The West Side of St. Paul: The Ellis Island of Minnesota
The west side of St. Paul is commonly considered the birthplace of Minnesota’s vibrant Latino community. Most Mexicans who came to Minnesota to work for the railroad and in the packinghouses and slaughterhouses of St. Paul, as well as those who worked in the sugar beet fields of greater Minneapolis, made their first permanent home on the west side of St. Paul.
The west side of St. Paul, like many migrant communities of the time, was impoverished, and as such, life for Latinos living there was difficult. Most Latinos made their homes in the low-lying area on the banks of the Mississippi River called the Flats. Residents of the Flats lived in ramshackle dwellings, many of which lacked heating and indoor plumbing. A 1926-1927 study by the Department of Labor concluded that the worst lodging in the United States was found in St. Paul’s west side slums, where Mexican workers lived in old boxcars. Twenty years later, not much had changed; a study by the International Institute concluded that Mexicans on the west side lived in the worst housing in St. Paul.
In addition to the poverty that characterized life on the west side of St. Paul, Latino migrants met with discrimination and racism. In 1932, for example, a Minnesota deportation drive resulted in the removal of 15 percent of the Mexicans living there. Although the drive was officially voluntary, it is now known that many Mexicans were forced to leave, and that some of them had never before lived in Mexico. The latter were born in the United States and were by most traditional definitions American. Yet, their skin color and ethnic heritage marked them as foreigners, and thus they were vulnerable to expulsion from the community.
Those Latinos who remained on the west side of St. Paul made great strides in building a thriving community. Neighborhood House, founded in 1897, was the Latino community’s cultural center. The focus of Neighborhood House beginning in the early years of the 1900s was to serve the residents of the Flats, all of whom were poor and most of whom were Mexican migrants. Neighborhood House provided English classes, day care, and a space for youth and adults alike to gather. During the Depression, Neighborhood House administered Works Progress Administration projects, as well as food drives and benefit dances to support programs for the poor.
Another Mexican institution was Our Lady of Guadalupe Church and Mission. This church, which held its first bilingual mass on February 22, 1931, was considered by many to be the spiritual center of the west side neighborhood.2 In addition to providing a place for Latinos to worship, Our Lady of Guadalupe raised money to assist the poor and infirm.
In 1952 the Mississippi River flooded, wiping out most of the housing in the Flats. The city of St. Paul responded with an urban renewal plan that leveled the Flats and displaced hundreds of Latino families. Most families and businesses rebuilt their homes and storefronts on a nearby hill. The destruction of the oldest and most significant Latino community in Minnesota sparked anger and resistance, and it seemingly fueled the determination of those on the west side to recreate a stronger and more politicized community.
The urbanization of the Flats and the demolition of its houses and businesses also launched Chicanismo in Minnesota, a movement for Chicano pride and dignity. Chicanismo was most clearly symbolized by the formation of the Minnesota Brown Berets. Gilbert de la O, a community leader on the west side, headed the organization in St. Paul, which not only was involved in political activism and education but also provided many services to Mexican families. At its high point, the Brown Berets had approximately 50 active members fighting for social justice for Chicano workers in the Twin Cities. In the 1960s the Brown Berets aligned themselves with the United Farm Workers of America to support Latinos laboring in the sugar beet fields of rural Minnesota. Many of those migrant workers were abused and exploited, and the Brown Berets struggled to reverse this trend. They also lent their solidarity to the cause of migrant agricultural workers outside of Minnesota. In 1966, for example, they organized a boycott of Twin Cities’ grocery stores that were selling grapes picked by nonunionized migrants in California.
The Brown Berets were committed to empowering and educating Latinos, and especially Chicanos, about their culture and about their history of exploitation and struggle. Their commitment to this cause fueled a major campaign that resulted in the formation of the Chicano Studies Department at the University of Minnesota in 1972. Years later, in 1995, St. Cloud State University followed suit,
inaugurating their own Chicano Studies Department and hiring several Chicano and Latino professors.
The energy spawned by the community efforts of the Brown Berets, Neighborhood House, and Our Lady of Guadalupe Church led to other great achievements on the west side of St. Paul. Their efforts can be credited with the opening of La Clinica in 1974, the first bilingual health center in Minnesota. La Clinica, which is now called the West Side Community Clinic, served over 35,000 patients in
2005, most of whom were Latino. Other achievements of the community include the institutionalization of a Cinco de Mayo festival and the creation of the Guadalupe Area Project in 1969, an alternative school that continues to serve and empower troubled urban Latino youth.
In the 1980s the west side Latino community began to diversify beyond its historical Mexican roots, welcoming a growing number of Cubans and Puerto Ricans. These two new communities fused traditions and celebrations with the existing Mexican community. The expansion of the west side community soon came to include Central Americans and South Americans.
Today, although the Latino communities on the east side of St. Paul and in south Minneapolis are the largest and fastest growing in the Twin Cities, the west side of St. Paul continues to be an important Latino hub. Whereas poverty in the area persists, Mexican-owned businesses and restaurants, many of which were started by first-generation Latino migrants, flourish. Neighborhood House and Our Lady of Guadalupe continue to provide services and support to the Latino community, and several colorful murals symbolize the community’s historical and current significance.