The Journey to Economic Equity has a History and a Future: Part II

Salvador Miranda

Salvador Miranda

Director of Training Salvador Miranda reflects on the road to building economic equity with Minnesota’s Latino community, and how that history is paving the way to future development. Part II of a two-part story. Read Part I here

Recently I visited with an emerging leader from a rural region who is joining others in an immigrant farmer cooperative and working out of the new East Side Enterprise Center with LEDC.

Building on the historic lessons of the Mercado Central, Plaza Latina and the cooperative model, LEDC staff and leaders began organizing in Long Prairie – St. Cloud region and creating a presence in the south with the Willmar Area Multicultural Marketplace (WAMM). As in the metro region, immigrant families and workers are finding work and opportunities in greater Minnesota. WAMM became a center for micro business development and the Latino Academy Teocalli Tequiotl OIC. In Long Prairie, immigrant Latino farmers formed the Agua Gorda Cooperative and created a partnership with La Loma Restaurant with many locations in the Twin Cities. Tons of organic tomatillos and chilies grown at the farm and are purchased by La Loma – a very productive partnership!

Since the early 2000’s, with the resources provided by a Rural Cooperative Development grant from the USDA, LEDC has been able to work with the immigrant Latino farmers in creating the structure of the cooperatives. Farmers are coming together, pooling their resources, relationships and markets: spreading the work load.

In 2007, LEDC advanced the focus of the agriculture development work from workers to owners. They connected the Latino farmers of the Agua Gorda cooperative, the Cala Farms, owned by Rodrigo Cala and his brother in Turtle Lake Wisconsin and La Familia Cooperative in New Richland Minnesota, which has six farmers. More than 30 Latino farmers and two white owned farms have formed the Shared Ground Cooperative. LEDC is in discussion with Latino farmers in southern Minnesota to bring them into the cooperative, as well. The Shared Ground Cooperative serves as a marketing and distribution cooperative for its members. LEDC insures the Latino farmers participate fully in the operations of the Cooperative.

Another emerging cooperative in rural Minnesota is the Manos Latinos Cooperative in Owatonna, using land connected to Riverland Community College. This effort is being led by Victor Conteras, former Executive Director of Centro Campesino. The Conteras family is a long time Owatonna family, who own a bi-lingual tax service, (Servicios Contreras) for the Latino families in southern Minnesota. Victor is working with Latino farmers in New Richland (La Familia) and Surena Cooperative, another emerging Latino farmer led cooperative in Austin, Minnesota. The produce they are growing is free from pesticides and all the work is done by hand with no equipment. They have a strong commitment to sustainable farming and preserving the quality of the land.

Victor points out the barriers Latino farmers face are access to documentation and the high costs of agricultural farm land, which is why they are pooling resources to have access to the land. Breaking into the market and distribution centers of produce is another challenge when they are competing with lower cost produce from other countries. To overcome these challenges Manos Latinos Cooperative is coming together with LEDC and the Shared Ground Cooperative to identify ways to minimize operational costs, connect with more community based markets and community owned restaurants and grocery stores.

Shared Ground Cooperative consists of these farmers – producers united around a common set of goals. A core objective is a commitment to make environmentally sustainable farming a living wage opportunity for those who chose to pursue it, especially people of color and immigrants. Shared Ground and LEDC view the marketing and farm skills training as a strategy for social justice; a way for immigrant farmers to overcome structural barriers, earn a stable sustaining income, and access training and leadership skills through this member-owned and member governed enterprise.

At a new site in East St. Paul, LEDC has staff at the Eastside Enterprise Center working on building the leadership and structure of Latino farmers within the Shared Ground Cooperative. There are 12 partners at the site advancing economic development, access to capital and equipment and marketing strategy for the Latino and Hmong farmers.

This model – forming an immigrant farmer led cooperative was a catalyst in the creation of the Hmong American Farmers Association and the HAFA farm in the Hastings Vermillion region .Farming for the Hmong community is part of their history and tradition in their home country. HAFA’s mission is to advance the economic, social and cultural prosperity of the Hmong farmers in Minnesota through economic development, capacity building, advocacy and research.

The HAFA farm is a 155 acre research and incubator farm in Vermillion Township. HAFA sub-leases the land to small family farmers and maintains a demonstration plot to teach farmers to be better farmers, business operators and stewards of the environment. HAFA is closely connected to the growing Hmong markets, restaurants and public markets emerging in the Twin Cities and across Minnesota.

In a recent conversation with Ramon Leon, Executive Director of LEDC, he shared stories of how this fast growing immigrant farmers’ cooperative movement is building. He shared how a $4000 loan for seed, and three acres became forty-seven acres of land – used to grow organic produce and create forty jobs which pay a living wage. He has been in conversation with the Minnesota Restaurant Association and the US Restaurant Association about buying local produce and investing in this economic movement. Leon is connecting with federal agencies and banks about loans to purchase more land and equipment – creating more jobs and economic growth for the families and the communities.

