Maria Regan Gonzalez relied on some old-school advice from a veteran in local government when she began her campaign for Richfield City Council.
Council Member Edwina Garcia encouraged her to knock on as many doors as possible to meet the residents in her ward. The small-town approach worked for Garcia’s first go-round on the council from 1985 to 1991, and when she became the first Latina elected to the Legislature in 1990.
“My advantage was that I was at the door all the time,” said Garcia, who at 71 was re-elected to the Richfield City Council in November. “If you want to win a race, you knock every door.”
So Regan Gonzalez went out knocking, and was elected to the council last month. Paula Cole, who last year became the first Latina elected to the Richfield school board, did the same.
The Richfield leaders are a reflection of the city’s increasingly diverse population, with Latinos making up about 20 percent of residents, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates.
Richfield, which calls itself “The Urban Hometown,” has a history of diversity distinct from most suburbs. A building boom after World War II brought veterans and their families in droves and boosted the city’s population. It became known for its affordable housing, job opportunities and easy accessibility to downtown Minneapolis.
The city attracted a number of Latino families in the 1990s, according to the Richfield Historical Society. They opened popular restaurants and markets and created faith-based communities like the one at Assumption Catholic Church, which draws 1,200 Spanish-speaking worshipers each Sunday.
Richfield now has the state’s largest Latino population outside of Minneapolis or St. Paul, with close to 7,000 calling it home.
“It’s a very working-class community, and it continues to be that way today,” Regan Gonzalez said. “The thing about Richfield is that the face of the working-class community has changed over the years.”
A changing face
Regan Gonzalez, 31, always saw herself as a community organizer instead of a politician. It was only while working for Bloomington’s public health division on behalf of Richfield residents that she saw the power local government wields in helping marginalized groups.
“I started to see how the cities of Bloomington and Richfield had been changing for years and years ... but the cities weren’t caught up to speed with that reality,” she said.
During her campaign for the city’s east ward district, Regan Gonzalez, who is of Mexican descent, said some people were concerned she would put the interests of Latinos over the rest of the city as a council member. She says she won not just because of the Latino vote but support from other demographic groups as well. Although she’s a person of color, she said, she’s not merely a representative of a certain community.
“At the same time,” she said, “I think making sure we have culturally appropriate and tailored approaches for different communities is important.”
The issue of undocumented immigrants emerged during the presidential campaign, raising fresh concerns about deportation among many Latinos. Minnesota’s Latino and Hispanic population was estimated in 2014 at 276,000, about 5 percent of the state’s population. It’s estimated that about 58,000 are undocumented, according to the Migration Policy Institute.
Garcia, Regan Gonzalez and close to 200 others gathered at Assumption on a Sunday last month to discuss the national election. Most were young Latinos who were worried about what could happen to friends or relatives under the Trump administration, Garcia said.
“I wanted to see the level of fear people had,” she said. “There were a lot of young kids there, and they’re afraid” for their parents.
Helping students of color
Richfield’s Latino representation is greatest among its youth. Almost 40 percent of the students enrolled in the Richfield school district are Latino and 30 percent are white, according to the Minnesota Department of Education.
In 2015, Paula Cole became the first Latina elected to the board. She said she feels most effective when raising the concerns of the district’s Latino parents.
“I felt a big responsibility, because I knew people were hoping that I was going to be a voice for them,” said Cole, who was born in the Dominican Republic. “If I can help this big group of students — 70 percent are students of color — be better, our whole district is also going to be better.”
One of her goals this school year is to have information about schools regularly translated for households where Spanish is the spoken language. She wants the district to improve how it reaches those families, encouraging them to participate in school sports or complete research surveys.
Cole and Regan Gonzalez both worry that redevelopment on the city’s east side could drive out low-income immigrant families. That happened last year on the west side, when hundreds of families had to move after their low-income apartment building was renovated with upscale units. The district lost more than 100 students, they said.
They want to make sure, Regan Gonzalez said, “that any changes that we bring to the east side are first and foremost inclusive and reflective of our communities.”