RED WING -- Spanish-speaking men, women and families have been immigrating to the Red Wing area for at least 40 years.

For Hispanics, coming to America is very similar to – but also very different from – the experiences of Swedes and Norwegians, Germans, Italians, Irish and others who came to the United States generations ago.

Europeans in the 1800s typically emigrated in search of greater economic opportunity – work and land; early settlers including the Pilgrims sought religious freedom. People came in waves, with families and relatives following when the first to arrive found success.

Opportunity continues to be the biggest attraction for people coming from the Spanish-speaking countries, according to the Hispanic Outreach of Goodhue County.

But a new factor is becoming a high priority, according to Executive Director Lucy Richardson: Safety.

“Things are changing,” she said. “I hear that a lot in the past few years.”

Lucy Richardson

Richardson’s immigration story dates to 1998. She was born in the state of Tamaulipas but at 14 moved with her family to Reynosa, a larger city near Mexico’s northern border. Like others there, she got a card that allowed her to cross the border for short periods to shop, dine and such.

At age 24, she got a permit that allowed her to travel farther north for a limited time. She came to this region with her sister and brother-in-law, who had friends in the Rochester area.

“My plan was to come for a little bit under the permit and stay for a short time,” she said.

Her plans changed when she met Brock Richardson, her future husband. “I hadn’t planned to get married here,” she said. But when she did, she decided to stay, and applied to become a permanent resident.

That did not make her a citizen, however. “You can apply for citizenship after five years of permanent resident status,” Richardson explained. The citizenship process is challenging, as it involves a hefty fee, paperwork and testing.

She’s working on that process now.

In 2010 Richardson began volunteering for Hispanic Outreach of Goodhue County, which was started under the auspices of Catholic Charities in 2006 and is now a 501(c)(3) organization. She has been its director since 2011.

In that role she has learned much about changes in the immigration process since she came.

To get a permit today people must provide significant documentation that they are not coming to the U.S. to get jobs and to stay. They must have proof of a job in Mexico, proof of a local address, a birth certificate and more.

Even her father, who is in his 80s, must go through a rigorous process to get permission to come and visit her in Red Wing.

“I am thankful that I had opportunities,” Richardson said. Today, many Hispanics from Mexico, Latin and Central America and other Spanish-speaking countries have responded to the challenging process by coming without documentation, risking travel over rivers and through deserts to come north.

Williams Ortiz Arizmendi

Williams Ortiz Arizmendi, administrative assistant and program coordinator for Hispanic Outreach, made the journey in 2004 from Veracruz, Mexico. He was only 9 when he was brought to the area without papers.

He spoke no English but worked hard to learn. “Fourth grade was awful,” he recalls. “I managed to speak fluently by sixth grade.” English as a second language classes helped, along with everyday exposure to the language.

Hispanic Outreach of Goodhue County program coordinator Williams Ortiz Arizmendi tells his immigration story in a photo exhibit that can be seen at Saturday, Sept. 7, at the 2019 Hispanic Heritage Festival. Ruth Nerhaugen / Contributor
Hispanic Outreach of Goodhue County program coordinator Williams Ortiz Arizmendi tells his immigration story in a photo exhibit that can be seen at Saturday, Sept. 7, at the 2019 Hispanic Heritage Festival. Ruth Nerhaugen / Contributor

After graduating from Red Wing High School in 2013, he continued studies until the opportunity arose to work with Hispanic Outreach.

Arizmendi remains in Minnesota under the DACA program – Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals – which has been ended by President Donald Trump but allows Arizmendi to stay and renew his permit.

He misses a lot about the Mexico of his childhood, including the warmth and colorful festivals. But he has found great satisfaction in the work he does.

“This is very fulfilling, very rewarding,” he said. “There’s a lot of work” to be done.

Why here?

Based on a recent survey, Goodhue County has an estimated 2,000 Hispanic immigrants, not all of them documented. In Red Wing, the number was about 800.

How did the northern migration begin? Why have so many made their homes in this small town with its cold climate?

It may have started when Hispanics traveled to Canada then discovered the availability of jobs plus the area’s attractions as they moved south.

“It’s a neat little town,” Arizmendi said. “It’s safe. People talk to you like they know you. It’s friendly.”

And, he added, “There’s a shortage of workers in Red Wing.” Unemployment is low countywide. The population is older, retired, and young people leave for the cities, so the towns benefit from the new immigrants.

They are not taking “American jobs,” according to Hispanic Outreach literature. “Immigrants often hold jobs that Americans tend not to want, so instead of competing with Americans for work, immigrants often complement American work pools.” That includes farm labor.

Arizmendi’s primary responsibilities are to help immigrants overcome the language barrier and to find people needed resources.

The language problem is especially critical for adults, he said, so Hispanic Outreach is there to assist them with all kinds of communications, from their children’s schooling to employment, housing, legal matters, and more.

Not being able to communicate makes them vulnerable. Things that are simple for others can be almost impossible, such as getting a driver’s license or health care.

And yes, Arizmendi admitted, there is ignorance. Wherever they go, immigrant minorities may encounter an attitude of “not in my back yard.” They pay state and local taxes and income tax, but until or unless they become citizens, they cannot vote.

Promoting inclusion

According to Richardson, “We as an organization are focusing more on inclusion. … We help families understand how important it is to be involved in different aspects of the community. We can’t do it on our own. We need to keep improving those collaborations with the rest of the community.”

Hosting the fifth annual Hispanic Heritage Festival is a big part of that effort. The festival, which Arizmendi has been working on since December, will be 3-8 p.m. Saturday in Central Park.

Free and open to everyone, it showcases Hispanic culture – food, music and dance, art and crafts, the Day of the Dead and other traditional observances.

To Richardson, “It’s an opportunity to bring the community together.”

People who come with an interest in learning more about the new Hispanic immigrant population can take a step beyond eating the food, enjoying the music and making a piñata.

They can check out the booth featuring Chap Achen’s photographs of nine local residents/families who came here from Spanish-speaking countries in recent years.

The title of the exhibit tells the story: “I Too Am Red Wing.”