Given what has happened in the Minnesota economy from the micro- entrepreneur development work of the 1990’s and now building the movement to include our rural communities, it is accurate to state that the immigrant investment in Minnesota has been powerful and will be sustaining for years to come.

More than the economic benefits for Minnesota are the environmental impacts. I’ve been reading reports about the decline in water quality in Southern Minnesota from pollution by corporate farms and their pesticide run-offs; massive amounts of manure sitting and poisoning the air quality for their neighbors. That is not the rural Minnesota of our future. This state began in the mid 1880’s with policies and programs to give settlers access to the land. Now it is time again for public and financial support of these farmers and their families as they plant their roots in our rural community and continue the legacy of land stewardship. Now is the time to remove barriers to their economic investment in Minnesota. One of the most politicized barriers we all face is the existing immigration policies and the political rhetoric about the immigrants in our community. It continues to divide our community.

As I was listening to the stories of how this rural farming organizing is moving forward, it came to mind that these new immigrant farmers are growing fresh organic produce and selling it to the growing immigrant businesses: restaurants, grocery stores, etc. that resulted from the asset based community organizing work of the entrepreneurs from the Sagrado Corazon community. It is a full circle – creating a rural – urban connection and creating food justice and economic power.





The Journey to Economic Equity Has a History and a Future: Part I History

Salvador Miranda

Salvador Miranda

Director of Training Salvador Miranda reflects on the road to building economic equity with Minnesota’s Latino community, and how that history is paving the way to future development. This is Part I focused on history. Part II on the future coming soon. 

Back in the early 90’s, a colleague and dear friend of mine in the Hispanic Ministry office of the St. Paul Minneapolis Archdiocese, Deacon Carlos Valdez had a visit with me and shared that he was seeing many new Latino families moving into south Minneapolis. At that time he was working on planting a Latino congregation in Minneapolis at Ascension church on the Northside, which had a sizable Mexican community before the I-94 displacement of the community in the 50’s. We invited Hispanic Ministry to invest in a community building strategy and Deacon Carlos went into Minneapolis neighborhoods doing home visits with hundreds of these families. Within a couple of months, it was clear what these new families were talking about – they wanted a worship space where they and their families could pray and be in community together.

Carlos put together a team of us and we paid a visit to Fr. Pat Griffin at St. Stephen’s, which has always had a strong neighborhood presence and ministry to the disenfranchised. Fr. Pat listened to the stories Carlos had been hearing and by meeting’s end, he put the keys to the sanctuary on the table and stated, “You and the new Latino community are welcome to use our space every Sunday afternoon.” Sagrado Corazon de Jesus was created! Before long the congregation was standing room only every Sunday afternoon. The community was doing baptisms every week; marriages and other sacraments were carried out by Spanish speaking clergy that Carlos invited. The Latino leaders emerging from this community met with the Archbishop requesting recognition it became a Chaplaincy – this was a powerful community! Other Latino led congregations emerged both within the Catholic denomination and other faiths as well.

A few years later, colleague and friend Juan Linares of Catholic Charities and I were in Chicago attending week long training at the Gamaliel Foundation. We began talking with John McKnight, Executive Director at the Asset Based Community Development department at Northwestern University about the new Latino community in Minneapolis. An asset based strategy was designed as the Hispanic Talent Inventory. Catholic Charities partnered with Interfaith Action and Juan was focused on organizing with the community from an office at St. Stephen’s School he shared with Fr. Larry Hubbard, pastor with Sagrado Corazon.

The Hispanic Talent Inventory which Juan conducted with the leadership at Sagrado Corazon revealed a significant entrepreneur history and interest – a majority had experience of entrepreneurship in their family history. When asked about barriers they faced to starting new businesses, they responded that education (English especially) and immigration were significant barriers. So Juan and another leader on the team, Bradley Capouch, did the research on how to address these barriers and found that Neighborhood Development Center had a micro business training session led by Latino businessman, Rodolfo Trujillo from Trujillo’s Tax Services. This was the track for training the growing base of Latino entrepreneurs. Before long there were alumni from this training coming together with a vision – create a Latino run business incubator and call it the Mercado Central!

Word got out that this emerging group of Latino business people was looking for a site for the Mercado Central and the businesses along Lake Street and Bloomington Avenue stepped forward with a proposal at an “underused” building on the southwest corner of the intersection. It needed work! Juan and others took on the challenge. Ramon Leon became the chair of the emerging Cooperativa. Project for Pride in Living came forward as partner. NDC continued the micro business training and creating a strategy for entrepreneurs to apply for business loans. Change was beginning to happen. Juan worked with architects and the cooperative members to lead the raising of resources and the buildout plan.

By 1999, the grand opening was a community celebration with Senator Paul Wellstone, Archbishop Harry Flynn, and city officials at the event. This was a model of what impact the assets based strategy narrative can have in disenfranchised communities. National funders saw this as a model they called the Payne – Lake Community Partnership and we set our sights on East St. Paul creating Plaza Latino and other St. Paul businesses with East Side Neighborhood Development Center (ESNDC) and other partners.

