George Zuccolotto and Claudia Gonzalez-George stand outside a mural by the Key, Northfield's youth center. The two were elected this fall as Northfield's first Latino elected officials. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

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When George Zuccolotto moved to Northfield, Minnesota at the age of five, he experienced culture shock. So many of the other children had blond hair and blue eyes, and none of the teachers spoke Spanish. It was a contrast from his previous home in California, which felt like “basically Mexico,” he said.

Twenty years later, Northfield, a rural college town 40 miles south of the Twin Cities, is still predominantly white. But in that time, the Latino population has nearly doubled to more than 1,700, nearly 9 percent of the population. It’s also developed political muscle. 

This fall, Zuccolotto, now 25, won a seat on the Northfield City Council. In the same election, fellow Mexican American Claudia Gonzalez-George won her campaign to serve on the Northfield school board. They’re the first two Latinos to win elected office in Northfield.

“I think people are hoping for some sort of change,” said Zuccolotto. “I think it means something, hopefully: like a new wave of young people going into political office and trying to get things done.”

For Gonzalez-George, a former teacher who arrived in Northfield just over two years ago, it’s a welcome signal. “I think it says Northfield values different voices, and that makes my heart happy,” she said.

The election success presents a validation that the town’s Latino residents haven’t always felt. Northfield, home to both Carleton College and St. Olaf College, calls itself the town of “cows, colleges, and contentment” on its highway welcome sign. Marketing materials show leafy campuses, picturesque downtown shops, and historic Victorian homes in a town of 20,000 residents.

It’s a liberal bubble in a rural area: While 72 percent of Northfield voters cast their ballots for President-elect Joe Biden, votes in the rest of the county split nearly evenly. Rice County voters favored outgoing President Donald Trump by just 61 votes. 

That same split frame can be seen in the area’s schools, too. By one measure, the Northfield school district has made significant progress toward eliminating its educational disparities. In the 2018–2019 school year, 89 percent of Latino students graduated from high school—one of the highest Latino graduation rates in the state. By contrast, in neighboring Faribault, just over half of Latino students graduated—one of the state’s lowest rates.

But in some ways, Northfield is also a segregated city, said Mar Valdecantos, a Northfield writer, translator, and activist. 

“If you’re white and middle class in Northfield, you see a city that other people don’t see,” she said.

Northfield’s Latino community, most of whom trace their roots to the south central Mexican town of Maltrata, largely clusters into two trailer parks and several run-down apartment buildings, separated from the colleges and historic downtown by highways and a river. Many Northfield Latinos work in factories in neighboring towns. And many prefer to keep their distance from the shops downtown that attract tourists, professors, and college students—they don’t feel welcome there, and prices are lower at Walmart, Valdecantos said.

Zuccolotto, whose mom works in a packing factory and whose dad drives a taxi and coaches soccer, grew up in Viking Terrace. It’s one of Northfield’s trailer parks. Though it’s not a far distance from Carleton and downtown, the river and the highway create a separation.

“It’s literally the best neighborhood in Northfield,” Zuccolotto said. “It’s the only neighborhood in Northfield that feels alive. I can get my car fixed, I can get my taxes done, I can go get a haircut, I can go buy tacos. It’s amazing. And these people don’t know about it.” 

Zuccolotto’s experience is a perspective that’s long been missing on the city council. It marks a major milestone for the Latino community. 

While Trump lost his 2020 reelection bid, in many rural areas his voters surged, fueled in part by anti-immigrant sentiment. But in Northfield, the Trump era has had the opposite effect, leading to a rise in organizing and representation for communities of color. 

These new community leaders in Northfield show an example of how a rural community can begin to embrace its shifting demographics, through policy change and at the ballot box. 

‘Let’s show we all belong the same way in this community’

When Trump won the 2016 election, Mar Valdecantos, Lucy Gonzalez, and Marlene Rojas had just co-founded a radio show to provide news and entertainment for Northfield’s Latino community. The three women brought together years of experience organizing in Northfield.

Gonzalez, a Mexican immigrant and active volunteer in Centro Campesino, a southern Minnesota migrant farmworkers group, had participated in marches and protests for immigrant rights in St. Paul and Washington, D.C. 

Rojas, who came to Northfield when her husband got a job at St. Olaf, became active in the community right away. Since 2013, she’d been organizing forums for the Latino community. Here, members could get to know their local elected officials, strategize about holding absentee landlords accountable, and participate in the campaign for driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants. 

Valdecantos, a writer and translator, volunteered on the city’s Human Rights Commission along with Gonzalez. 

The radio show, 95.1 FM KYMN’s El Super Barrio Latino, provided a way for the Latino community to share and receive news. It also presented a way for Valdecantos and Gonzalez to take action on issues the Human Rights Commission couldn’t address. When they heard complaints about conditions in apartment buildings—including absentee landlords and a cockroach infestation—the women investigated on behalf of the radio program.

“Somebody told me, you’re creating chaos in the city,” Valdecantos said. “And that was a good thing.”

An immigrant from Spain, Valdecantos moved to Northfield in 1998, when her husband, Al Montero, became a professor in Carleton’s political science department. She’d gravitated toward the other Spanish-speaking immigrant mothers when her children were young, feeling excluded by the Anglo moms.

