Besides having profoundly frigid winters and more than ten thousand lakes, Minnesota wasn’t well-known on a national level, like many Midwestern states. However, its biggest city was brought into the public eye both nationally and internationally after Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, aided by three other officers, kneeled on the neck of Mr. George Floyd for almost nine minutes, murdering him on May 25, 2020. Mr. Floyd had been accused of passing a $20 counterfeit bill.
This was not the first police killing of an unarmed Black man in Minnesota; Philando Castile’s killing in the suburbs of St. Paul in 2016 drew widespread attention to the issues of extreme police violence and systemic racism as well. In St. Paul’s sister city of Minneapolis, police officers have killed 11 people since 2010, including David Smith, Jason Vang, Terrance Franklin, Ivan Romero, Jamar Clark, Justine Damond, Thurman Blevins, Travis Jordan, Mario Benjamin, Chiaser Fong Vue, and George Floyd.
George Floyd’s murder sparked an outpouring of protest around the world, but on Lake Street in Minneapolis, its impact was especially resonant. The street stretches through Minneapolis for miles, connecting major lakes to a bridge that leads to St. Paul. Following an era of white flight in the 1970s, Lake Street had been revitalized by small businesses and culturally specific community organizations from a variety of immigrant groups, including but not limited to Mexico, Somalia, Vietnam and India. East Lake Street in particular is commonly known as the place to find the most authentic ethnic cuisine from a variety of nations.
Lake Street is interesting because “it’s very much the symbolic heart of the Latinx community, not just for Minneapolis, but really for the whole state of Minnesota” says Ryan Perez, the Program Director for Environment & Democracy 2050 with COPAL, a nonprofit organization located on Lake Street. Founded in 2018, the organization’s acronym stands for Comunidades Organizando El Poder Y La Acción Latina, which in English translates to Communities Organizing Latinx Power and Action. Their mission, now more relevant than ever, is to unite Latinxs in Minnesota in active grassroots communal democracy that builds racial, gender, social and economic justice across community lines.
Mainstream media outlets focused heavily on looting, burning and destruction of small businesses following George Floyd’s murder, but failed to adequately highlight other aspects, such as the “We Love Lake Street” initiative that collected nearly 9 million in donations to rebuild.
For its part, COPAL engaged in direct service supply distribution for people impacted by the destruction and in need of basic resources. COPAL’s leaders also met with business owners and community members to ensure they did not channel anger or negativity towards the larger goal of the movement.
“What we are looking for is the same as this movement–the liberation of people of color,” says Perez. As the Program Director for COPAL’s Democracy 2050 campaign, he recognizes that Black, Indigenous, Latinx, and other communities of color will be a majority of the US population by the year 2050, which is why his campaign works to develop a political infrastructure rooted in justice and solidarity.
Who COPAL serves: Context on the Latinx population in MN
Approximately 300,000 people in Minnesota are of Latinx descent, which amounts to about 6% of all Minnesotans. While the percentage may seem modest, Perez says it is important to note that Minnesota’s Latinx immigration is a lot more recent than in a lot of states, increasing rapidly from 1% of the population to about 6% in just a matter of a couple of decades.
Early Latinx migration to Minnesota was largely tied to farm work opportunities, but migration that spiked in the 1990s was increasingly related to job opportunities in food processing, manufacturing, service sector work, and construction. In the 2010s, meat-and poultry-packing facilities provided opportunity as well. More recently, people in the Latinx community have started businesses all over the state, getting advanced degrees to work in business, law, government, nonprofits, education, the media, the arts, and healthcare. As visibility continues to grow, it’s imperative to understand that the Latinx community is far from uniform.
About 70% of the Latinx population in Minnesota is of Mexican descent, with the second largest population from Puerto Rico. These demographics are reflected in COPAL’s leadership; Perez identifies as a second-generation immigrant, as he was born in Chicago to a father who came from Puerto Rico. As a US citizen and the first in his family to go to college, he recognizes the privilege he possesses, emphasizing racial and economic justice in all his work.
While Puerto Ricans are automatically also US citizens, the third largest Latinx population in Minnesota from El Salvador face different challenges. The Consulate of El Salvador is in Chicago, and it can be extremely expensive to get lodging and transportation there to file paperwork, which itself will also rack up charges. COPAL has tailored its services to meet the needs of this group by hosting the Salvadoran Consulate multiple times a year in Minnesota. Speaking to the impact of this effort, Perez says that just over the course of a few days, COPAL helps over a thousand families across the state.
While the majority of the Latinx population lives in Minnesota’s metropolitan area, Perez says another of their areas of outreach is in south central Minnesota, where there also is a big Latinx population. COPAL engages in a variety of media strategies to reach community members, while recognizing that they are far from monolithic and come from a variety of nations beyond the top three mentioned here.
COPAL’s larger vision and adaptation to COVID-19
COPAL’s vision is to build a world that is just, equitable, enjoyable and environmentally sustainable for all. They engage in campaigns relating to the environment, immigration, democracy, education and leadership, as well as a campaign created because of the pandemic.
Navegadores, or Navigators, is a bilingual Spanish and English hotline that helps people connect with resources for food, health insurance, assistance with taxes, applying for unemployment, and filling out the census. It can be tricky to navigate these resources for those with limited English. The initiative has been very successful in connecting people with what their families need, and COPAL’s hope is that it remains an ongoing service.
