Posted on September 30, 2004

The Changing Faces Of Minnesota

David Peterson, Star Tribune (Minneapolis), Sep. 30

An Old Minnesota of Johanssens and Hoffmanns is giving way to a Young Minnesota of Garcias and Xiongs, the U.S. Census Bureau will report today.

While our senior citizens remain overwhelmingly white, the number of minorities in the youngest age groups is booming. In Hennepin County, among kids younger than 5, the rate of growth for Hispanics so far this decade is 15 times that of whites.

And demographers say that the pace of change is not going to slacken anytime soon. It could even accelerate as the coming tidal wave of retirements quickens the departure of aging white baby boomers for northern lake cabins and Sun Belt condos.

Already, the racial makeup of a kindergarten class in south Minneapolis is a whole lot different from that of a typical nursing home.

Only four of Mike Marquardt’s 5-year-olds at Hans Christian Andersen Elementary are native English speakers. Most of the kids look puzzled when you point to an airplane and ask them for the word in English. They watch “Spiderman” in Spanish via satellite from Mexico, where many of their families are from.

A short drive away, at Walker Methodist Health Care Center, nurse Wale (pronounced “Wally”) Ogungbure, a Nigerian immigrant, and a cast of colleagues come from 50 to 60 countries across the globe provide what their boss describes as exceptionally tender care for people with names like Dahlquist, Stewart and Richardson.

In today’s Minnesota, said consulting demographer Hazel Reinhardt, “white folks are old folks and old folks are white folks.” And that will only be more true as time goes on.

“The African-American population has a median age of around 30 to 32. For whites it’s 39. For Hispanics it’s 25. The patterns we’re seeing today are likely to continue. The white population, so much older, will produce more retirees. People of color, so very young, are in their prime migrating years. These are patterns we will see more and more in this decade and the next.”

The Census Bureau estimates to be released today cover the first three years of this decade. They break every U.S. county down by race or ethnicity and age, allowing for a blindingly detailed CAT scan of changing colors.

Across the state, the agency reports, whites remain by far the largest group, but the major minority groups are growing at a clip that is four to five times faster.

The most telling figures, however, come not from broad statewide averages but from detailed breakdowns by age and race.

In the three-year period in Hennepin County, the Census Bureau estimates, the preschool age group swelled by nearly 1,800 Hispanic children (a 31 percent increase), but by only about 1,100 white children (a 2 percent increase, and declining year after year as even the youngest of baby boomers age out of their childbearing years).

After years of comparable growth, moreover, today’s increases come not just from immigration but from the elevated birthrates of residents who have been here now for some time.

Mike Marquardt, in his classroom at Andersen school, is quick to point out that his students are not necessarily newcomers to Minnesota.

Although he won’t know all the family backgrounds until the first teacher conferences, he said, “I’ve had the older brothers and sisters of some of these kids.”

They are American kids, then, but also kids with a muffled relationship with the culture around them. With their teacher acting as interpreter, they tell a visiting reporter that they lead Spanish-speaking lives, in conversation at home, at school and in front of the TV set.

They are, however, American enough to have worn Scooby-Doo or clown costumes last Halloween and gathered up loads of candy.

At Walker Care Center, meanwhile, director Jon Lundberg oversees a United Nations of workers. At a moment of an especially acute nursing shortage, he once sent a recruiter to Nigeria, a trip that yielded several new employees.

“We see immigrants as a real strength for us, and not a detriment,” he said. “The cultural differences can be problematic, and communication as well, but their academic backgrounds are better than many of our other staff members. And the relationships they build with patients are the strongest of any.”

Ogungbure, 34, arrived from Africa seven years ago. He was startled to see a robust American senior insist on being addressed as “Judy.” In Nigeria, where the elderly are given humble deference, he said, “it would be ‘Ma’am.’ “

But living in Columbia Heights, a growing magnet for immigrants, and working where he does, he said, he doesn’t feel out of place in Minnesota.

“Everywhere you turn right now, you see someone who looks like you.”