St. James, Watonwan County

Feature Image: Members of Uniting Cultures/Uniendo Culturas: Sue Harris, Pat Branstad, Erika Rodriguez and her daughter, Natalia.

A community in transition

Marta Zelaya moved to St. James, Minnesota in 1994. After fleeing a violent war in El Salvador with her two daughters, they first immigrated to Los Angeles, only to be surrounded by gang violence. After learning about the relative peacefulness of Minnesota from a friend, she decided to move her family there.

Zelaya found steady work at a local meat processing plant, and finally felt a sense of security for her family. While she enjoyed the tranquility that Minnesota offered, it became immediately clear that there was an invisible wall up between the Anglos and Latinos in town, and that there was not a pathway for Latino immigrants to be engaged in the larger community. This was difficult for someone who’s nature it is to be civically engaged. “When I got here, Latino people didn’t have any outlets of participation in anything,” she said. She found that she could make some changes in her church, which held its masses in English. “[A group of us] started asking for Spanish masses, and the church started transforming, the mass started being done in Spanish, and we were singing in Spanish again.” This felt like a success, but years went by and outside of the church were no obvious ways to engage in the community. “I never saw the outlet or space where I could actually contribute,” she said. “We always felt divided.”

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Marta Zelaya immigrated to St. James with her family after fleeing war in El Salvador.

At the time that Zelaya moved her family to St. James, the community of 4,607 was largely white. The local food processing plant was having difficulty and had been recruiting young men from Texas to work in the plants for several years. Since then, St. James has been a magnet for immigrants. Mexicans, then El Salvadorians fleeing war, and most recently a large Guatemalan population have all immigrated to St. James over the decades.

Sue Harris, Community Education Director for the St. James Public Schools, has seen the transition in the school district over the years. “The white population is now in the minority in our schools,” she said. “The Latino community is a strong and vibrant part of our community.” But with these changes, St. James has experienced growing pains. Misunderstandings from some in the white population, and fear from the Latino population has led to barriers and, at times, divisiveness. “ICE raids are not uncommon in the meat processing plants,” said Harris. “Families have been divided – sometimes parents are back in Mexico, but their kids are still here.”

Like many small, rural towns, St. James has had to deal with the challenges of businesses closing and leaving town over the years. However, thanks to the influx of immigrants, they have not experienced the population loss that some of the other small towns in Minnesota have faced. Now, says Harris, the population they gained needs representation.

A spark is lit

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, several initiatives laid the groundwork for bringing together people who wanted St. James to be a more inclusive community. One of those initiatives, the Horizons Poverty Project, focused on poverty reduction and leadership training. This early work led to the development of local leaders in the community, including the first Latino person to hold office in St. James.

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Downtown St. James

In 2015, Zelaya wanted to find other ways to be active in the community beyond the church. She and other Latinos in St. James decided to form La Convivencia Hispana, a nonprofit dedicated to elevating Latino voices in southern Minnesota. They began offering scholarships to encourage Latino youth to continue education after high school. Ever Vargas, who immigrated to St. James from Mexico 25 years ago, was also very active in this effort. “We started with scholarships for students to support education,” he said. “We also provide workshops to help people understand systems in the United States. We bring topics to the community like how to build credit or how to buy a house.” They started gaining steam as a resource and advocate for Latinos in the community.

Around the same time that La Convivencia Hispana was becoming more active in the community, Harris was involved in organizing a Forum on Race through Region Nine Development Commission. La Convivencia Hispana, which literally means The Spanish Coexistence, were invited to attend. “Everything collided at the Forum on Race,” said Harris. “We had over 80 people come, and we talked about race and privilege. We had some passionate people who wanted to be a safe community and focus on inclusivity, and then the Small Town Grant came up.”

Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation (SMIF) launched its Small Town Grant Program in 2017, which St. James took advantage of right away. While SMIF funds projects in communities of all sizes throughout its 20-county region, the focus on small towns, specifically communities with populations under 5,000, was an acknowledgement of the unique challenges these communities often face when dealing with a lack of financial resources.

The leaders that came out of the Forum on Race used their $10,000 Small Town Grant to form a group called Uniting Cultures/Uniendo Culturas. They have been actively working toward building an inclusive St. James ever since.

Forging a path to inclusion

Pat Branstad was one of the founding members of Uniting Cultures/Uniendo Culturas and a longtime resident of St. James. “I’ve been here for 40 plus years, and some of the members of the Latino community have been here longer than I,” said Branstad. “What struck me is that we’ve had two parallel universes, barely intersecting, not really integrated into one another’s lives.”

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People enjoying an Our Golden Age event.

Throughout the year, Uniting Cultures/Uniendo Culturas used the grant to organize programs and events that would bring people together in the community and build relationships. One of those programs was Our Golden Age, which provides Latino senior citizens with a way to socialize. Ever’s wife, Julieta Vargas, was one of the people who spearheaded this effort. “La Convivencia Hispana had visited some families and found that many elderly Latinos felt alone and depressed because they didn’t have a space to meet with other people,” she said. “Now they have a place where they don’t feel isolated. There are games, social connections, food, dance and music twice a month.” The grant helped support many of these activities. “When it started, there were seven people – now there are almost 40.”

