Cristina Ortiz, assistant professor of Anthropology at the University of Minnesota, Morris, has found in her research conducted over the last several years that many of the challenges faced by the Latino and immigrant communities in Greater Minnesota are shared by all rural residents.

By Cristina Ortiz, University of Minnesota, Morris

Some of the biggest challenges facing rural Minnesotans are related to the small sizes of our populations and our remote locations relative to centers of communication and political power. For Latinos and immigrants in rural Minnesota, these challenges are compounded by policies and practices that create barriers to full participation in community life as well as access to necessary services such as healthcare, housing, and political representation.

Since moving to Minnesota in 2013 to work as an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Minnesota Morris (UMM), I have been involved in long-term ethnographic research projects in West Central Minnesota. My scholarly research in both rural Iowa and in Minnesota focuses on how rural communities deal with the social changes brought about by their role in 21st-century transnational economic flows.

Over the past five years, UMM students, staff, and colleague Oscar Baldelomar, Psychology, have collected interviews with 19 English-speaking community leaders, 36 Spanish-speaking community members, and 36 English-speaking educators. More than 65 students over the last five years have participated in research instrument development by designing interview questions and activities, data collection, including observations, mapping activities, and interviews, transcription, and ongoing data analysis.

What we found in our research is that many of the challenges facing the Latino and immigrant communities in rural Minnesota are shared by all rural residents. Latino and immigrant communities, however, face additional and somewhat different challenges that make it difficult to integrate and adapt to life in this state, especially for non-English speakers.

A better life

Immigrant newcomers bring with them language skills, job skills (including agricultural knowledge), and social skills that are important to the success of rural communities. Immigrant workers allow businesses, especially manufacturing and industrial-scale agricultural production, to remain profitable and food prices to remain affordable for consumers. Some immigrant workers who work at dairies, hog farms, and other industrial food manufacturing operations have degrees in agronomy, industrial engineering, agricultural engineering, and animal science.

The goal of most (if not all) of the immigrants we talked to in this study was to advance in their profession and to provide for their families as best they can. In response to an interview question about what they hoped would be the outcome of their immigration experience, one Latina mother said, “Pues una vida mejor, mayor calidad de vida….este, mayores oportunidades [Well, a better life, better quality of life…um, better opportunities]” (ID 1514). 

While the research projects did not inquire about participants’ legal status, we do know from participant observation in the community that Latino immigrant statuses vary widely. They include H2A and H2B visas, TN visas, spousal/child visas, permanent residency, U.S. citizenship, DACA, and undocumented status. Most of these statuses are temporary and can change over time (some are renewable), and they can vary within a single family.

The result is that it can be challenging for families to plan and make lives here in West Central Minnesota, because they are not sure how long they will be able to stay or under what circumstances. For example, one woman (ID101) talked about her hopes for the future, saying she wanted “tener una situación migratoria estable, poder estar aquí…sin esa necesidad de estar renovando, de estar gastando más dinero porque sí se gasta un buen dinero [to have a stable immigration situation, to be able to be here…without needing to renew, to be spending more money, because it costs a lot of money].” Another mother responded, “Me gustaría tener algo más que una visa [I would like to have something more than a visa]” (ID 1509).

Exercising a profession can be very hard for a worker who is dependent on a specific employer for his or her ability to earn a living and stay in the country. While undocumented workers are particularly vulnerable, workers on temporary visas may also feel reluctant to assert their rights as workers because an employer can decide not to sponsor a renewal of their visa. Additionally, well-educated immigrants (including the spouses of immigrants hired on temporary visas) often find that even if their status is one that allows employment (spousal visas do not), their credentials are not valid in the United States despite their skills being highly sought-after. When asked about the most difficult thing about living here, one woman (ID1500) said, “Trabajo para mujer casi no hay [There’s almost no work for women here].” Another Latina mother (ID 1507) said, “Yo allá tengo una profesión, y digo allá porque aquí yo tengo mi título [pero] aquí, no soy nadie. Soy una esposa de un trabajador [There I have a career, and I say there, because here I have my degree, but here I’m nobody. I’m the wife of a worker].”

Given the worker shortage rural Minnesota is facing in virtually all fields and industries, it would make sense to support initiatives that make it easier for immigrants to exercise professions and skills gained abroad, such as teaching, nursing, animal science/veterinary tech, agronomy, agricultural science, and engineering. Programs and policies that make higher education more accessible to working-class, first-generation, and immigrant community members would also help these traditionally underemployed workers expand the rural workforce.

