‘Sí se puede’: Minnesota’s fast-growing Latino community is layered and complex

A woman in a spotted shirt looks above the camera.
Patricia Conde-Brooks inside of the Anderson Student Center at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul on Jan. 8.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Patricia Conde-Brooks is an immigrant, but she wants you to know that’s not the only thing that defines her.

Conde-Brooks arrived in the United States in 1975 from Colombia. She was the first in her family to attend college and last year earned a doctoral degree in education. The Woodbury, Minn., woman has three grown sons and works at the University of St. Thomas, where she now helps first-generation students navigate college.

Now that she’s been in the country for 45 years, she said conversations about Latino issues seem to be stuck on repeat. Not all Latinos are new immigrants, and they are passionate about issues that go beyond immigration policy. 

“We are more than that,” she said. “I think that's what we need to start — changing that rhetoric — that's all we care about.”

Conde-Brooks is part of Minnesota’s growing Latino community. In 1990 the population was around 50,000. Thirty years later, estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau show the Latino community has grown to about 300,000, or roughly 5 percent of the state’s population.

Almost two-thirds of Latino Minnesotans live in the Twin Cities metro area counties of Hennepin, Ramsey, Dakota, Anoka and Washington. But Latinos have made their home in all 87 counties. Along the southern stretch of the state, in Nobles and Watonwan counties, they make up a quarter of the population.

MPR News is launching a reporting series centered in Minnesota’s Latino community. The series will feature stories elevating Latino voices concerning topics of education, housing, business, voting issues, transportation — and community. The series, ¡Adelante Minnesota!, aims to uplift the Latino community and bridge gaps of understanding across the state.

Looking to the future

When thinking about 2021 and the future, Conde-Brooks is both hopeful and worried. 

She knows the pandemic will still be disrupting daily life and the economy, but she’s concerned about the lasting impact on education. 

She’s worried that fewer Latino students are enrolling in college. National data shows that overall federal financial aid applications are down. And in Minnesota, federal student aid applications from high school seniors are down 10 percent from last year.

Researchers are already seeing COVID-19’s impact on educational attainment. According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, college enrollments are down for two- and four-year institutions. 

Educators thought the pandemic might shift school enrollments from four-year schools, mostly rural universities, to community colleges because of lower costs, Conde-Brooks said.

But that didn’t happen. Public two-year institutions or community colleges which serve the broadest swath of students have seen the sharpest year-over-year enrollment declines for the fall 2020 semester — 21 percent.

The declines trouble her, she said, because “education is one of the strongest influencers in social mobility.”

Protecting the vulnerable

Adrian Díaz Jr. is an urban planner originally from Illinois. He lives in St. Paul with his family, including their two cats, Cleo and Chuy, and their dog, Anchovy. He’s worried about 2021, and like Conde-Brooks, is concerned about education, racial equity, immigration and the economy.

He sees the connection between the pandemic, economic stability and education in the Latino community. Díaz says that every aspect of society is going to be affected in the next few years from poor education and employment shortages to a lack of political power for underrepresented groups and especially the most vulnerable.

That includes people without U.S. citizenship or the documentation that allows them to legally work in the country and receive the benefit of social programs they fund through taxes. According to the Washington, D.C.,-based think tank, the Bipartisan Policy Center, immigrants pay billions in income taxes but don’t receive any of the benefits.

Díaz has friends and family who work in the restaurant industry, a sector that has been massively disrupted by pandemic related closures.

In the first wave of CARES Act direct payments, people who weren’t U.S. citizens and people from mixed-status families weren’t eligible for extended unemployment benefits or other state sponsored relief efforts. And they did not receive the one-time $1,200 payment last spring —though they will retroactively receive the stimulus check with the signing of the most recent $900 billion dollar coronavirus relief bill. 

The unrest after George Floyd’s killing severely impacted Lake Street in Minneapolis where ethnic businesses, some Latino-owned, were shuttered, vandalized or destroyed. But even before the summer’s unrest and pandemic hit, Díaz says Lake street was changing.  

 “A year ago, things were looking very differently, the cost of living was starting to become very expensive, especially housing,” he said. “A lot of minority families that used to live there can't afford it anymore.” 

Now after the unrest and destruction, Díaz worries about what the future will hold.

“I think it's kind of become an opportunity for new developers to keep pushing out the lower income residents that used to live there,” Díaz says, “So I think it's going to start changing a lot.”

Conde-Brooks, who is more hopeful than Díaz, said Latinos are resilient. 

“We don't give up — sí se puede,” she said. “Even though we are at probably one of the darkest times some of us will ever have — the huge losses of family members, huge losses of health — that as Latinos, we always have hope.”


How hopeful are you about 2021? What are the issues most important to you? Please help MPR News tell more authentic stories about Latino Minnesotans by filling out this survey. Your answers will help raise the voice of the Latino community in Minnesota, and we’ll use your input to help us do better reporting for Latinos in the state.

Kathryn Styer Martinez is the 2020-2021 MPR News Toni Randolph reporting fellow. She can be reached at kstyermartinez@mpr.org. Follow her @kstyermartinez on Twitter.

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