suit and declared their independence peacefully the same year.

Political instability and civil war followed Mexico’s independence. Texas declared independence from Mexico in 1824 and was quickly absorbed into the United States. The Mexican-American War with the U.S. in the 1840s led to Mexico’s loss of its large territories in what is now the western United States. Mexico sold a small amount of additional land to the U.S. in the 1850s. Many Mexicans became Americans during these years, simply because the land they lived on was transferred from one country to the other.

Meanwhile, revolts continued throughout the country, and the French invaded in the 1860s. In 1910 the Mexican Revolution began. Numerous factions in the country began to revolt against the dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz. The revolutionaries demanded agrarian reforms and modernization and an end to the oppression of the peasant class by the wealthy and powerful landowners. Revolutionary leaders, including Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata led armies against the forces of Díaz. In 1917 the new president, Venustiano Carranza, a leader of the revolution, passed a new constitution for the country, which sought to correct many of the abuses and problems that spurred the revolution. Fighting ended in 1920, but the political situation was still far from stable in Mexico. Carranza was assassinated in a coup d’état that year, led by another revolutionary leader, Álvaro Obregón, who was himself later assassinated.

The Institutional Revolutionary Party was formed in 1929 to unite all revolutionary factions. This party dominated Mexican politics until 2000, and became known for corruption and increasing oppression. Though the party was nominally Socialist, social iniquity continued in Mexico and an economic crisis hit the country in the 1980s. Though the political and economic situations have improved in the 21st century, many Mexican residents find opportunities in the country limited compared to what is available in the United States.

Central America

In Central America, independence in 1821 was quickly followed by invasion by Mexico, and annexation as part of the First Mexican Empire. In 1823 Mexico recognized Central America’s right to govern itself, and the five Central American states, along with a small portion of what is now Mexico, formed the United Provinces of Central America as a federal republic. However, civil wars soon broke out between rival factions within and between the various states. The union dissolved completely between 1838 and 1840, with each country’s declaration of its own independence.

Each country in South America then followed its own political path, but certain trends tended to appear in each state. Dictatorships supported by large landowners and agricultural firms grew in power until the mid-20th century. Campesinos, or agricultural workers, on coffee or fruit plantations faced oppressive conditions which severely limited their ability to own land themselves or to have any complaints heard. Calls for social, political, and agricultural reform in the highly socially stratified countries led to revolts and unrest. Socialist and communist guerilla armies sometimes engaged in outright civil war with right-wing governments backed by the U.S., who feared Soviet influence in the Western Hemisphere. Militaries attempted numerous coup d’états, and in several countries succeeded in taking control.

Political unrest and violence was worst in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua in the 1970s and 80s. Though Costa Rica and Honduras also faced social discontent, rebel attacks, and military coups, they both remained politically stable through most of the 20th century and avoided the bloodshed seen in the other states.

Guatemala was in a state of civil war between 1960 and 1996, with guerilla forces staging attacks on Guatemala City and attempting assassinations, and conservative paramilitary forces abducting, torturing, and executing suspected insurgents. A military junta gained control of Guatemala in 1982 and enacted martial law in an attempt to stamp out all guerilla activity, leading to the most violent period in the country’s history. The country began a return to democracy in 1984, and a representative government was firmly established in 1996.

In El Salvador political unrest following a disputed presidential election led to a military coup in 1979. Revolutionary guerilla movements, including students and workers, formed to fight against the ruling military junta and the landowning oligarchy, and civil war broke out in 1980. Fighting lasted until 1992 when the Salvadorian president and five leftist guerilla groups signed a peace agreement.

South America

Spanish holdings in South America (including the areas that would become Peru, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Bolivia, Paraguay, Uruguay and Argentina) as well as Panama in Central America were ruled by Spain as the Viceroyalty of Peru, and later as the Viceroyalties of New Granada and the Rio de la Plata, between 1542 and the early 1800s. At this time small revolts and rebellions that had been common in the region began to expand into wars of independence. Oppressed natives and mestizos were joined in revolt by criollos of Spanish ancestry, who resented the political dominance of people born in Spain. Military leaders, including Simón Bolívar and José de San Martín led revolutionary forces against the Spanish army, and their military victories forced Spain to surrender in 1824.

The various countries of South America became independent states at this time, with divergent cultures and politics. Similar to Central America, however, the second half of the 20th century saw many of these countries fall under the power of right-wing military dictatorships battling leftist revolutionary guerilla forces. Democracy became widespread in the 1980s, and current governments are democratic, with left-wing and socialist parties in the ascendancy.

Finding a New Home

The United States has been home to Latinos since before the country even existed. Large portions of the U.S., including Florida and the whole of the country west of the Mississippi River were part of the Spanish colony of New Spain before they were ceded to the U.S. Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California were all part of Mexico before becoming U.S. states. Mexicans living in these lands didn’t even need to move to become Mexican-Americans!