Immigrant and rural agricultural workers are employed in some of the most dangerous jobs. Policies that facilitate access to healthcare generally are important to these workers and would serve to mitigate the risks involved in the dangerous work they do. Immigrant workers and workers who are still learning English face additional challenges to accessing healthcare, sometimes because that access is limited to people with social security numbers. National-level rhetoric about including welfare benefits and other services as potentially disqualifying someone from getting legal residency (popularly known as a “green card”) under new definitions of what is considered a “public charge” compound existing barriers. (  

The need for infrastructure

All people in rural Minnesota share some unique challenges relating to the small size and remote locations of the towns we live in. Our livelihoods, both social and economic, rely heavily on the infrastructure that connects us to one another and to larger communities around the world.

Affordable, reliable, fast, and accessible Internet connectivity is one example of this. For rural immigrant residents, the Internet is a vital part of keeping in touch with loved ones far away, as well as a source of information about events and happenings in Minnesota. When researchers asked participants how they keep in touch with loved ones, the most common answer by far involved phone calls and Internet, including WhatsApp, Facetime, and Facebook. This participant’s response to the question was typical: “Pues por internet y a veces por cell phone con las tarjetas llamadas telefónicas al extranjero [Well, by Internet and sometimes by cell phone with international calling cards]” (201511). Another participant (20154) noted the difficulties in transnational communication, saying, “a veces es acá que nos falla la señal. Y a veces también dependiendo allá en México a donde hablemos hay lugares a donde igual no hay muy buena señal. Entonces con esas personas pues a veces mejor por internet, porque les escribimos y ya, les llega [Sometimes it’s here that the signal fails. And sometimes there, depending on where in Mexico we’re talking. There are places where they still don’t have a very good signal. So for those people, sometimes the Internet is better, because we write to them, and then it gets there].”

While our use of roadways is somewhat less visible than that of urban dwellers, people in Greater Minnesota also rely on this infrastructure. There is little access to public transportation compared to the Twin Cities area, and therefore funding for reliable roadway infrastructure makes it possible for people in Greater Minnesota to get to and from our jobs, visit loved ones, participate in civic governance, worship in our communities, and to access services and goods that are not available in the local community, like learning opportunities for our children. One Latina mother (ID1504) said that one of the difficult things about living here was having to drive to other places for services that aren’t available in some small towns: “te tienes que trasladar para algún tipo de servicio. Te tienes que trasladar a ciudades más grandes, probablemente eso es lo que, porque en los pueblitos chicos pues no lo hay todo [You have to move around for some kinds of service. You have to go to bigger cities, probably that’s it (the most difficult thing), because in small towns you don’t have everything].”

Another issue for immigrants, especially those who are undocumented, is driver’s licenses. In rural communities, driving is a key activity of everyday life. Immigrants need to be able to drive legally in order to accomplish daily life, including activities such as: getting to and from work, attending their children’s activities, and buying groceries. Focusing on public safety by licensing people who can demonstrate that they meet the knowledge and safety criteria makes everyone safer because all drivers know the “rules of the road” and have demonstrated their ability to follow them.

The need for advocates

One unique challenge of rural life in Greater Minnesota is that our remote location makes it difficult for residents of smaller towns to be present and represented in key civic spaces. Particularly in relation to immigration, small places with growing immigrant populations like Morris, Hancock and Long Prairie often get overlooked, while larger communities with larger immigrant populations like Marshall and Willmar are called upon to represent “our” shared needs and experiences.

Our small scale also means that there are extraordinarily small pools of people who are able to represent our needs and experiences to stakeholders (such as school boards, city councils, law enforcement, school administrators, healthcare providers, and representatives of the federal government) both within the local area and beyond it. People who advocate for our communities often experience the physical and emotional toll these activities take: burnout, feelings of isolation, and stress-related health issues. We experience high rates of turnover among our community advocates, especially those who represent groups with particular concerns and needs, such as the elderly, indigenous people, immigrants, speakers of languages other than English, and the poor.

Community members in small, rural towns sometimes face extraordinary challenges in getting their health, legal, economic, and social-emotional needs met, and these burdens weigh especially heavily on community advocates. For example, when we asked Latina mothers who they relied on to navigate or communicate with the public school or other local services, many participants mentioned the same few bilingual people in the community.

Increasing support for local infrastructure that builds capacity within local communities can widen the scope of advocacy expertise available in the community and mitigate burnout and turnover. Support for the literal space as well as more conceptual or metaphoric space for community members to share information, support one another, and learn about each other’s lives can empower local community members. Such grassroots infrastructure can also provide a path for training and capacity-building so that rural communities can “grow their own” experts and do not need to depend on advocates or multicultural training experts from urban spaces who might not understand the unique dynamics of diverse rural communities. This approach can also provide skills and validation (such as coursework certifications) that empower local community members to take on roles in community-making, such as running for school board or becoming a bilingual para-educator at the local public school.