“I made a lot of effort to be part of things and volunteer with them,” she said. “Something was always missing, a connection that was never there.” But she found that connection in the Latino community.

Then, at the end of 2016, Trump’s election sent fear rippling through her community. 

“We saw a direct attack on all of us immigrants, especially people from Mexico,” Valdecantos said. 

Several pickup trucks in town that had previously sported Confederate flags now bore Trump banners. They drove around at frightening speeds, Valdecantos said, in what seemed to be a show of power. At some workplaces, including a factory and a hotel, bosses brought Trump merchandise into work—taunting their employees, she said. 

Kids experienced that taunting at school, too. Some white kids teased their Latino classmates, asking if they were ready to pack their suitcases.

The women planned trainings in the high school and the Catholic church, where many Latinos attend mass, to help people learn their rights in any encounter with police or Immigration and Customs Enforcement. They created a network to inform neighbors if ICE came to the area.

When the women heard complaints about a cockroach infestation, they investigated on behalf of their radio program. “Somebody told me, you’re creating chaos in the city,” Valdecantos said. “And that was a good thing.”

Organizers from the Twin Cities came to provide support, too. One mentioned that in the absence of driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants, cities could provide municipal IDs. The idea stuck. The campaign for a municipal ID marked the beginning of their new advocacy group, Rice County Neighbors United. 

Valdecantos took the lead on the campaign. It began with educational outreach to build the case with Northfield residents and council members. Some people saw the ID as a tool that would help only undocumented immigrants, she said, and they didn’t want their tax dollars to pay for it. So the advocacy group raised funds to help people who couldn’t afford the cards.

“There were voices that were against it, of course,” she said. “But the idea was, let’s show that we are all the same, we all belong the same way in this community, and everybody can access this program regardless of who we are.”

Clarita Kell, who leads an Aztec dance group in town, served as a liaison between the Latino community and school leadership in Northfield schools for many years. She had grown weary of being asked to speak for the entire community. Now, she found it inspiring to see so many people participating in the campaign.

“It was very powerful,” she said. “Seeing these very humble families with a lot of big heart and a lot of knowledge, going to these meetings directly from work, sitting for hours and sharing their thoughts, putting their heads together and coming back with more thoughts and more ideas of how to promote this, how to fight for this need.”

In 2017, Northfield became the first city in Minnesota to pass a municipal ID ordinance.

‘Trying to bring balance to everything’

George Zuccolotto, 25, got his first taste of City Hall advocating to build a skate park in high school. Now he’ll be Northfield’s first Latino council member. Credit: Courtesy George Zuccolotto

Zuccolotto, who grew up as a “brown kid into punk rock and hip-hop music,” got his first taste of city politics as a teenager. During high school, he served on the mayor’s youth council (which “back then did nothing,” he said), and was president of the Key, Northfield’s youth center. While at the Key, he helped push the city council to build a skate park. 

The effort had stalled repeatedly over the course of two decades. Seeing the slow crawl of bureaucracy firsthand was eye-opening for Zuccolotto: The council, protective of historic Northfield and wary about a noisy park, endlessly debated suitable locations.

“They’d have meetings and meetings and meetings,” he said. “I was like, Man, this is how these people do this? It was so different from the things they’re teaching us in social studies about how the government works. I’m actively going to these meetings and seeing these politicians just not care about the things that we say.”

He also noted that some of the concerns about the skate park—like possible noise—hadn’t been considered problems when the council debated a public pool. He found it “hypocritical,” he said.

But after many years of effort, the campaign succeeded: The skate park opened in 2015. “That was nice to see that victory too,” he said. “To just be like, Man, we can get something done.”

In high school, Zuccolotto went through the TORCH program—the partnership between the school district and community partners often credited for Northfield’s high graduation rates. The program “really does not let kids slide,” he said. “It’s very good for getting them into college.” 

But while the program is helping Northfield students, he said, Faribault kids deserve the same resources. And college attendance has proved a mixed blessing for some participants, he said: Many of his friends who went to college are now in debt. 

“It’s a difficult conversation for people to have,” he said. “It’s a privilege to even have the conversation because we’re doing well.”

Zuccolotto turned to music after graduating, playing in bands, getting gigs as a sound engineer, and traveling as a roadie. Then Cecilia Cornejo, a Carleton professor and filmmaker, invited him to work with her on a documentary about the relationship between Maltrata and Northfield. 

He traveled with her to Maltrata, in the Mexican state of Veracruz, to film and conduct interviews. It helped him understand the specific Latino culture he grew up in. “For me, once I saw that, it gave me a new sense of pride and identity almost,” he said. “It really solidified a lot of my relationships with people around town. It helped me be less shy about talking to my community and being in that community.” 

He also filmed the city council meetings where Northfield debated the municipal ID. 

His career as a musician, filmmaker, and barista took a turn when Minneapolis police killed George Floyd. He felt distraught, he said.

“You know how helpless that man must have felt in that situation, and it’s despicable and it’s inhumane,” he said. “It filled me with anger and rage and sadness. It still does to think about that.”

