Profile: Historian Rodolfo Gutierrez says too many people stereotype Latinos as outsiders

Gutierrez says Latinos have a long, proud history in the U.S. and Minnesota.

A man stands in front of foliage.
Rodolfo Gutierrez, executive director of Hispanic Advocacy and Community Empowerment through Research, outside of his St. Paul office on Wednesday. Gutierrez arrived in Minnesota 23 years ago from Mexico to pursue his Ph.D in history.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Rodolfo Gutierrez arrived in Minnesota 23 years ago from Mexico to pursue his Ph.D in history. He came with his wife and their two young children.

When he finished the Ph.D program, Gutierrez became a history instructor.

In 2007 he joined HACER — Hispanic Advocacy and Community Empowerment through Research. He currently serves as the executive director.

MPR News reporter Vicki Adame asked him five questions about his perspective and experiences.

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

Latinos are so much [more] diverse today. You see so much diversity now among the Latino communities. And also the diversity has grown with almost 32 different countries from Latin America are now represented in the state. Today we are more visible and in so many ways more recognized than when I arrived here. And also today, the needs of these communities of Latinos are more obvious. And with that, the need of the state to take care of those needs is even [more] urgent because otherwise we’re going to have problems in the future.

What is the biggest issue facing Latinos in Minnesota?

There are stereotypical images of Latinos. My son was referring once [to what] he's experienced in high school. And once he was talking about discrimination and racial issues, and one of his classmates asked him, “What was it [like] when you were undocumented in the country?” He just became very upset. And he said, “I've never been undocumented. So why people are assuming that all Mexicans are undocumented?” So that issue is really important. There are stereotypical images that puts everybody in some sort of homogeneous image. It's a very, very small minority of this population, Latino population, who are undocumented, however, we're still portrayed that way. But also, we are portrayed as people who are having low or very bad or low achievement in the schools.

Before you keep reading ...

MPR News is made by Members. Gifts from individuals fuel the programs that you and your neighbors rely on. Donate today to power news, analysis, and community conversations for all.

What does it mean to be Latino in Minnesota?

It means a lot. It means going out to the streets, with fear of being insulted or being detained without any reason. It means also being very proud of being Latino. It means also being proud of so many times, managing two languages as so many other people manage only one. It means also having this insecurity of how people are going to receive you in the restaurant or the public spaces you're going to go to. 

It feels also so much pride of having that many different manifestations of culture such as Día de los Muertos, or the Day of the Dead, or the music. And it feels also somehow frustrating that we are being always portrayed as mariachis or salsa dancers — as we do have also large diversity of cultural productions. But we are a very proud set of communities, we are different communities, and we are all together when it matters. So, it is a dual kind of sense of being proud, and at (the) same time being afraid of living in Minnesota.

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

It's really important because I am a historian. As a historian, I see this country having some sort of episodes in which we need to remember the historical processes, in which one way or another, we learn how to be better. So that is why I think it is important to raise our voice and say, “Hey, we are going through this moment.” We are not, as many people consider us, new immigrants, because we’ve lived in this country from the beginning of the country. In 1848, when the Guadalupe treaty was signed, Mexicans were living already in this country, and for Minnesota, since 1865. Mexicans are living here, in Minnesota. So that is something important to recognize and to really dismantle some sort of misunderstanding, some stereotypical images that are prevailing still.

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

Particularly, that we’re strangers. Seventy-two percent of the population of Latino origin in Minnesota are born in the United States. So just being portrayed as foreigners, immigrants, new immigrants, undocumented, is terrible. That is something that needs to change, because we cannot rely anymore on false premises that try to convince people that we are all immigrants trying to steal the jobs that most people have.  I know many people are born here. 

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.