Living in America
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.
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.
Because of this, no one is anxious to put a number on how many illegals are here. Estimates run from 10,000 to 10 times that, but state demographer Tom Gillaspy says more data will be coming later this year. "For 1990, we ended up figuring there were 13,000 unauthorized here," Gillaspy notes. "We could guess that the figure would be close to 60,000 in 2000." Nationwide, some 2.7 million Latinos are believed to be in the United States illegally.
But the phenomenon is nothing new. Latinos, and Mexicans in particular, arrived in Minnesota as far back as 1860 as migrant workers. The 1900 census, however, identified only 24 Mexicans living in Minnesota. Over time, the number of Mexicans arriving increased, and by the 1930s as many as three-quarters of migrant workers in the state--some 18,000--were Mexican Americans, the offspring of the original migrant workers. The laborers, contributing mainly to the state's sugar industry in the Red River Valley, were allowed to work in the state legally, but the industries were seasonal, and few stayed in Minnesota year round.
But as farming became more mechanized in the latter half of the 20th century, the workers developed factory skills, and by the 1950s there was a burgeoning Latino community on St. Paul's West Side. For the next 30 years, Mexicans working mainly in the area's slaughterhouses and meatpacking plants continued to grow on the West Side and St. Paul's East Side.
By the 1990s, as family farms gave way to factory farms, more Latinos arrived and stayed in Minnesota, almost single-handedly providing labor for the many meat-processing plants that were soon scattered throughout rural towns. More importantly, for all the talk about NAFTA sucking jobs from the U.S. to Mexico, the opposite has been equally true. U.S. businesses have taken over farming and factories in Mexico, leaving Mexican small-business owners looking for work. And they come to the United States to work in the food plants and factories, or to open restaurants and markets in the urban centers.
Just considering official counts of legal residents, the numbers are impressive--if already a little dated. More than 30,000 documented workers live in rural Minnesota, but the change on the Twin Cities has been just as profound. For the first time, the official number of Latinos living in Minneapolis has surpassed the number living in St. Paul, by a margin of 29,000 to 22,000. On Lake Street, in particular, the effect has been evident. It's estimated that there are now 190 Latino-owned businesses along and around the city's main corridor, contributing some $160 million annually to the city's tax base.
Claudia Fuentes, director of Hispanic Advocacy and Community Empowerment through Research (HACER, an acronym that is also the Spanish verb "to make"), says the valuable contribution Latinos have made to the state's economy has been willfully ignored. Fuentes has a special distaste for the conventional view of the undocumented worker. "Here's what I say to that: Give the undocumented workers work permits," Fuentes says. "Everybody knows they're here. It's disingenuous, because legislators are banking that Latinos don't vote, but white blue-collars do. I say, let's have a serious dialogue about this." (Since I talked to Fuentes in May, her words have proven prophetic. Republican-backed legislation that would grant legal status to many of these workers--touted by Arizona Senator John McCain--was making its way through Congress in August, just in time for the next major election cycle.)
Fuentes and others will note that Latinos, here legally or not, work the jobs most white Americans don't want: dishwashers, hotel maids, roofers. "We need the Latino workers, and the politicians and businessmen know it," Fuentes insists, saying companies actively recruit workers in Mexico. "American businesses are addicted to the undocumented worker."
Fuentes argues that many businesses know that they employ illegal immigrants. They also know that Latinos register for work with stolen Social Security numbers. The paychecks come with taxes taken off the top, and little chance that the undocumented worker will file a return. More importantly, Fuentes says, undocumented workers come cheap.
Fuentes points to a September 2000 study done by James Kielkopf, a market researcher in the Twin Cities. In "The Economic Impact of Undocumented Workers in Minnesota," Kielkopf wrote that the jobs that regularly attract undocumented workers are mainly in the service industries, construction, roofing, maintenance, landscaping, and meat processing. Kielkopf estimates that these industries employ anywhere from 18,000 to 48,000 undocumented workers in Minnesota, contributing as much as $3.8 billion to the state's economy each year.
Kielkopf goes on to claim that undocumented labor accounts for 2.4 percent of the state's gross domestic product, and that if illegals were removed from Minnesota, economic growth would be reduced by 40 percent. Finally, Kielkopf estimates that undocumented labor results in $1.02 billion in tax revenue, with $311 million going to Social Security, and another $345 million going to state and local taxes. "That means that unless government costs have increased by more than a billion dollars due to the undocumented labor presence," Kielkopf summarizes, "they provide a net gain, not loss, to Minnesota taxpayers."
Outside of tax revenue, Fuentes points out that money made here by illegals is largely spent here. "They put this money right back into the state's economy," she says. National studies have shown that while $9 billion in personal income made by undocumented workers annually goes back to Mexico, it is only 15 percent of the money Mexicans contribute to the U.S. economy. Through spending and taxes, undocumented workers contribute some $60 billion to the economy each year.
But let's leave aside the question of "illegal alien residents," as some Latino immigrants are called, for a moment. Initially, I was inclined to look at this story as a treatise on what I was calling the "immigrant experience." Which missed the point.
"The question is, what do we mean by that?" asks Katherine Fennelly, a population expert at the Humphrey Institute at the University of Minnesota. "There is no one immigrant experience, and to merely talk about these population changes in terms of immigration is to exclude many people, entire groups, new to the state."
What Fennelly refers to is the large number of refugees found in Minnesota. Refugees, legally speaking, are different from immigrants in that they are allowed into the country by the U.S. State Department under special circumstances. The U.S. refugee policy, made into law with the Refugee Act of 1980, "embodies the American tradition of granting refuge to diverse groups suffering or fearing persecution." The Act works in accordance with a United Nations policy adopted in 1951.
The policy mainly identifies refugees as people who can't live in or return to their native countries "because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion."
(The act was signed by President Carter and made a point of addressing the problems of those fleeing communist regimes, especially Russian Jews. Also, at the time, the Carter administration was grappling with large numbers of Cuban and Haitian refugees arriving in Florida, hoping to settle in the States. But the upshot was that the U.S., in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, soon saw a huge influx of Southeast Asians.)
