Living in America

Meet the neighbors

Bunnavith Heng came to the Twin Cities about 20 years ago. I was taking a sixth-grade math quiz when the principal knocked at the classroom door. He had come to introduce Orono Middle School's newest student.

Orono was a typical suburban school--west suburban, that is. There were the scions from elite Minnesota families, with names like Pillsbury and Jacobs, who lived in sumptuous homes on Lake Minnetonka. But there were also the kids from working-class families and a few farm boys. Most of us led comfortable suburban lives.

Bunnavith was strikingly different. He wore corduroy pants and a plaid shirt with silver snaps--obviously second-hand clothes of a sort none of us would want to wear to school. His skin was copper-brown and he was rail thin. At the time his eyes struck me as vaguely Chinese. He was older than the rest of us by a year or two.

Bill Cameron

I had never seen a soul like him outside of social studies books. We all formed a single-file line to shake the new kid's hand. Bunnavith smiled, but he didn't speak a word.

The principal said the new student was from Cambodia, a place we hadn't yet studied in geography class. "Why is he here?" someone asked. "It's complicated," came the response.

Even if we could have asked Bunnavith all the questions we wanted, there was one thing none of us could know in the spring of 1982: Bunnavith's arrival signaled a beginning, a wave of new Minnesotans who would come in droves for a quarter century.


Two years ago, when numbers from the 2000 census began taking shape, much was made about the "ethnic boom" of the previous decade. The Twin Cities, it was noted, were now home to the largest concentrations, per capita, of Somalis and Hmong in the United States.

According to census figures, Minnesota grew by 12.4 percent from 1990-2000, from 4.3 to 4.9 million people. But the growth figures for ethnic minorities in the state during that time were astronomical. Accounting for a slight change in census methodology, the number of blacks or African Americans in Minnesota grew by 113 percent. Asians grew by 111 percent, and the number of Latinos increased by 166 percent. In all, minorities accounted for 11 percent of the state's population in 2000, up from 3.9 percent in 1980 and 6.3 percent in 1990. (The American Indian population grew, too, from 50,000 to 81,000 people, but still makes up just 1.6 percent of all Minnesotans.)

The Twin Cities have changed most of all. In Minneapolis and St. Paul, whites make up 62 and 64 percent of the population, respectively. It's still a very white state on the whole; at present about 5 percent of the state's population is foreign-born, while 1.8 million--36 percent--are of German heritage. Contrast that with 202,000 blacks, or 162,000 Asians. According to the census, the percentage of Latinos in Minnesota, at 2.9 percent, remains far below the national figure, where Latinos make up 12.5 percent of people living in America.

Even so, one census expert at the University of Minnesota says, the numbers "reflect real, significant growth" of minority groups. And though the figures are thought to be flawed (many people complained that the form was confusing), updated projections released last month show that the state's population continues to climb and is now more than 5 million. While the number of whites is believed to have increased by 60,000 between 2000 and 2002, blacks, Hispanics and Asians each grew by more than 15,000 during that time. Those who study population trends around the state say those numbers reflect an influx that will likely continue for generations.

Culturally and geographically, Latinos are arguably closer to Americans than any other significant immigrant group in our history. They are coming to America, and Minnesota, in astounding numbers: The so-called "Latin explosion" is real. But this is not to say that the lives of these new arrivals are monolithic; the Latin experience in America is practically and politically complex. Still, there's little doubt that Latinos are the foundation for what is likely the largest arrival of new Minnesotans the state has even seen.

Residents the census identifies as "Hispanics" comprise the largest group of newcomers to the state in the last 10 years. ("Latino" is the more encompassing term; to many, "Hispanic" functions more like "Anglo," referring to European Spanish.) Most Latinos, more than 60 percent of whom are Mexican, are immigrants in the traditional American sense, looking for work, chasing some notion of the American dream.

But the exact number of Latinos in the state is elusive. Census figures from 2000 confidently put the number at 143,000, nearly half the number of legal immigrants in the state--though some contend many Latinos are U.S.-born, arriving here from California and Texas. Other estimates say 149,000 is closer to the truth, and still others will argue that there are perhaps twice as many as that. Population experts nearly all believe that the available numbers underestimate how many Latinos actually reside in Minnesota.

Counting is complicated by the fact that many Latinos are here illegally. For more than 10 years, and since the signing of the NAFTA agreement, the notion of "illegals" or "undocumented workers" infiltrating the American workforce has become a lightning rod in conservative circles. And ever since Pat Buchanan campaigned for the presidency with the idea of putting a wall along the Mexican-U.S. border, elected officials have made political hay by decrying the presence of Latinos in the United States.

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