But he didn’t want to be angry: He needed a new way to focus his energy. When a friend mentioned a position in the city council was opening up, he figured, why not?

“It’s just people listening and deciding and trying to make reasonable decisions based on information they get,” he said. “And they vote Yes or No. So I’m like, I can do this.” 

While Northfield is a better environment for people of color than Faribault, he said, these communities have often been shut out of positions of power. 

“White people are making decisions for my people’s lives, my family’s lives, everyone’s lives that I know,” he said. “When are we guaranteed safety? When are we guaranteed equity? There’s never been a person up there asking these questions, demanding.”

Zuccolotto’s biggest goal is to guide the city to purchase Viking Terrace for its residents. The landlords don’t salt the roads or pick up trash, he said. They also haven’t fixed the swingset, which got mangled after a driver ran into it this summer. (A representative for Viking Terrace told Sahan Journal that management does salt the roads, and that the swingset has been repaired and will be reinstalled in the spring.) 

Facilitating land ownership would be an efficient way to build equity for residents who have lived there for decades, Zuccolotto said. 

He also wants to revisit the city’s relationship with Lexipol, a private company that creates model law enforcement policies and provides them to thousands of local governments around the country. Some activists have criticized Lexipol’s policies that discourage de-escalation and authorize officers to enforce immigration law. “That’s the most lazy way of going about a democracy I’ve ever heard of,” Zuccolotto said. “You just really hired a company?”

And, he plans to provide basic services for his neighbors: “Fix some potholes around my street and stuff,” he said.

‘If you give them a chance, these kids excel’

Claudia Gonzalez George, a former teacher, parent, and advocate at the Community Action Center, won a seat on the Northfield school board. Credit: Courtesy Claudia Gonzalez-George

Claudia Gonzalez-George, who will become Northfield’s first Latina school board member, is a recent transplant to town. Like Valdecantos and Rojas, she came to Northfield for her spouse’s college job. Her family arrived in 2018 from Oklahoma, where she spent seven years as an elementary school teacher. She’s connected with Northfield’s Latino families through her work at the Community Action Center, where she helps people find food, medical, or housing resources.

“I have a real heart for Mexican families because that was my personal growing up experience, speaking Spanish at home and living in this English-speaking world outside of the home,” she said. “And I look for them wherever I’m living. I try to figure out, where are these families? And are they doing OK? Are they thriving?”

Gonzalez-George hadn’t thought of seeking office before. But over the summer, one of the current board members suggested she run for an open seat.

“It was one of those lightbulb moments,” she said. “You’ve had all these different experiences and someone kind of connects the dots for you.”

She realized her experiences as a parent, teacher, and member of the Latino community could be beneficial to the board. It will be helpful just speaking Spanish and being able to communicate with a population that hasn’t often been able to talk to the board, she said.

She’s heard concerns from some Spanish-speaking parents that their students haven’t been able to take advanced classes because they are labeled as English-language learners. Gonzalez-George, too, took ELL classes as a child. She didn’t do especially well on her college entrance exam, she said—a barrier for many Latino students. But she got into the University of California–Santa Barbara and excelled in her classes.

“That’s what happens to a lot of our ELL students or lower socioeconomic students,” she said. “The gatekeeper keeps them out, saying you have a lot of struggles, you’re not going to do well in this advanced math class. But if you give them a chance, and maybe even some supports, homework supports or time management supports, those kids excel.”

She also wants to provide more mental health services for students. Her own teenagers struggled academically and emotionally when they left their community in Oklahoma, she noted, and they didn’t have to contend with a language barrier. It’s worse for immigrant and refugee students, she said.

“Could you imagine leaving your country?” she said. 

She credits Northfield’s rising activist movement, led by Valdecantos and others, for the growing strength of the Latino community’s political power. El Super Barrio Latino invited Gonzalez-George and Zuccolotto onto the show, and educated its audience about the local elections. The death of George Floyd has also led to a shift in how people think about who should be in power, she said: Increasingly, they realize people of color need to be at the decision making table.

A new generation

This fall’s election in Northfield also represents a generational shift. Two decades after families like Zuccolotto’s moved to Northfield, their children are coming of age. It’s a shift in electoral power playing out in communities throughout the country: Young Latinos are voting at levels their parents didn’t or couldn’t. And some of them are running for office.

Those new voters have seen how their parents faced precarious working conditions, low wages, neglected housing, and over the last four years, increasingly overt racism.

“Those children are growing up with the hurt they see in their communities, the hurt they’ve seen in their parents,” Valdecantos said. “The generational trauma has been passed on to the kids. But those kids are like, I have a voice. I’m a citizen. I can navigate the system.

Those new voters are politically diverse—and their views may not always please the campus crowd or white progressives, Zuccolotto said. 

Many members of the community are Catholic, and hold some conservative views, he said.

“What’s going to happen when we have a big sway and a huge voice, and our voice says something that some people don’t like?” he said.

He’s already looking for more young people to run for office, he said, including people who can replace him.

“I want more Latino voices,” he said. “As many voices as possible.”

Becky Z. Dernbach is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.