Nationwide, the percentage of new arrivals to the United States who are refugees is about 10 percent. Here at home, according to John Borden of the International Institute of Minnesota, it's closer to 50 percent. The institute's latest study puts the number of refugees in Minnesota at roughly 158,000, which on its face is 65 percent of Minnesotans who claimed to be foreign-born in the 2000 census.
"What's unique in Minnesota is that we have a relatively low number of actual immigrants," says Borden, adding that seven Minnesota nonprofits have connections to 12 national groups. (Borden notes that his nonprofit is the only "non-ecclesiastical" group involved in resettlement in Minnesota.) "We took large numbers of Vietnamese and Hmong in the 1970s, and we've brought in large numbers of Hmong and Somalis since."
But it's worth noting that the actual refugee figures--though more easy to track than counting illegals--rarely ever jibe. The State Department says, for example, that 3,488 refugees were placed in Minnesota in 2000; the Minnesota Department of Health adds 500 to that figure.
At the end of 2000, the U.N. had identified 12 million refugees worldwide, but only a relative few would likely gain entrance to the U.S. Each year, the State Department sets a cap on the number of refugees the U.S. will take. Refugee advocates will cry partisanship when talking about these numbers--with Republicans incurring their wrath--but in reality the figures seem rooted in geopolitical situations more than any real homeland agenda.
Throughout the Reagan years, the cap was usually set around 70,000. The first Bush administration kept the same cap, but frequently allowed more than 100,000 refugees into the country, a trend that continued into the first term of the Clinton administration. Much of this was due in part to the wars in Bosnia and Rwanda. Numbers soon fell below 70,000 in the latter half of 1990, and during the current Bush administration, that has been reduced again, and a cap of 50,000 was set in 2002. (By contrast, the number of immigrants allowed into the U.S. in 1990 was set at 700,000.)
Since 9/11, however, the number of refugees admitted has fallen drastically, to fewer than 25,000 in 2002, while the latest studies put the number of refugees around the world at 20 million. These refugees are, in this post-9/11 era, waiting in camps around the world.
A popular assumption is that Minnesota is active in resettlement because of Lutheran and Catholic church groups, and while that is partially true, ultimately it's the State Department that decides who gets resettled where. Twelve national nonprofits get contracts for so many refugees per year, and the State Department grants money based on that number. In 2000, for instance, three-quarters of the roughly 73,000 refugees admitted into the United States were settled in 15 different states. California resettled the largest number, at 13 percent, while Minnesota came in sixth, taking in roughly four percent.
There is a 30-year history involved here. In the early 1970s, Minnesota saw its first wave of refugees, in the form of defectors arriving from the Soviet Union. In a few years, with the end of the Vietnam War, suddenly there were huge pockets of Southeast Asians who could no longer live in their homelands. During that time, many of these people had been mired in battles between communist North Vietnam and the U.S.-backed South Vietnam. Those who chose to--or were coerced to--side with the United States were left in danger when North Vietnam prevailed. Oppression and executions were the currency of payback.
As a result, many fled to international camps seeking refuge, and the U.S. faced a crisis of its own making. In 1979, the year before the U.S. refugee policy became law, Minnesota took in nearly 4,000 refugees. According to the state Health Department, all of them were from three countries exclusively--Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia.
That trend, in regard to Vietnam and Laos, continued well into the 1990s, which accounts for the large number of Hmong refugees in the Twin Cities. (The Hmong, historically, are nomadic, with no country to their name.) By the dawn of that decade, Russian and Ukrainian refugees, with the fall of the Soviet empire, were coming in large numbers again, at a clip of about 600 a year until 1997. By 1996, African refugees, predominantly Somali, started to eclipse the East Asian refugees. More than 2,100 Somalis arrived in Minnesota in 2000 alone, a one-year influx second only to the 4,000 Laotians who came in 1980.
Eventually, according to health department statistics, some 40,000 refugees came to Minnesota from Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia between 1979 and 2000. Refugees from the former Soviet Union totaled more than 7,000 during the same period. And more than 6,500 Somalis came to Minnesota in a much shorter time, from 1993 through 2002. All told, some 70,000 refugees to date have been officially resettled in the state in accordance with the Refugee Act of 1980.
But if these numbers--while reflecting an unusual pattern of new arrivals--seem small, it's because they are. Through federal and state agencies, refugees are relatively easy to account for on a national level. What is harder to figure, however, is a phenomenon called "secondary migration," where refugees who have been dispersed around the United States join friends and family in another metro area. Minneapolis-St. Paul, due to its stable job market, educational opportunities, and many social programs, tends to be a national center for secondary migration.
Recent news reports show that Africans are quickly eclipsing every other refugee group of the last quarter century, but even this is wrought with mitigating factors. For instance, there's much discussion as to how many Liberians are in Minnesota. The number has jumped by thousands in just the last two years. But, as state demographer Gillaspy notes, the current crisis in Liberia could go two ways: In the next few months, depending on the outcome of the strife, the local Liberian population could easily double, or just as easily "zero out." Even so, he says, there are about 3,500 Liberians here, a number that changes daily.
"The immigration and refugee system is complex as hell, and nobody really understands it," Borden asserts. "Another unique aspect in Minnesota is that we tend to do only 'family-reunification' cases. We only bring in refugees if there's already an anchor member of the family living here and working here. This leads to bigger, and more stable, communities."
In June, Borden used census data, along with state department numbers, to get what many believe to be a good estimate of refugees in Minnesota (though, by his reckoning, 90 percent reside in the metro area). He included not only secondary migration estimates, but also U.S.-born children of refugees and those who were granted citizenship. That's why Borden estimates the total refugee population to be about 158,000 statewide, more than twice the number originally settled here.