In 2000, according to research studies conducted on the economic impact of this community building effort, immigrant owned businesses were contributing over $331 million to the Minnesota economy. Hispanic owned firms had grown 350% since 1990. Also in 2000, the Mercado Central sponsoring team became the same leaders who formed Latino Economic Development Center. The vision was created to build strong Latino businesses in the Lake Street area, St. Paul and all of Minnesota. LEDC began working with a cross cultural team on what became the Midtown Global Market. LEDC created the Latino Scholarship Committee to raise scholarship funds for high school graduates unable to access higher education. With these scholarships, scores of these youth have been able to access higher education and become leaders in Minnesota.

All of these accomplishments happened despite the barriers which continue to exist – immigration policies were made tougher after the 911 attack of 2001, education resources for ELL continue to be cut under conservative legislation, and access to resources and opportunities continue to be at the center of our equity organizing today. It must be pointed out that some barriers we create amongst ourselves – divisions in the community because of distrust, trauma, envy, and internalized bias which continue to get in our path. The lesson some of have taken away from this ongoing effort is the vision created by the community has the power to keep us moving forward despite our selves!


OAP Organizing Class: Learning from Migrant Workers in Southern Minnesota


The 2014 OAP Organizing Class of 19 organizers just graduated on August 7. Over the six-month training, they had the opportunity to learn from organizers in Greater Minnesota and the Twin Cities area. The Greater Minnesota trips to Leech Lake and Southern Minnesota were immersion experiences that expanded knowledge, understanding, and relationships among the OAP class members. Congratulations to these powerful racial justice organizers!

By Salvador Miranda

“Got Food? Thank a Farmworker” – Centro Campesino

The 2014 OAP Traveling Organizing Class was on the road again for the next immersion experience, this time to Southern Minnesota hosted by the Centro Campesino staff and leaders. The class began the tour at the migrant camp used by Seneca Corporation (Montgomery) for the migrant workers who come to Minnesota each year from Texas and the Southwest. The camp consists of a dozen trailers (not manufactured homes) equipped with bunk beds, but no cooking facilities. Hundreds of men and women live in separate quarters and those with families and children have no available housing. Some find family housing in nearby towns.

The class listened to stories of the finding places to cook food at the nearby park in the picnic areas. Before long, the park electric outlets were locked and encounters with police and residents became more frequent. In recent history, the city council of Montgomery passed anti-loitering ordinance targeting the children of the migrant families living in the town.

Centro Campesino and allies have spent years organizing with the workers to improve living conditions. A powerful outcome of that investment of working with the families is the impact it has had on the children; many have grown up going to meetings, welcome celebrations and actions organized by Centro Campesino. One young man – Fernando – grew up in this organizing culture and shared how his experiences have influenced his desire to organize for change. He told the story of the time he and others headed to Austin to challenge a business owner to change the anti-immigrant messages on his signage. It was a powerful action he will always remember. Another story he shared was during a Career Day at school, when a classmate announced his career was to become a border agent with a “look” at Fernando – a look Fernando has seen many times growing up in Southern Minnesota.

The next stop was in Owatonna at the Lakeside Foods migrant camp. This housing was used as internment housing for Germans during the war in the 40’s. Although the barbed wire had been removed, the rest rooms had no privacy – no walls for the showers or commodes. Among Centro Campesino’s organizing campaigns was getting the company to install walls for privacy in the bath rooms; assigning a housing unit to be used for day care so children are not exposed to pesticides sprayed on the fields; and a storm shelter when tornadoes come through. It took time, many actions and meetings to convince the company to make the changes – it did happen – another victory for the workers and their families. While we were there, some of the organizers spent time visiting with Santos, an elder who with his wife has been coming to Owatonna for decades. They have a home in Texas and have raised their children and grandchildren in Texas. Coming to Minnesota is something they do for the added income. This is a common story with migrant workers and their families, who have come for the work for decades. We heard a story about pesticides and the “alarm” in the camp. Before the company installed an alarm, aircraft would fly over the fields spraying pesticides on the fields, workers would be exposed and at times develop rashes and other signs of poisoning. The alarm was set up to warn the workers and the children to go indoors.

Our next stop was the offices of Centro Campesino, where we heard more about the history of organizing the workers, families and the youth. Centro Campesino organizers have done some powerful organizing in towns in Southern Minnesota, including Waseca, Faribault, Owatonna, Austin, and Northfield. Through this organizing youth have raised scholarship funds, had a voice in Washington, DC on the immigration debate, and been a part of the organizing culture Centro Campesino has built since 1996 in Southern Minnesota.

The class heard the organizing stories and saw photos of documenting the work. Finally, we heard about a mural in the office and the meaning behind it. Images of Mother Earth, the sun and moons and corn, the indigenous food maize. The mural represents our common indigenous cultural beliefs, traditions and spirituality shared by indigenous cultures in the Americas – an image that struck the class as very powerful and real after their day in Southern Minnesota.

Salvador Miranda is OAP’s Associate Director and Director of Training. He is also a board member of Centro Campesino and has worked with the organization since 1998.