COPAL’s employees have gamely adapted to working in the pandemic. Back in mid-March when stay at home orders went into effect, a lot of people in the private sector or working wage jobs were laid off, but Perez says it’s fortunate that in the world of community organizing, those connections and power building didn’t have to stop. COPAL organized food drives that greatly benefited community members struggling to feed their families with sudden layoffs at work.
However, he says, COPAL isn’t really just a service organization. Instead, it uses services as a platform through which to engage people in important conversations. For example, when COPAL was running food drives, they would ask community members “Why do you want justice for George? What does justice look like for you, in your community?”
While it engaged in food drives, COPAL would provide voter registration information, equipping people with the tools to replace those in power. They would also let people know that every person who completes the census is bringing in tens of thousands of dollars or more for their community over the next decade.
Perez says it’s all of those pieces taken together that create lasting change. “It’s not just about rebuilding Lake Street,” he says. “It’s about how we can use that process to reach the justice that we are all seeking.”
COPAL and the Latino Vote initiative
Now that Minnesota is slowly reopening, COPAL’s employees had an in-person socially distanced phone bank in the office to push forward their Latino Vote initiative. Sitting 6 feet apart and wearing masks, they had 3,000 conversations over the phone about why it’s important to vote by mail for safety during the pandemic.
Minnesota is the number 2 target state by dollars per voter for the Trump campaign, and Perez says this shows how much the parties think Minnesota is a swing state. He also shared that 32 million Latinos will be eligible to vote across the country in the 2020 presidential elections. That’s over 13% of the electorate, which he says is enough to swing any national election.
Bringing it back to Minnesota specifically, Perez explained that Republican Tim Pawlenty, the former governor, is a major reason we don’t have drivers licenses for all, a key issue, particularly for people who are undocumented. He also explained that at the time of Pawlenty’s election, Latinos were a much smaller group in Minnesota, and a lot of first generation immigrants hadn’t been able to become citizens yet, so they weren’t able to vote.
“We control way more power now in Minnesota,” he stated. 127,000 people of Latinx descent are eligible to vote in the state now, which he says is enough to elect candidates that speak with our community.
He shared that the votes of people of color, as well as the youth vote, are often written off as unimportant, as too small of the larger picture to make an impact. He wants people to know that nothing could be further from the truth, especially in a state where the elections, such the one for DFL Attorney General Kieth Ellison, tend to be decided by thin margins.
Another way to make change: The 2020 Census
COPAL is also working towards social change in other important ways, such as their efforts to ensure that people complete the 2020 Census. The US Constitution requires an accurate count every 10 years, covering every person in every household.
However, Latinos have been undercounted for decades, disadvantaging their families, communities, and neighborhoods. About 1 in 3 live in hard-to-count census tracts, and Latino children in particular are among the most undercounted populations in the United States.
The census can cause a lot of fear and anxiety due to giving the government a file with personal information. Perez shared that the debate over having a citizenship question on the census did damage that COPAL now has to clean up, explaining that the question is not on there and that it’s not actually obligatory to write your name on the form if you don’t want to.
COPAL works to make sure that people know that “this is about our roads, our bridges, our hospitals, our kids’ schools, and we need to show up because we will not be made invisible anymore.” That’s where their media campaign InvisiblesNoMás comes from. Perez says “it’s really the message of coming out of the shadows and proudly being part of participatory democracy.”
COPAL offers help filling out the census because it is integral to the functions of democracy. The data collected affect our nation’s ability to ensure equal representation and equal access to important governmental and private sector resources. The results are used to allocate seats and draw district lines for the U.S. House of Representatives, state legislatures, and local boards, It is used to target more than $800 billion annually in federal assistance to states, localities, and families and to guide community decision-making affecting schools, housing, health care services, business investment, and much more. This all depends on a fair and accurate census, making COPAL’s work that much more crucial.
Building power of the people
The Democracy 2050 campaign, which includes the Latino Vote initiative and the InvisiblesNoMás Census work, only scratches the surface of COPAL’s substantial efforts.
Perez, who leads the Democracy 2050 and Environment campaigns, wants people to know the important role people’s powerbuilding organizations like COPAL, and many others in every community, play in developing significant social change.
He also knows that we all have a role to play in these movements, and that there are many ways to get involved that don’t require you to become a professional activist or organizer. He encourages you to volunteer with COPAL, vote if you have been granted that ability, sign petitions, and make donations, because a little goes a long way.
While it may feel easy to view yourself as small and powerless, it is important to keep in mind a quote from journalist Eduardo Galeano that is central to COPAL’s work, which is that “many small people, in many small places, doing many small things can change the world.”
We invite you to contribute to that transformation in any way you can.
Natalia Johnson | University of Minnesota
Natalia is a rising senior at the University of Minnesota, where she is pursuing a double major in Spanish and sociology. Although she was born and raised in the US, Natalia is a bicultural woman who has had the privilege of traveling to Costa Rica to visit her mother’s side of the family. She has used her Spanish language abilities working as a translator for the Volunteer Lawyers Network and as a National Asylum Help Line Responder at the Advocates for Human Rights, experiences that instilled in her a passion for social justice and immigrant advocacy. Natalia is a firm believer in empathy and the power of communication. As an Immigration Writer, she hopes to bring immigrant experiences into the national narrative and will use her platform to spotlight organizations that provide hope during these extremely difficult times.