Of those, 52,000 are Hmong, 22,000 are Somali, 20,600 are Vietnamese and another 17,000 are Cambodian or Laotian. Ethiopians, coming in significant numbers in the last four years, now number about 8,500, according to Borden, and refugees from the former Soviet republics total about 7,000.
These figures alone mean that the number of foreign-born Minnesotans--not including Latinos or other "traditional" immigrants--has matched the state's previous high in the early 1900s. Then, Swedes, Norwegians, Germans, and Irish made the Twin Cities one of the dominant immigration centers in the country. A hundred years later, a similar influx happened, though one far removed from the folklore of Ellis Island.
African Americans have engaged in their own "secondary migration" to Minnesota in the last ten years as never before. And though they are Americans by birth, many of them are likewise refugees in a practical sense.
The Twin Cities have become a haven, so the legend goes, for black folks from depressed areas of Chicago, Detroit, and Gary, Indiana, looking to get a new start. Indeed, much of the political impetus behind denunciations of Minnesota's social programs stems from the tired old discourse about blacks migrating to Minnesota to lay back and collect welfare. The reality is bleaker.
In 1991, a USA Today study of FBI data revealed that blacks in St. Paul and Minneapolis were far more likely to be arrested on drug offenses than nearly anywhere else in the nation. Nationally, blacks were four times more likely than whites to be arrested for such offenses. St. Paul had fourth-highest disparity in the country; blacks were arrested on drug charges there 26 times more often than whites. In Minneapolis (number five on the list), the multiple was 22. The Twin Cities were the only major cities in the top ten.
There are other examples of disproportionate justice between blacks and whites in the state. According the Council on Crime and Justice, using data from the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension and FBI reports, blacks were ten times more likely to be arrested for "property offenses" in 1990. Through 1999, the numbers remained disparate, and by the mid-1990s, African Americans were 16 times more likely to be cited for those crimes.
Tracking arrests for "violent offenses" during the same period, the Council on Crime and Justice reported that for most of the 1990s, blacks were 30 times more likely to be arrested for violent crimes than whites. Last month, Mother Jones studied crime statistics from 2000 for all 50 states; Minnesota ranked first in the nation for the greatest disparity between white and black incarcerations.
Earlier this year, Michael Munson, a planning analyst at the Metropolitan Council, put together a study that looked at income levels for metro-area residents going back to 1970. Munson's "Trouble at the Core Revisited" powerfully illuminates the ongoing dynamics of urban poverty and white flight. In 1970, according to the study, there were just a handful of neighborhoods in Minneapolis and St. Paul where more than 25 percent of the population lived below the poverty line. By 1980, those pockets of poverty spread to include most of the cores of both cities, encompassing mostly black areas on the north side and in the Phillips neighborhood in Minneapolis, and on the West and East sides of St. Paul. By 2000, poverty had a seemingly intractable hold in those areas. Crime statistics from the Minneapolis Police Department through the same period show that as the city's poverty rate climbed, so, too, did the crime rate.
At the same time, minority populations have been growing in the cities and the first-ring suburbs. By Munson's estimates, some 86,000 more "nonwhites" and "white Hispanics" were living in the urban core in 2000 than in 1980. In the first-ring suburbs, the minority population grew by 58,000. During the same period, the number of whites living in the urban core decreased by 52,000, and another 62,000 fled the first-ring suburbs. In that 20-year span, "developing areas" of the metro--mostly outer-ring suburbs--attracted 465,000 more white residents.
For the last quarter century, the Twin Cities area has had a relatively low poverty rate--just under 7 percent in 1979 and 1999--compared to the national average of 12.4 percent for those years. But this could be attributed to one dynamic: Minimal and decreasing poverty rates for whites, and significant and consistent poverty rates for minorities. In 2000, about three percent of whites in the metro lived in poverty, while for blacks, Asians, American Indians, and Hispanics, that figure was around 20 percent or higher. And in 1990, the year before the USA Today story about drug arrest disparities, nearly 40 percent of all blacks in the metro lived in poverty, compared with five percent of whites.
The economic boom of the mid-1990s lowered overall poverty rates in the metro, but by 2000, the pockets of poverty in the inner cities continued to expand. And these were the neighborhoods where immigrants and refugees tended to settle. In other words, the community financial hardships that have burdened black Americans for decades are now afflicting the new arrivals, introducing scores of new Minnesotans to poverty and limited opportunity.
These new Twin Citians live mostly in places like Frogtown and the East Side in St. Paul, Lake Street and Cedar-Riverside in Minneapolis--places that for 30 years have represented the worst of what white flight can do to city neighborhoods. In some respects, financial disparities aside, the new arrivals have been a boon: Neighborhoods long left for dead have been revitalized with new cultural identities.
But it's just as telling to note that roughly only one-eighth of Minnesotans live in Minneapolis or St. Paul. Conventional wisdom says, and not without reason, that most Minnesotans have little interaction with our refugees and immigrants, and that's the way they like it.
"It's the hot-button issue right now, this notion of 'assimilation' or 'integration,'" says the Humphrey Center's Fennelly. "This is what we expect the newcomers to do right away. But it's chilling. It doesn't let the immigrants bring with them their various contributions to our culture."
More concretely, open hostility toward foreign-born residents has become the norm. The post-9/11 crackdown on Somali wire services locally was heralded as counter-terrorism, but it wasn't hard to read between the lines: You're not like the rest of us. And Governor Tim Pawlenty campaigned, in part, on his desire to see residential status noted on all new driver's licenses, an idea seriously considered at the Capitol this past session.
Again, the notion had its roots in post-9/11 paranoia, but HACER's Fuentes sees it in a different light. "It's telling people that we're going to root out those illegal Mexicans, and it's a dishonest dialogue," says Fuentes, who was born and raised in St. Paul. "At the very least, it uses race politics to fuel the belief that Mexicans are stealing jobs."
Nearly everyone close to immigrants and refugees is eager to dispel the myth that the new residents are welfare cases. "They are ready to be Americans and work before they come here," Borden says, underscoring his point by noting the English classes, nursing classes, and computer-training classes going on daily at the International Institute. "The idea that they would come here and not work never dawns on them. They want jobs."