Managing the cold weather

Housing is another area in which the needs and experiences of rural community members differ from the needs of those in more urban areas of the state. Immigrants from warmer climates need increased access to information about winterization both for themselves (long underwear, footwear, understanding weather forecasts and emergency preparedness) and for their property, including vehicles and homes. Strategies for winter survival and entertainment that longtime Midwest dwellers might find obvious is new to many newcomers.

Additionally, the housing markets in many small communities operate largely by word of mouth and through personal social networks, which can make it hard for newcomers to find affordable, adequate housing. In May 2015, UMM student Natalie Hoidal wrote a paper about rural immigrant housing in western Minnesota under the supervision of Ed Brands, Environmental Studies.

In her small-group conversations with Spanish-speaking community members, Hoidal found that there was an overall lack of housing infrastructure available to immigrants. Eligibility for public housing and other state and federal support is restricted by myriad eligibility requirements, many of which exclude immigrants  ( However, immigrants face additional challenges in accessing housing because they often lack a recognizable rental history, a credit history, and the necessary local  social networks to find a reliable co-signer. This situation makes landlords reluctant to rent to immigrants and mortgages for home-buying difficult to access.

Local and regional projects that provide information about homeownership and winterization would be especially helpful to immigrants, who are encountering a lack of information about housing and cold-climate living accessible in languages other than English. Transcripts of interviews with Latina mothers conducted by other students and researchers support these findings. Specifically, one common theme in response to “What is the most difficult thing about living here?” was related to the winter and cold weather. One participant (ID1513) said the most difficult thing about being here was “Manejar el tiempo del frío [Managing the cold weather],” while another participant (ID1512) simply said, “el invierno [the winter]” and a third (ID 1510) answered concisely, “el frío [the cold].”

The importance of language

Another common theme in response to the question about what the most difficult part about living here is had to do with language and learning English. Parents hoped that learning English would help their children be successful in the future and that English skills would help them advance their own careers.

For example, one Latina mother (ID 1511) said, “Pienso yo que lo más difícil, pues, pienso yo que el idioma es lo más difícil [I think the most difficult, well, I think the language is the most difficult].” Another mother (ID1506) framed her response specifically in relation to language challenges in accessing healthcare, saying, “Lo más difícil y más importante cuando uno va al doctor como que por no hablar bien bien el idioma o sea uno batalla un poquito [The most difficult and most important is when you go to the doctor and you can’t speak the language really well. I mean, you struggle a little bit].”

Finding, training, and certifying people in rural communities with the language and cultural skills to be interpreters, translators, and other similar professional service providers is challenging, especially when local institutions do not offer relevant training or certifications and there are more and better-paying jobs in the same fields available in urban areas. Some rural institutions, especially in the health and legal fields, have dealt with this issue by contracting with tele-translation services that provide interpreting services over the phone. While this is certainly better than not having interpreting services available at all, it is much harder to accomplish the cultural brokering and cross-cultural learning that lead to long-term cross-cultural understanding. Focusing on immediate communication needs and the lack of “in-person” communication is not a good long-term solution to the language needs of rural immigrants.

Neither is it practical to adopt a “wait until newcomers learn how we do things here/learn English” strategy. One of the phenomena of rural life is that its place in a 21st-century transnational economy has increased the amount of in- and out-migrations. While some newcomers may become long-term residents, others will likely cycle in and out, making a strategy of “waiting for them to fully adjust” impractical. Additionally, this strategy does not effectively build the cross-cultural communication skills of local immigrant workers, which would make them more qualified and better able to serve the community.

It is important to the whole community that immigrant and English-learner newcomers feel like they have the linguistic and social resources (including qualified translators, interpreters, cultural brokers, and access to learning activities such as English classes and bilingual GED courses) to be able to participate in local life, including the ability to talk to their health care providers, communicate with their child’s school, or assert their rights. Supporting programs and institutions that provide robust English-language learning opportunities to community members, for instance through local community centers, would be especially useful and practical, as would institutions such as clinics and schools being able to hire and retain well-trained cultural liaisons, interpreters, and translators who know and live in local rural communities.

In an increasingly diverse rural Minnesota, it is important for all of us to work toward making Minnesota a more welcoming and inclusive place to live.

Cristina Ortiz is an assistant professor of Anthropology at the University of Minnesota, Morris.

Back to Table of Contents