Profile: Susana Pelayo-Woodward on what it means to be a Latina in Minnesota

After nearly four decades, Pelayo-Woodward has watched the state's Latino community grow and diversify.

A woman stands for a portrait.
Susana Pelayo-Woodward is the director of the Office of Diversity and Inclusion at the University of Minnesota Duluth and assistant to the chancellor for inclusive excellence.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

When Susana Pelayo-Woodward arrived in Minnesota 37 years ago from Mexico to study, she never imagined she'd stay. She lives with her family in Duluth and is the director of the Office of Diversity and Inclusion at the University of Minnesota Duluth. Pelayo-Woodward is also assistant to the chancellor for inclusive excellence.

I asked her five questions about her perspective and experiences.

What’s the biggest change you’ve seen in Minnesota’s Latino community?

The biggest change is the demographics — the people that are moving to Minnesota that have made Minnesota their home. Latino representation had always been here in Minnesota. I thought I knew everyone that lived in Duluth. I think I can tell you now that I don’t know every person that identifies as Latine or Latino, Latinx in Duluth anymore.

What is the biggest issue facing Latinos in Minnesota?

There’s so many, but I think that the most critical right now is education — access to education, the retention and graduation of our students is critical for us to be successful. Not just for our community, but also for Minnesota. We need skilled people, trained people that can work in many areas and fields for our state to be successful.

A woman stands for a portrait.
Susana Pelayo-Woodward arrived in Minnesota 37 years ago from Mexico to study. She said the biggest change she's seen in the Minnesota Latino community is the demographics.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

What does it mean to be Latino in Minnesota?

For me, [it] means many things. I would say I’m the intersectionality of that. I’m Mexicana; I also identify as Chicana, even though I was not from Texas. I always believe in political activism — that has always been with me for creating change. Being a Latino, we are that intersection. That is I’m a mother; I’m a woman, and I’m a person that identifies as Mexicana but also has spent most of their time living here in Minnesota. And someone that is here because they have learned to love this state and wants to create change and opportunities for other people that are moving to this area.

Why is it important for you to share your experiences as a Latina/Latino?

Because I think there is a misconception. People need to understand that we are very diverse. When we say Latinos, not every person identifies as Mexican. Not every person has immigrated here recently. There’s many Mexicans that have been here even before the United States became the United States. We have a long history of being part of this country. And some of that history has been, sometimes, not very positive in the treatment of people of Latino descent. We’ve made a lot of contributions to this country.

What is one thing that you believe people misunderstand about Latinos?

One of the biggest ones is that many people think that we just immigrated here recently, when many of us haven't immigrated just recently. I think people don't understand that we are really hardworking people. And that sometimes people don't choose just to leave their home country. Some people are faced with not many choices — they have to leave their home countries for better opportunities for the children. And that we are very diverse. Not everybody speaks Spanish. Many of us are first generation, second, third, fourth generation that have been here in this area.

Vicki Adame covers Minnesota’s Latino communities for MPR News via Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues and communities.

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