'La Vida' exhibit traces Mexican immigration

  • Article by: ROCHELLE OLSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 3, 2011 - 4:34 PM

Ramsey County became home to recurring surges of workers who maintained strong cultural connections to their roots in Mexico.

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Historian and guest curator Leila Albert, left, and Jose Anaya installed placards that are a part of the “Living la Vida in Ramsey County” exhibit opening Thursday in downtown St. Paul’s Landmark Center.

Photo: Jeff Wheeler, Star Tribune

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Sugar beets brought them and hard work kept them.

That's the quick story of what brought Mexican immigrants to Minnesota and why they stayed.

The history of Mexican-Americans in the Twin Cities's east metro area is the focus of a new exhibit: "Living la Vida in Ramsey County." The exhibition, featuring new and old photographs as well as narrative histories, opens with a free reception at 6 p.m. Thursday at Landmark Center, 75 W. 5th St., in downtown St. Paul.

Unlike many immigrant groups who came in a single wave, Mexican-Americans came in surges beginning in the late 1800s when Minnesota farmers needed help with the sugar beet harvest, said Leila Albert of Baldwin, Wis., a historian and volunteer curator of the Ramsey County Historical Society project.

As they returned and brought relatives with them, Mexican-American immigrants stayed in touch with their homeland and had "that renewal of culture," Albert said.

By contrast, when German and Irish immigrants came they were here to stay, which eventually eroded connections with their native countries.

For more than 100 years, cultural traditions for Mexican immigrants to the United States have remained strong, especially regarding food, music and language, Albert said.

In preparing the exhibit, Albert asked what people wanted to know about Mexicans who immigrated to Ramsey County. The responses overwhelmingly came back: Why are they here? Why did they come?

Initially, they came as seasonal farm workers, she said. Some farmers, wanting their good employees to return each summer, helped them find winter jobs in urban areas so they could move their families north with them. In St. Paul, Mexican-Americans settled in the West Side Flats, an area that was less desirable because it was prone to flooding.

St. Paul traditionally has had a strong Mexican-American community. The influence remains strong on the city's West Side. Self-guided walking tours of the neighborhood in English and Spanish will be available.

In Ramsey County, according to recent U.S. Census data, about 25,700 residents identify themselves as being of Mexican descent. About 52,200 people of Mexican descent live in Hennepin County.

Several programs will supplement the exhibit, including an Oct. 20 lecture and presentation on the settling of the community. On Nov. 10, a history talk is planned on repatriation in Ramsey County. The events are free and more are expected in the spring.

The exhibit runs through Aug. 12, 2012. For more information, go to www.rchs.com.

Rochelle Olson • 651-925-5035 Twitter: @rochelleolson

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