Early History, 1910s-1950s

Revolution began in Mexico in 1910, and years of economic and political instability and violence followed. Many Mexicans fled across the border. Many of these new immigrants joined the Mexican-Americans already living in the southwestern U.S. in migratory agricultural work. These braceros, or migrant farm workers, travelled through Texas and into other states to work planting, harvesting, and processing crops. Whole families would travel and work together through the entire season. Agricultural companies in Minnesota, especially sugar beet growers in northwestern Minnesota, began to recruit Mexicans and Mexican-Americans from Texas to work in their fields and factories in the late 1910s and 1920s. These companies found Mexican labor to be cheap, abundant and reliable.

Most sugar beet workers, or betabeleros, returned to Texas at the end of the season. However, some workers and families stayed over the winter in the rural communities where they worked, and others moved to St. Paul for the winter. Some got jobs in factories or with the railroad in the city and stayed put there rather than return to the fields in the spring. Most Mexicans who settled in St. Paul lived in the Lower West Side, below the bluffs along the Mississippi River opposite downtown St. Paul. A handful of Mexican families lived in this neighborhood by 1918 and others joined them over the next few decades. Shops catering to Mexican customers began to pop up, the community formed civic groups like the Anahuac Society, and a Catholic church for the Mexican residents was founded in 1931. While the Mexican-American community in St. Paul was growing, Mexican migrant workers also began to settle permanently in smaller towns near their places of employment, like Moorhead and Albert Lea.

Many of the Latinos who arrived in Minnesota through the mid-Twentieth Century were U.S. citizens, having been born in the United States. Others came from Mexico through special temporary immigration programs for migrant workers. Others came to the U.S. illegally, without permission to enter or work. Undocumented Mexican immigrants were singled out by local, state, and federal authorities as a drain on society, especially during the Depression. Many Mexicans were rounded up and deported to Mexico in the 1930s and again in the 1950s. Some of those deported were U.S. citizens or immigrants who could have qualified for citizenship.

Community Growth, 1960s-1970s

Beginning in the 1960s the Mexican-American community in Minnesota began to grow rapidly, due in particular to economic problems in Mexico. Many Mexican immigrants, both legal and undocumented, came to Minnesota in the following decades to work in the traditional fields of agriculture and food processing, and in new industries eager to take on Mexican workers. Some employers exploited their workers with low pay, long hours, and reduced benefits. Illegal workers were especially vulnerable to exploitation by unscrupulous businesses, because they feared involving authorities and employers could have employees they viewed as troublesome deported. Many new Mexican immigrants came to small Minnesota towns in search of work and have formed large communities in places like Madelia and Willmar.

At the same time the Lower West Side of St. Paul was targeted for urban renewal. Homes and businesses were torn down, and most residents moved up the bluffs to the West Side of St. Paul. This area, centered on Robert Street and Caesar Chavez Avenue, is still the heart of the Mexican-American community in St. Paul. Spurred by their forced dislocation from their old neighborhood and inspired by Chicano movements across the U.S., Mexicans in the Twin Cities began in the 1970s to rally for change and improvement in their lives and their communities.

Chicano was a term adopted for themselves by Mexican American activists in the southwestern United States. After seeing the impact of the African American Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 60s, Chicanos throughout the country and in Minnesota began to form programs and organizations to help migrant workers and other members of the Latino community with housing, legal and work issues, finances, healthcare, education and childcare. Schools and after-school programs were started to help Latino children maintain their culture and improve their performance in the classroom. Chicano and Latino activists also pressured public schools to provide bilingual education and improve communication and services to the Spanish speaking community. In Minnesota Latinos successfully lobbied the state and local governments to take notice of their Latino constituencies; both the state and the city of St. Paul founded councils to work on issues with the Spanish speaking community.

Changing communities, 1980s-Present

Up until the 1970s Minnesota’s Latino community was composed mainly of Mexican-Americans, along with a small number of Puerto Ricans and Cubans. Around 1980, however, political unrest and civil war throughout Central America led immigrants and refugees from countries including Guatemala and El Salvador to flee to the United States. In the early 2000s Ecuadorians also began to arrive in Minnesota, due to a total collapse of the Ecuadorian economy. In these decades the Latino community also began to grow out of the boundaries of their old neighborhood on the West Side of St. Paul. New pockets of community formed along East Lake Street in Minneapolis, along Central Avenue in Northeast Minneapolis and in the South Central neighborhoods of Minneapolis. Latino owned businesses line the streets in all each of these neighborhoods. Other Latinos have made homes in the suburbs of Minneapolis and St. Paul.

Latinos in Minnesota maintain their cultural traditions in numerous ways. Latin music is played in dance halls and other music venues in Minneapolis and St. Paul, as well as on Spanish language radio stations. Latino music first boomed in St. Paul the 1940s, 50s and 60s, and Latino bands played in music venues in St. Paul and on the radio and local TV shows. Some local Latino bands play traditional Mexican folk or Mariachi music, or Tejano (Texas-Mexican) music, with big bands and accordions. Others have incorporated Mexican style music with American rock music.

Folk dancing, based on the traditional dances of rural Mexico, is another popular Latino art form. Ballet Folklorico schools and troops teach and performs these dances throughout Minnesota. In the late 1960s and 70s mural painting, or Muralismo, became a very popular way for artists to celebrate and bring awareness of Latino history and culture to the broader community. Large murals can be seen painted on the exterior walls of buildings on the West Side of St. Paul and in other Latino neighborhoods.