Which may be exactly what unsettles so many Minnesotans. Since the mid-1990s, Fennelly has been studying the expansion of food-processing plants in small-town Minnesota, most notably in places like Faribault and Owatonna, and noting what happens as Somalis and Mexicans become the dominant workforce in town.
"There's a nostalgia in rural America that has a Norman Rockwell mystique," Fennelly says. "In Minnesota, that means to be white, and Scandinavian or German. The rapid change in these communities is shocking."
Fennelly says that racism fuels a sort of double standard in these small towns. "The stuff I'll hear from people, especially the blue-collar white workers in the factories, will just make my jaw drop," she says. "I'll hear rants about how all the Somalis and Mexicans do is come in and take their jobs. Then someone will say, 'Yeah, but my brother-in-law is Mexican, and he's a good guy.' It's as if they don't see the connection between the perception and how it really affects their lives."
And the political climate across the country hardly makes it better. Elizabeth Boyle, a sociologist at the University of Minnesota who studies Somalis, notes that since 9/11, Somali Muslims have lived in fear. "What I see, now more than ever, is a desire among African immigrants to become citizens," Boyles says. "But it's harder now for that to happen than it's ever been."
There's no doubt that race and wartime anti-Islamic propaganda come into play. For instance, while the number of refugees is down across the board, Russians are largely immune from post-9/11 wrath. "The Russians, by and large, have had an easier time of late," concedes Gayle Saeks of Jewish Family Service, a nonprofit that resettles Russian Jews. "Here in Minnesota, the assumption is that they are just like everyone else because they look like everyone else. That ends when they open their mouths."
Bunnavith Heng's father, an academic at a Cambodian university, was slain by the Pol Pot regime in 1975 after it seized control of the country following the withdrawal of American forces. In 1979 there was a regime change, and Pol Pot fell in favor of a puppet government that was, if less bloody, no more democratic. Bunnavith, along with his mother and four siblings, fled for Thailand, where it was said the Americans had set up a Red Cross camp.
For three days and three nights, the five of them moved through the jungles of Cambodia seeking refuge. They paid guides with gold and diamonds Bunnavith's father had stashed. For more than a year the family lived in the camp and waited its turn to fill out papers seeking sponsorship through a "third country"--Australia, England, or, best of all, America.
The Hengs came piecemeal to the United States. Bunnavith arrived by boat in March of 1982 with his two sisters and mother. The culture shock they experienced was nothing set against the memory of fear and poverty in their homeland.
"We had come from the tropics to what seemed to be a frozen tundra," Bunnavith recalls. "At first, we went to the church out of appreciation, but we stopped going. We didn't know about conversion then, but that's what it was. We are Buddhists, and that's what we remain, but we still keep in touch with some of the people that supported us when we got here. We lived in a small apartment with another family, and we were told there were too many of us. We had to find a place of our own. My mother, a single mother of five, couldn't understand why we needed to move. But we found another place."
Bunnavith now lives in Brooklyn Park with one of his brothers. He left Orono during our sophomore year of high school, and eventually graduated from St. Louis Park. He became a U.S. citizen, was graduated from the University of Minnesota, and went to work as a computer programmer at Unisys. More recently, he worked as a programmer for Veritas, but has since been laid off. But he's confident he'll find work soon, and has no plans to leave the Twin Cities. This is his home.
In 1995, he returned to Cambodia at the end of a tour of several Asian cities. The experience left him unspeakably sad. "I had been to Hong Kong, a real modern city, with tall buildings and busy streets," he recalls. "When the plane was coming into Cambodia, there was still only one runway, and people living in huts, and cows grazing nearby. They still live in poverty there."
Despite this, Bunnavith returned again last year. Though living conditions seemed slightly improved, "I thought of what we went through--my father," he says, stopping short. "I don't know that I can go back again now."
An oral history as told to G.R. Anderson Jr. and Raoul Benavides
Juan Manuel Vasquez and Joel Martines Chaves
Vasquez: I've been here for one month. I just got here, but I've been here before. Every year I come to work for the summer. I'm contracted to install sprinklers for a company in St. Paul. I come from Michican, Mexico. I have friends that have worked for the company, and that know how to get a visa. They have a company that does that. The work visa is $100.
Chaves: There are 15 to 20 friends of ours that come up for the summer. I've been doing this for three years--work in the summer and then go back. I like it that way. I can bring money to my family. Our families are still in Mexico.
Vasquez: It's our friends that "hook" us, for the company. The company recruits. They tell us there are jobs that Americans don't do. Fine with me. Twelve people from Mexico ride around in one car and do the work, 10 hours a day, 50 hours a week. We get a check for $900 every two weeks. I send $600 back every two weeks. I have two children, and I'm married. Our wives are housewives. Back home, I make doors and windows. I'm self-employed. We do whatever we can to make the money, and the money is better here. There's not as much for us in Mexico, but we can only get permission to work, not to live here. It's worth it, yes.
Chaves: I have two children, one year and seven years. I come to work; it's pretty good for us. We definitely make more than people working in the restaurants. There are four of us in an apartment in St. Paul. We work all over, mostly in the suburbs, in the city, the whole region. Wherever we have to go.
Vasquez: I get very lonely. I miss my family. I talk to my wife on the phone every weekend. That's when we talk. I like it here, but mostly it's just work for me here. Have to make the money. But it's not my home, no. In November I get to go back.
I don't have any papers. My wife and family are with me--we have a child that is nine years old--and we've been here for two years. I'm 26 years old, and we come from Guanajuato. During the week, I work in a print shop. But no, I'm not here legally. It doesn't seem to matter as long as I do my job.
You don't really get scared of being deported because the job is more important. I just want to do that job. Well, I am always scared of being caught, but that's not the most important thing. I have a car, I drive without a license, without papers, and I just hope I don't get pulled over or in an accident. But it's what I have to do to earn a living.