The group also wanted to expose people in the community to different cultures, so they organized a program called Culture through Cuisine which showcases Mexican, Guatemalan, El Salvadorian and Scandinavian culture and food. The most recent Culture through Cuisine event featured Scandinavian food at a rural Scandinavian church. “I believe it was the first time that our Latino friends had been there,” said Branstad. “They were so curious and thrilled to be there and felt invited to come.”

The major event that the grant supported was the Multicultural Fiesta which is held in September and is a celebration of all cultures in St. James. The event celebrates diverse heritages through dancing, entertainment, music, food and activities. In 2018 more than 500 people attended the fiesta, a testament to the growing interest in inclusivity in the community. The date of the event was specifically chosen to coincide with the celebration of Mexico’s Independence Day which celebrates Mexico’s independence from Spain. “Before [these events] we felt excluded,” said Julieta Vargas. “Now we can say firsthand that we feel included.”

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“Fishing” for nutritional menu options during an educational Our Golden Age event.

Beyond these events and programs, the group also wanted to spark important conversations about immigration and citizenship with the larger St. James community, so they hosted panel discussions and invited people to tell their stories. After the success of these panels, Uniting Cultures/Uniendo Culturas decided to write a grant to the Humanities Council to cover the production of a book called Your Story, My Story, Our Story, which highlights more than 35 community members and their immigration stories – whether they are first generation or further removed. “We’ve shared our stories and that’s allowed us to be more humanized,” said Julieta Vargas.

Harris notes that the Small Town Grant from SMIF was pivotal to getting this important work done. “When we go to solicit support, we don’t have very many businesses, or colleges and universities, so funding to do community work is always a challenge in small towns,” said Harris. “It was our seed money,” agreed Branstad. “We could not have done this without the grant. Otherwise you spend all of your time trying to fundraise. It really gave us the freedom to do planning and prioritize issues.”

The act of bringing people of different cultures together has also fostered an increased awareness of the barriers that the Latino community faces on a regular basis. “Just this week I called City Hall to ask about a problem with our water,” said Branstad. “When I called, the menu was in English only, and I wondered what would happen if Spanish were my first language. How would I get the help I needed?”

For Zelaya, Uniting Cultures/Uniendo Culturas has given her the opportunity she was looking for. “I was able to contribute for the first time,” said Zelaya. “To feel included is the ability to contribute.” That sense of inclusion is now seeping into different aspects of the community. Each year St. James holds a “Hot Dog Day” where a variety of local organizations sell hot dogs with different flavors. “Before, the Hot Dog Day was just an Anglo event,” she said. “But now we’ve been invited to this event and we’ve given it our own Latino spin.”

A plan for the future

By the time the grant period was finished, the group was worn out from all the achievements of that first year. “We were exhausted, but we still all had the heart to move things forward,” said Harris. “We’ve built relationships and friendships, we are understanding each other’s cultures, but now we want to go below the iceberg and work on some of the systemic things.” Uniting Cultures/Uniendo Culturas decided to request a second $10,000 Small Town Grant from SMIF, this time to support long term visioning and sustainability, which they received in 2018.

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Schmidt’s Bakery in downtown St. James carries a selection of multicultural baked goods including conchas, empanadas, rebanadas and nuezes.

The group now meets once a month to work on strategic planning for the future. Some of the topics that bubble to the top of the conversations are working toward more Latinos in local government and other leadership roles. They are also working with UMN Extension on doing an assessment to see how ready the community is to tackle issues of inclusion. “The SMIF grants have laid the groundwork for some of the tougher conversations about racism and prejudice,” said Harris. They are also intentional about having all of their meetings in English and Spanish so everyone who attends can understand what is going on.

A town united

The group is largely positive about the future of St. James. Uniting Cultures/Uniendo Culturas is now being seen as a leader and advocate in the community. When ICE raids happen, or other things that instill fear in the immigrant community, people are starting to turn to the group for support and guidance. “The beautiful thing is that we’re getting together and working towards a better direction for the community,” said Ever Vargas. “I think we feel like a bridge in the community. We want that bridge to widen so more people can walk across it.”

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The Watonwan County Library in St. James has an entire section of books, movies and magazines available in Spanish.

As Branstad points out, St. James is at a critical juncture in its history. “We can either ignore or discount the changing demographics and continue on as we have,” she said, “Or we can embrace the changing demographics and discover ways to use that as a way to strengthen this rural community and help it not just survive, but thrive.”

At a recent meeting for Uniting Cultures/Uniendo Culturas, a jubilant and teary-eyed Zelaya stood up and faced the room. Her son, Julio, translated her words into English for the native English-speakers in the group to understand: “For the first time in 25 years we feel included in this community,” she said. “I feel like now we live up to the name, that we’re really uniting cultures.”

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Members of Uniting Cultures/Uniendo Culturas standing in front of a community mural which reads, “We watch out for each other.”

This story is from SMIF’s 2019 Impact Report. To read the other stories from the report, and to view maps showing the impact of these programs, visit