Latin-American holidays are also celebrated throughout Minnesota. St. Paul is home to the largest Cinco de Mayo celebration in Minnesota, with music, food, crafts, and a parade. Los Dias de los Muertos is celebrated in Minnesota with ofrendas, or displays set up to honor deceased loved ones, and with pan de los muertos (bread of the dead).

Currently, Latinos form a critical part of Minnesota’s population, and Latino immigration contributes to the growth of the state’s economy. The Latino community continues to grow in Minnesota, though immigration from Mexico in particular has slowed with the economic downturn in the United States.

Investigate Further


Minnesota Chicano Latino Affairs Council:
CLAC is a Minnesota state government agency that advises the governor and the state legislature on the issues of importance to Minnesota's Chicano Latino community.

Centro: Serving the Latino Community in Minneapolis, Minnesota:
Social service agency that provides educational, cultural, and health support to Latino families.

La Prensa de Minnesota:
Website for the first Spanish language newspaper in the Twin Cities.

La Conexión de las Américas:
This community center offers classes and social activities for both Latinos and their neighbors, with the goal of building community and increasing social justice in the U.S. and Latin America.

Latino Economic Development Center:
This organization provides support to Latino businesses and helps develop locations for business.


Behnke, Alison. Mexicans in America. Minneapolis: Lerner Publications Co., c.2005.
An introduction to the stories of recent immigrants, with many photos and illustrations. Non-fiction, good for grades 4-8.

Bretón, Marcos. Home is Everything: the Latino Baseball Story. El Paso, TX: Cinco Puntos Press, c.2002.
Photo-essay tells the stories of Latinos trying to make it in Major League baseball. Non-fiction, good for grades 7 and up.

Coronado, Rosa. Cooking the Mexican Way: Revised and Expanded to Include New Low-fat and Vegetarian Recipes. Minneapolis: Lerner Publications Company, c.2002.
A cookbook of traditional recipes, with an introduction to the culture and history of the region. Non-fiction, good for grades 5-8.

García, Juan R. Mexicans in the Midwest, 1900-1932. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, c.1996.
A history of early Mexican migration to the region. Non-fiction.

Hoobler, Dorothy. The Mexican American Family Album. New York: Oxford University Press, c.1994.
Arranged like a family photo album, this book tells the story of Mexican immigrants and residents in the U.S. through history. Non-fiction, good for grades 5-8.

Millard, Ann V. and Jorge Chapa, with Catalina Burillo. Apple Pie & Enchiladas: Latino Newcomers in the Rural Midwest. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2004.
This study explores the experiences of small-town Latinos, and their impact on their new communities. Non-fiction.

Norris, Jim. North for the Harvest: Mexican Workers, Growers, and the Sugar Beet Industry. St. Paul, MN: Minnesota Historical Society Press, c.2009.
A history of the relationship between migrant workers in the Upper Midwest and the sugar beet companies and farms they worked for. Non-fiction.

Roethke, Leigh. Latino Minnesota. St. Paul, MN: Minnesota Historical Society Press, c2006.
A colorful, picture filled introduction to Latino history and culture in Minnesota. Non-fiction.

Sommers, Meredith and Anne Holzman (eds.). Latino Voices: Stories of Latin American Immigrants and their Impact in a Community. Minneapolis: Resource Center of the Americas, c.2000.
18 young Twin Cities immigrants from throughout Latin America share their stories. Non-fiction, good for grades 8 and up.

Valdés, Dennis Nodín. Barrios Norteños: St. Paul and Midwestern Mexican Communities in the Twentieth Century. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2000.
A close look at the history, culture and lives of Mexicans living in St. Paul and the Midwest throughout the 20th Century. Non-fiction.

Valdés, Dennis Nodín. Mexicans in Minnesota. St. Paul, MN: Minnesota Historical Society Press, c2005.
An introduction to the history of Mexicans in Minnesota and their impact on the state. Non-fiction.

CD: Música de la Raza: Mexican & Chicano Music in Minnesota. St. Paul, MN: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1999.
This audio CD and accompanying booklet provide a taste of the Latino music scene in Minnesota.


St. Paul’s Cinco de Mayo Celebration
Weekend closest to May 5

Dia de los Muertos
November 1-2
Events throughout Minneapolis & St. Paul, including at Mercado Central, Centro, Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Minnesota History Center, at in the District del Sol.


Mercado Central
1515 E. Lake Street
Minneapolis, MN

El Burrito Mercado
175 Cesar Chavez St # 2
Saint Paul, MN 55107-3396

La Conexión de las Américas
3019 Minnehaha Ave, Suite 20
Minneapolis, MN 55406

Citation Sources

Roethke, Leigh. Latino Minnesota. Afton, MN: Afton Historical Society Press, c.2007.

Valdés, Dennis Nodín. Mexicans in Minnesota. St. Paul, MN: Minnesota Historical Society Press, c.2005.

Wikipedia website, 14 February 2011.

nid: 2113