The pay is pretty good for us; I can work 40 hours a week and make $300. Then on the weekend, I can work here [at a market] and maybe make another $60 to $70 a day. The money now I can keep, I already paid what I owed to get me here.
I paid $1,500 dollars for a "coyote" to escort me across the border, and it took me one week to get into the States. We came through Juarez, and the coyote got me some papers that belonged to someone else. Then we flew into Dallas and then I came to St. Paul. It was me and the coyote and another guy. The coyote had fake driver's licenses for me, and I picked one of a guy that looked just like me. It wasn't a big deal because I crossed, all of this happened, before 9/11.
My wife was already here, and had already been here for a year. My wife and I both have family back in Mexico; we're the only ones here from either family. We send some money back, but mostly we have to keep it here to live here and spend in the shops. My family works in Mexico, so maybe one weekend my wife sends $100 back. We're trying to save up to build a house back home. The family business is something I want to get back into. They run a leather shop--they are all leathermen. But there's more money here for us.
Sure, I like it here, but I only plan to stay another three years. There's really no cultural problems here for me with people who are different, because I mostly just stay here on the West Side, where everyone is friendly to us. We are all part of the same culture here, so many are Latinos, so it's easy for me.
I'm 25 years old, from Morelia, and I've been here for a year. I just live here with my husband and our one-year-old girl. I have papers to be here, I have a visa to work for one year. It's got two more months on it, so I can work until then. Same with my husband, then we go back. We have a good chance of being allowed back again to work, and we'll come back [to St. Paul]. I don't think we can be allowed to stay here permanently.
Monday through Saturday I'm at the Burger King. I work five hours a day, for about $150 a week. I work in back, in the kitchen. I send money back to family, about every two weeks, half of [my paycheck.] It's mostly going to my four brothers. My husband works as a carpenter, and he works about 40 hours a week. I don't know what his pay is. We live on the East Side, and my husband picks me up and drops me off here when I work.
There are no jobs for me in Mexico, so I'd like to stay here another year. Women don't work there. I like it here, even though my family doesn't live here. I don't have much interaction with Anglos, so sometimes it's lonely. I don't ever talk to the customers; I just do my job in the kitchen. I make the Whoppers, the specials, yeah. But everybody who works here is Hispanic, my boss, everybody, we're all Mexicans. The employer doesn't mind.
We have an apartment that's good enough for us, it's nothing special. All I really know about the States is working--that's all there is. That and the Mall of America.
Wes and Jackie Borgan
Wes: I've lived here all my life, and my parents have too. This wasn't really the West Side when I was growing up. The West Side was down the hill, and that's right where I was born. This was what we used to call the Hill, and now it's the West Side.
Basically it's become a Mexican neighborhood with whites and blacks, and a few Indians and Lebanese, and not so much Jewish, like there used to be on the lower West Side. On the lower West Side, almost every block there used to be a synagogue. And there were a few up here, but they're gone now. There used to be one just kitty-corner from here on this block, a really nice brownstone synagogue that's been turned into condos, but in those days they didn't do that sort of thing. That was probably almost 38 years ago. I'm 48 now, so that seems about right.
I'm a tailor for the Men's Warehouse in Woodbury, but we still live here. My ma lives across the street from me, and my sister lives next door, and her husband's father lives down the block. All my family lives really close. In my teenage years, you knew a lot more people around here. I believe there's more impermanence here now. But with all the families down here, you can almost find a way that you're related.
Before me and [Jackie] met each other, she went out with a Mexican guy and they had two Mexican sons. And my older son's kid is Mexican. All my sisters and brothers are married to Mexicans except me. One's married to a black, part-black, a mulatto. Almost all my nieces and nephews are Mexican, and I got one Puerto Rican nephew. So with all of that, my ma was married to a Mexican. It's really part of my family and it always has been.
Jackie: Well, I grew up in Bloomington and I came here 20 years ago. That's when it seemed like this huge influx of Latinos started happening too. And I used to hear, well, so-and-so doesn't like me because I'm white, but for me, I've been lucky because of my business, here at the [hair salon, West Side Hair Care], people will accept me. It's actually been my shop since 1994. I'm 49. We really need people that speak Spanish, so I have a lot of gals working here who are Latino, and that's good. But you're a minority if you're a white person here.
Wes: When I was a teenager, I had a few friends who came from Mexico and they didn't really speak English. When we'd be hanging out on the streets I'd teach them English and they'd teach me Spanish. I think racism goes every way, any group against another. And it's a sad thing that it's like that. If you say you're against someone's culture or something like that, it just becomes trouble for you in the end.
We came here from Cosmos, Minnesota, and we had come from San Antonio before that. This was 1959. We were migrant workers. We did migrant work ever since I can remember, ever since I can have a memory.
I was migrant working and going out into the fields when I was five or six. The first fields I remember were cotton, in the outlying areas of Texas. I was approximately 12 when I came here in Minnesota, and it was primarily farming sugar beets and corn.
I'd have to get up about five o'clock in the morning because we didn't have running water in the apartments that were provided for the migrant workers. There was a pump outside maybe 50 feet away. The closest one was 50 feet and that was in Crookston. Others were much further away. But I had to go out, get the water, and bring it to my mom to make the coffee, breakfast, and lunch that would be packed for the people that were going to be working. So I got up at five.
In most places, the room was eight by eight. Usually they'd give us three of those rooms. We moved around, from shack to shack. Three rooms for 12 or 13 of us. It was what I imagined a cell block to be.
I can't really remember the pay, but it wasn't much. My mom never worked in the fields, but my dad and all of us kids worked; there were at least six or seven of us working the fields all the time. Mom was what I guess they would call a homemaker. She didn't really work a day in her life, but she had to make the lunches and whatnot. That was her work, but we didn't call it work then. My parents were born in the States; their parents were born in Mexico.
