Nowhere in the region is the changing demographics and diversity more apparent than in St. James, Madelia and Butterfield.
“The white population is now in the minority in our schools,” said Sue Harris, community education director for the St. James Public Schools, who also works with Madelia and Butterfield schools.
The 2020 Census shows St. James’ population stands at 4,793, with 42% Hispanic.
In Madelia, a third of the town’s population of 2,396 is Hispanic.
In Butterfield, with a population of 601, 269 are Hispanic. The demographic shift began in earnest in the 1970s and ‘80s, fueled by labor shortages at the food processing plants in the communities.
While the shift has been most dramatic in the three Watonwan County towns, the 2020 Census shows a steady trend across south central Minnesota — minority populations are growing while the white population is shrinking.
In Blue Earth County, the white population fell from just over 91% 10 years ago to just shy of 83% in 2020.
The Black population grew from 2.7% in 2010 to 5.6% in 2020 and the Hispanic/Latino populations grew from 2.5% to 4.7%. The Asian population grew from 1.9% to 2.7%.
In Nicollet County, the white population fell from 91.5% to 85% over the decade. The Hispanic population grew from 3.7% to 5.2% and the Black population grew from 2% to 4.9%.
The new Census showed that for the first time the number of white Americans dropped locally and nationally. There was a decline of 8.6% in the white population, or 19 million people.
But those numbers need to be put into some perspective. In a major shift, the 2020 Census gave people more options for what ethnic groups they identify with compared to past censuses. Rather than simply being able to check the “white” box, people could identify as white and one or more of the other racial groups.
So the 2020 Census showed a sizeable decline in the “white” only category, but more people identified as multi-racial.
Still, the white population is on a seemingly unstoppable decline.
Kuma Takamura, education director with the Mankato Diversity Council, said two interesting things happened between 2010 and 2020.
Kuma Takamura is education director with the Mankato Diversity Council.
“In 2013 the number of non-white babies born exceeded the number of white babies born.
“And in 2015 the white death rate exceeded the white birth rate. That’s a national trend. So no matter what, there is going to be more diversity,” Takamura said.
The growing diversity in younger Americans is particularly evident in the schools.
“I go into the schools a lot. The white population in schools is less than 10 years ago. The white population in (Mankato) schools now is 73% even though the overall community is about 84% white,” Takamura said.
Harris said the diversity in schools in St. James, Madelia and Butterfield is much more pronounced than in other area schools. Students of color make up more than 50% of the student body in St. James and Madelia and about 80% in Butterfield.
Harris said the Watonwan County communities have been transformed in recent decades, and it is still a work in progress and still changing.
At first, migrant workers came to the area for part of the year and then moved on, but then immigrants came and stayed.
“Now we have second, third generation families here,” Harris said.
New immigrants arrived from El Salvador, escaping turmoil in their country. More recently a large contingent of Guatemalans have settled, bringing some new challenges, particularly with language.
Many speak the indigenous Guatemala languages of K’iche and Mam, which are not written languages. “So it’s difficult to just translate to Spanish like we’ve been doing,” Harris said.
She said many of the younger Guatemalans are learning more Spanish.
While there are those in the community with negative comments and push back on efforts to be more inclusive, Harris said there are many groups and individuals who work hard on integration.
Uniting Cultures and Convivencia Hispana provide community outreach events, work on things like vaccine programs and provide scholarships to students, among other efforts.
Local churches are also actively engaged in diversity work, Harris said.
Harris said the strong immigrant communities have kept St. James, Madelia and Butterfield from suffering the fate of population and business loss felt by many rural towns.
“We have a lot of Latinx businesses popping up in our vacant buildings on Main Street. The population has stayed steady and our school enrollment has been stable. If this (immigrant) community went away our downtowns would be in dire shape and our school enrollments would be cut in half.”
Takamura, too, says championing diversity and reducing racism and achievement gaps is a daunting challenge.
“There are so many things that need to be done.
“Minnesota and Mankato are still much more white compared to the rest of the nation.”
He said trying to eliminate the achievement gap between white and non-white students is needed, but difficult to do. “Minnesota has a high achievement gap,” Takamura said.
He said one effort to reduce discrimination is to work with younger kids. “The younger minds are much more open to that. We have success working with kids on how to take action when they see discrimination in schools.”
While progress may be seen in some areas, progress on diversity issues has in many ways gone backwards recently because of the divisive social and political divide in the nation.
“If you think Black and Asian and Brown people are inherently inferior, that’s difficult to overcome, but modern genetics proved that on average we are 99.9% the same in DNA variation,” Takamura said.