Meandering through a cattail marsh in snowshoes on a remarkably warm February afternoon, Richfield Mayor Maria Regan Gonzalez translated wildlife sights like a muskrat den and coyote tracks for the Spanish speakers in a group of families from across the metro area.

"I didn't know it was the mayor until about halfway through the first lesson," said Nikki McRae-Brown, a Black mother from Inver Grove Heights on the hike with her two daughters.

Gonzalez, 36, plans to announce in coming weeks whether she will seek re-election. But as the end of her first term approaches, she can point to work championing diversity and inclusion with an emphasis on public health. While generations of mayors have never exercised emergency powers, she declared emergencies both for COVID-19 and curfews amid civil unrest after George Floyd's murder in neighboring Minneapolis.

And as Minnesota's first Latina mayor, Gonzalez finds herself serving as an example for other young city leaders in the state who identify as Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC). When she was elected as mayor in 2018 after two years on the city council, she told the Star Tribune she hoped she wouldn't be an anomaly.

"My dream in office was to pave the way for the future leaders and (that) government would be more equitable, more inclusive and more reflective of the community," she said.

Gonzalez said being a community leader can bring pressure. What is supposed to be a part-time job as mayor, with an annual stipend of about $10,000, is actually a 24/7 responsibility. She juggles that role with her new job as director of equity initiatives at M Health Fairview, while finding time to encourage women and people of color to run for office.

"Leadership is complex. And for women and people of color, it can look so many different ways," Gonzalez said. "There's a lot of pressure on people of color to lead and fix everything. And part of my leading is to just show how to lead in a healthy way that honors and respects who you are as a person and not selling out to fit the status quo."

Angelica Contreras, who became the first person of color on the Shakopee City Council when she was elected in 2018, said her political run was inspired by Latinas in office like state Sen. Patricia Torres Ray, DFL-Minneapolis, and Gonzalez.

"Thinking about Maria and everything she's done, she has been a major influence," Contreras said.

"You're not just walking through a door, you're holding the door open for the person behind you," said Amáda Márquez Simula, who was elected mayor of Columbia Heights in 2020.

'Setting footprints'

Earlier this month, a fatal school shooting rocked Richfield, and an emotional Gonzalez offered comfort to a grieving community. Simula said she reached out to Gonzalez to lend support.

"You have to be there for your community," Simula said, "and it's very hard to expect of people who also need to make a living, which is why it's been so hard for younger people, people of color to be able to afford to take on a role like this to represent their communities."

Minnesota now counts seven BIPOC mayors, according to the MN BIPOC Local Elected Leaders Network. And there's a growing number of BIPOC city council members.

"It's quite an intense thing being the only person of color on your city council," said Sean Gosiewski, executive director of Minneapolis nonprofit Resilient Communities Coalition, the organization coordinating the BIPOC network.

Contreras said she has considered running for mayor but isn't ready just yet. The mother of four has a full-time job leading breastfeeding clinics through the WIC program and serves on five equity teams in the city, school district and community.

"There's no shoes that fit me, but when they look back, I see my footprints," Contreras said. "I am setting footprints for others, because there has never been a Latina city councilwoman in Shakopee."

But she said that if she decides to make that climb to mayor, she will have a network of Latina leaders and allies to support her.

Simula said that while being a mayor is demanding, she and Gonzalez were elected for a reason. Knowing other Latino leaders has reassured her that she belongs, she said, "and Maria has been a big part of that."

Gonzalez said she is most proud of her work as a bridge-builder in the community, whether creating a network of Latino child-care providers, offering bilingual winter activities or fighting to keep housing affordable. The latter is one of Richfield's biggest challenges, she said, and she hopes to work on policies and programs to help first-time home buyers.

"I just see my success and my happiness inextricably linked to the success and happiness and opportunities that my community has," Gonzalez said. "Making changes in our own backyard is literally the most important thing we should all be focused on."