Once we came to the West Side, in fact it was the lower West Side, the real West Side, from then on there was no more migrant work. Well, there was a couple more times that I did do migrant work, and then it was potatoes. This was in the early '60s. There was some times we did go back and forth--in an old truck, all the families would ride in the back of that same one--between here and Texas. We went all over. In Oklahoma we did cotton. In Michigan we did apples and cherries. I think it was tomatoes in Arkansas. In Minnesota, we went to Cosmos, Hector, East Grand Forks.
Then, in 1965, I got involved in social work. Not long after, there was the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act. Working in conjunction with the program, I was able to go to some of the migrant farms and get some of the kids to enroll in the training program. That was my job for about three years. At that time we had a halfway house, where people who were settling out of the migrant stream were allowed to stay there. The optimal time was 30 days--sometimes 60, sometimes 90 in the most severe cases.
Then along came an opportunity to work for Southern Minnesota Regional Legal Services. My job was to go out and investigate any claims made against the farmers by migrant workers and find out what their beef was against the company. During that time there were companies that would recruit--in San Antonio, El Paso, and other border towns--say, 300 people for each area. The workers would come up here looking for a job, and what happened was, the farmer would take bids to see who would do the job for a lesser amount. After traveling that far, the migrant workers had no choice but to bid low for that job, which eliminated a lot of their wages.
And then the farmers also did this: In the contract, the farm would be sized at 300 acres. It was in the contract. But sometimes it would say "about 300." I'd go investigate. Did that mean 350 acres? What did that mean? So they would have fewer workers for more land. That was always our dilemma.
I have three kids and a wife, and I'm 56 years old, born in 1947. I do new-home warranty and furnish homes now, and remodeling and building. I'm in the construction business, for about 12 years. Before that, I was building cabinets and elevator panels. My family lives here, but I'm up by the Macalester area. We left the neighborhood about eight years ago.
It's changed a lot. When my wife lived here, about three blocks from where we are now, every parent knew everybody else's kid. There was nothing a kid could do without a parent finding out, because everybody was so close. We could walk around on weekends at 11:00 o'clock at night, all the lights worked, nothing was broken, and none of the kids would do anything wrong. At one point, the families wanted to get out of a crime-ridden area. The families changed, and didn't follow that tradition of knowing each other. There are still some of the old families here, but it's not like it was before.
Because we are primarily a Hispanic neighborhood, people who come from other countries feel comfortable staying here. But they come with what I assume would be a short stay. The Hispanics come in for five, six months, but what makes it such a short stay is the winters. And the type of work, of course, it's seasonal.
Racism is easier when it's more exposed than when it's hidden. It's more hidden now, but it's still there. I remember going to the [town square] in San Antonio at five or six years old, and seeing the two water fountains, with the signs, for coloreds only and for whites only. And I always wondered, being in the middle, which was for me. Which one do I drink out of? To me, at that time, it wasn't something that I really dwelled on.
For example, we always had slingshots. I had one too. I didn't know it at the time, I had no idea what the name of that thing was, because everybody down there called it a "nigger-shooter." And I had no idea that was some kind of racist thing, because I was a kid. It wasn't until years later that I realized this thing was not named for what it really was. That was something that really amazed me, that I practiced those kinds of racism unknowingly.
It's not so widespread anymore. People have learned that, because of the laws, there are certain things you can't say in public. But there are still certain things that people will say in private. The laws keep it out of the public, but that doesn't do anything for the normal minority person in private. They still have that racism they have to face.
I've been here six months. I'm from Chicago originally, the south side. I'm just tryin' to change up. It's pretty violent in Chicago. I got two kids here and I'm tryin' to get them a different environment, you know. We're right over there in 199C.
It's pretty cool here. But we got a car here that somebody wrote "Fuck black people" on it. I don't even like saying it. You know, somebody was scratching up the paint job on it. So, I have real mixed feelings about it. I really can't say who did it, because I don't like to point fingers, but somebody in the neighborhood's been doing it. It happens when I'm at home. I do feel violated.
My son is nine, my daughter's five, I'm 25. I was working at Prospect Foundries, but I got laid off because they kind of caught up with the work. It's a seasonal kind of job, and if they're behind they call up. I'm a grinder and a welder now. Never done it before, that was my first time doin' it.
I'm looking for something else, but I talked to my manager just last week to see when they would need me again. He couldn't give me a date, but he told me to keep trying back to see what they got for me. So that's what I'll do. My girlfriend's a nurse in Bethesda Hospital, in a rehab center, right here by the capitol. She's my high school sweetheart. Seven years for us.
I left the East Side last month, just to try to find somewhere to stay. The East Side is kind of bad too. We're just trying to find somewhere comfortable until we can afford a house. But with the things that have been goin' on with our car, I can't say we'd stay. It came down to somebody scratching racism on our car, that's pretty serious, you know. I don't know what I'm gonna do about it.
If somebody's got their own personal thought about somebody's ethnic background, that's sort of hard to get over. It doesn't make me feel good at all. I'm just trying to take care of my family. There's always people out here, and they're always talking. I don't know if it's Chinese or Hmong, but they talk around me, and go, "ha, ha, ha," and I always think they're laughing at me. A new neighbor and stuff, you try to talk to people, but I don't know if it's that they don't understand English or don't want to be bothered or what.
But I found out they do speak English because of what they wrote on my car: "Fuck black people." They understand that much.
I live in Midway, but I've worked as a program aide in this low-income high-rise, since 1990. I came from Cameroon, to go to school, in 1982. My sister went to school so I came and studied business administration.
I have not been back to Cameroon. I miss it a lot! I have family there, and we call, and send e-mails, and I send some money back. Cameroon is a stable country, but it's ruled by a dictator. So they have problems, and you have people coming here every year for political asylum.
When I first started working the neighborhood, it was mostly Hispanic, a few blacks, and then some whites. The Hmong community, it wasn't really here, but the last five years, it seems like it's more and more. Of course, now every time you look around, it's kids around this neighborhood. That's the Hmong community now.
Most of my best friends are from other African countries. It's different sometimes with the black Americans. When I first came, with some minorities, you have all these negative ideas, when you watch too much of the media you believe what they tell you. I happen to work with three of them, and they are nice people and you learn that they are the same like you. One of my co-workers has a boat, and we had a picnic last year. So I do socialize with some of them.
Of course, I experience racism from white people here. When I drive down the street, I always pass cop cars and look in the rearview mirror, because they are going to make a U-turn and follow me. Another time I was carrying my TV I had just bought from Best Buy, across the road to my apartment, and this guy, an older cop, saw me, and he's passing by, and makes a U-turn: "Is that your TV?" You know, I'm like, "Yeah, it is, here's my receipt." That kind of thing.
We live on the East Side now, but we lived here seven years ago, my family and myself. We needed to find a place big enough for all of us. There's 11 of us.
I haven't been over here for a while, but I still come to hoop. I'm 28, and I used to be way better than this. I can't keep up with the kids anymore. The cigarettes, drugs, and the beer. I'm still healthy though, maybe more than any teenager. I still beat 'em.
We lived here for eight years, I grew up here. My folks are from Laos, and I'm Hmong. We came to the state in '85. I had to wait in a camp for eight months. I was about seven or eight, really. We'd just sneak through to the camp by bus, to Thailand all the way through. We moved to Thailand because of the war, and to that place, the camp. Just to safety.
We came right to here, by that big green church over there. In wintertime, too. I didn't know what snow was. I didn't go no more than a block, because I'd get lost. Every house looks the same, seems the same, is the same. I got lost a couple times. Two weeks I was in school after that. I was freaked out, I was lost. I speak English now, so it's cool.
Mostly I learn English from the street, or from hanging out with friends, or TV. I dropped out of school, I farm. My parents, and my sister, they farm for the farmers' market, so I help out for change here and there. My sister has a garden in Rosemount. That's basically what our people do.
I don't have a problem with other groups. We all live here and we got to get along. No prejudice, just respect each other. I've gone through it a lot on the other end, but it changed me to a better person. When I first arrived, there was a lot of prejudice in the beginning, because there weren't a lot of us. So many people called me monkey boy, you know? Being called names and getting pushed around. Chink, whatever, you know, chink, gook, whatever. Why don't you go back to your country, and all that bullshit.
Maybe they just don't like what race you are, or your skin or something like that. They bring us here, and then they act like they don't want us here. But I learned how to deal with it when I was little and I kept on going to jail, and learned to be friends with people. This is my country. I got nowhere to go. It's too bad they don't want me here, but I'm here.
A breakdown of local immigrant populations collected from the International Institute of Minnesota, the Minnesota Department of Health, the U.S. Census, and the U.S. State Department
WHERE ARE THEY FROM? Eritrea is a small country in East Africa bordered by Ethiopia and the Red Sea.
WHY DID THEY LEAVE? After a century of colonization by Italians, British, and Ethiopians, Eritrea gained independence in 1993. In 1998, war erupted with Ethiopia that continues today.
WHY/HOW DID THEY END UP IN THE TWIN CITIES? In the 1980s, Eritreans came to the United States as refugees from Ethiopia, usually as university students, and received political asylum. Another wave came, on visas, in the late 1990s.
ESTIMATED LOCAL POPULATION: Roughly 2,000 Eritreans in Minnesota.
WHERE ARE THEY CONCENTRATED? A large community lives in St. Paul's West Seventh area.
SOCIOECONOMICS: They tend to seek higher education and work in a variety of service industries, especially at the Minneapolis/St. Paul Airport.
WHERE ARE THEY FROM? Ethiopia is a landlocked country in East Africa, where there are more than 75 ethnic groups (and 80 languages). Most populous are the Oromo (40 percent), followed by the Amhara and the Tigrean.
WHY DID THEY LEAVE? Since 1980, civil war, ethnic conflict, drought, and famine have caused hundreds of thousands to flee the country. The Amhara had long dominated the political landscape, but in 1991, the Tigreans took over and now run the economy.
WHY/HOW DID THEY END UP IN THE TWIN CITIES? In the 1980s, many Ethiopian professionals and students obtained political asylum in the U.S. As many as 1,500 Ethiopian refugees and immigrants arrived in Minnesota in 1999. Since then, more have come as secondary migrants to seek jobs and reunite with family.
ESTIMATED LOCAL POPULATION: More than 8,100.
WHERE ARE THEY CONCENTRATED? Many live in Minneapolis's Seward and Cedar-Riverside neighborhoods.
SOCIOECONOMICS: There exists an educational divide among Ethiopians, so while there are many educated professionals with university degrees living in Minnesota, others find work as parking-ramp attendants, security guards, and food service workers.
WHERE ARE THEY FROM? Liberia is a small nation on the Atlantic coast of West Africa.
WHY DID THEY LEAVE? Liberia, founded by the offspring of freed American slaves, has long had close relations with the United States, even during periods of civil unrest in the 1980s and '90s. More recently, the country has experienced utter chaos due to an uprising and the ouster of a longtime president.
WHY/HOW DID THEY END UP IN THE TWIN CITIES? More than 800 Liberian refugees were resettled in Minnesota in the 1990s.
ESTIMATED LOCAL POPULATION: As many as 3,500--the numbers have fluctuated wildly since the latest unrest.
WHERE ARE THEY CONCENTRATED? They are scattered throughout the Twin Cities, but have significant enclaves in Brooklyn Park and Brooklyn Center.
SOCIOECONOMICS: More than 60 percent of Liberians are Christian (the rest are Muslim) and almost 30 percent of Liberians speak English, the country's official language. Many Liberians are highly educated, and tend to work in nursing and healthcare fields. Others have little or no education, and work in manufacturing and service industries.
WHERE ARE THEY FROM? Somalia is a nation of eight million people on the Horn of East Africa
WHY DID THEY LEAVE? In the latter half of the 19th century, Britain, Italy, and France divided up the Somali territory for themselves. After World War II, Italy granted Somalia independence. Since the nation's political system collapsed in 1991, it has been without a functioning government and has been plagued by famine and civil war. As many as 400,000 Somalis have died during the last decade, and more than one million have fled their homeland, mostly to neighboring Kenya, Ethiopia, and Uganda.
WHY/HOW DID THEY END UP IN THE TWIN CITIES? Many came as refugees in the 1990s, with relatives continuing to arrive as secondary migrants.
ESTIMATED LOCAL POPULATION: Roughly 25,000, the largest concentration of Somalis in the United States.
WHERE ARE THEY CONCENTRATED? Eighty percent reside in Minneapolis's historically poor neighborhoods, including Cedar-Riverside, Phillips, and Eliot Park. More and more, Somalis are moving to the suburbs--most significantly Eden Prairie--and rural Minnesota.
SOCIOECONOMICS: Somalis are divided into numerous clans; their culture is rooted in "nomadic pastoralism"--the act of traveling with herds of goats, sheep, and camels. They are Sunni Muslim, a belief system that affords more freedoms to women than most Muslim cultures. Prior to the civil war, an urban, professional class emerged, but even among this group, traditional culture is revered. Although different levels of Sunni orthodoxy exist, most Somalis do not eat pork or drink alcohol; they pray as many as five times a day.
There exist significant class differences among Somalis, with many of the highly educated working in government agencies, hospitals, and school districts as linguistic and cultural translators. The less educated work in retail and hotels, or clean offices or drive cabs.
WHERE ARE THEY FROM? Sudan is, geographically, the largest country in Africa. It shares a border with Ethiopia and has a population of 33 million.
WHY DID THEY LEAVE? The northern two-thirds of Sudan is controlled by ethnic Arabs who are committed to creating an Islamic state. The southern third is made up of Africans of various ethnic tribes and religious beliefs who have resisted Arab domination. Northern Sudanese, mostly Sunni Muslims, often capture and enslave ethnic Africans. Except for an 11-year peace agreement from 1973 to 1983, Sudan has been at war since 1955, and famine is an ongoing problem. Hundreds of thousands of Sudanese have died or fled to Ethiopia, Uganda, and Kenya.
WHY/HOW DID THEY END UP IN THE TWIN CITIES? Almost exclusively as refugees.
ESTIMATED LOCAL POPULATION: 400 and growing.
WHERE ARE THEY CONCENTRATED? Most live in Anoka County, northern Hennepin County, and Roseville.
SOCIOECONOMICS: Most Sudanese have no education. Further, many come from rural backgrounds and have a difficult time adapting to the urban and technological aspects of living in the Twin Cities. They work in food processing, housekeeping, and office cleaning, while those more educated work in healthcare.
WHERE ARE THEY FROM? Cambodia is a Southeast Asian nation of 11 million people, bordered by Vietnam, Thailand, and Laos.
WHY DID THEY LEAVE? Since 1975, Cambodia has been home to political violence, civil war, and oppression. Under the rule of the communist Khmer Rouge, two million people were killed or died of starvation or disease. Cambodia was engaged in a civil war from 1978 to 1989. Hundreds of thousands fled to Thailand in the late 1970s and 1980s.
WHY/HOW DID THEY END UP IN THE TWIN CITIES? Many Cambodians came as refugees in the 1980s.
ESTIMATED LOCAL POPULATION: More than 7,200.
WHERE ARE THEY CONCENTRATED? Most live in St. Paul, Edina, and Brooklyn Park.
SOCIOECONOMICS: Most Cambodians are Theravada Buddhists and live by subsistence agriculture, farming whatever land they have. The first wave of Cambodian refugees was well educated, but those who fled during the civil war were not. Many in Minnesota work in factories and warehouses.
WHERE ARE THEY FROM? China is the world's largest, most populous country with 1.2 billion people.
WHY DID THEY LEAVE? Mao Tse Tung's communist government, in place since 1949, forbids religion and political dissent.
WHY/HOW DID THEY END UP IN THE TWIN CITIES? Most Chinese arrived here through natural refugee and immigrant patterns. Since the 1980s, many have come to attend the University of Minnesota.
ESTIMATED LOCAL POPULATION: There are 10,000 Chinese immigrants and descendants of Chinese immigrants living throughout the state.
WHERE ARE THEY CONCENTRATED? There is no particular area of concentration.
SOCIOECONOMICS: There are various Chinese dialects, but Mandarin and Cantonese are most often spoken by Chinese people in America. In Minnesota, the Chinese tend to be well educated and work in the corporate world.
WHERE ARE THEY FROM? There is no Hmong nation or state; they are an ethnic group. Though historically nomadic, they have more recently lived in Laos, Vietnam, and China.
WHY DID THEY LEAVE? Their culture is agrarian, and many Hmong farmers, at the behest of the U.S. military, fought the Vietcong and communist forces during the Vietnam War. After the United States withdrew, many Hmong were forced to seek refuge in Thailand.
WHY/HOW DID THEY END UP IN THE TWIN CITIES? The first Hmong family arrived in Minnesota in 1975, through the U.S. State Department and various church organizations.
ESTIMATED LOCAL POPULATION: There are now more than 52,000 Hmong in the state, believed to be the largest population in the U.S.
WHERE ARE THEY CONCENTRATED? They live mostly in St. Paul, in the Frogtown, East Side, and West Side neighborhoods.
SOCIOECONOMICS: The Hmong long maintained a purely oral culture, but that has changed during the last half-century. They practice "animism"--the belief in spirits and the supernatural world--which centers on the role of the shaman. Some in the U.S. have converted to Christianity.
Because American culture is so different from their own, many of the first Hmong refugees had a difficult time in the U.S. Most had no formal education and were schooled only in slash-and-burn agriculture. They were unaccustomed to settling in one place. These differences made the Hmong relatively suspicious and disdainful of certain aspects of American life. Many of the first refugees clung steadfast to their own beliefs; few speak English to this day.
Now, many Hmong refugees work in manufactu
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