As Bloomington becomes more diverse, two Latino men are among those seeking election to its city council. Credit: Victor Rivas campaign | Ric Oliva campaign

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Known as the home of Mall of America, the Minneapolis–St. Paul International Airport, and—just possibly—a world’s fair in 2027, Bloomington also is one of those Twin Cities suburbs that illustrates where Minnesota has been and where it is headed. 

While about three-quarters of the population is white, just over half the students in its school district are children of color, making it an increasingly diverse community in an increasingly diverse state. 

The dynamic nature of the city will be on display in elections for Bloomington’s City Council on Tuesday, in which three non-partisan seats are up for grabs—an at-large post that serves a four-year term, and seats representing districts 3 and 4, which are for two-year terms. 

The council candidates include Ric Oliva, a Black Latino who was the first person of color to serve as chair of the local school board, and Victor Rivas, the culinary director for a senior living community whose parents are from Mexico and El Salvador. 

The candidates include Ric Oliva, a Black Latino who was the first person of color to serve as chair of the local school board, and Victor Rivas, the culinary director for a senior living community whose parents are from Mexico and El Salvador. 

Both say they feel that the city’s efforts to ensure inclusion are in some ways misguided. 

The city is home to nearly 84,000 people, according to census data, and about three-fourths of that population is white. Black residents make up about 10 percent of the city and Latinos about 9 percent.

Mary Anderson-Lippert, a Bloomington resident for about three and a half years who is in her last week as a Lutheran pastor there, notes the complexity of Bloomington.

“I think there’s issues around like, whose city it is,” she said, noting that there are political and geographical divides. The east side of Bloomington is more diverse, while the west side is seeing more development.

It can also sometimes feel like there’s an insider-outsider approach to the city by some of the longtime residents, but she said much of her congregation has been warm and happy with how the city is shifting.

Bloomington is becoming more diverse, as evidenced by the school population.

With 51 percent students of color, primarily Hispanic and Black students, Bloomington Public Schools is one of the most diverse school districts in the state, according to Public School Review.

As political tensions have risen around the country, Bloomington hasn’t entirely stayed out of the fray. Becky Strohmeier, a local right-wing figure who has led dozens of rallies against COVID-19 lockdowns and in support of former President Donald Trump, is running for the fourth district seat.

In the 2020 presidential election, Bloomington overwhelmingly turned out for Democrats, with the Biden ticket receiving 64 percent of the vote. Trump received just about one-third. That pattern tracks with votes for representatives to the state Legislature.

Oliva and Rivas spoke with Sahan Journal about why they’re running, what they love about Twin Cities’ largest suburb, and the major issues they hope to tackle should they be elected to the Council.

Ric Oliva, who is running for an at-large seat on the Bloomington City Council, was the first person of color to chair the local school board. He says the city’s diversity efforts, while well-intentioned, are being poorly implemented. Credit: Courtesy Ric Oliva campaign

Ric Oliva: Candidate for at-large seat

Some of Ricardo “Ric” Oliva’s supporters say the city needs more Latinos in leadership roles. His response? “That’s great, but I hope that’s not the only reason why you’re voting for me.”

He feels some of the conversations around race have been divisive, and the city’s efforts toward racial diversity are “well-intentioned, but are being implemented poorly.”

He noted that the master plan for Bloomington parks talks about racial equity, which he said would make sense in his dad’s era, but isn’t an issue now. He said the park master plan shouldn’t be giving priority based on race.

“When we have policies, or we’re coming up with new initiatives, it should really be based on the need, and not necessarily a blanket one-size-fits-all,” Oliva said. “Is the park being used?”

Oliva’s bid for the City Council was sparked by the movement to ‘defund’ the police that has cropped up over the last year and a half. He said it’s become a buzzword and wanted to see what the city was doing about it. He met with the police chief and was happy to hear that police are adequately funded. Still, he said he supports initiatives like sending social workers after police respond to mental health calls to help people get resources that they need.

Bloomington has always been home to him. He moved away for college and always planned to come back to start his music career in the town. He has three albums published on his website.

This isn’t Oliva’s first foray into Bloomington politics—he’s felt a strong commitment to public service. He was on the Bloomington School Board for four years and was the first person of color to be board chair. He doesn’t put much weight on that, though: He grew up in Bloomington and doesn’t know Spanish.

Still, he had to acknowledge it at the time.

“When I was sworn in, I acknowledged that. I said for me, growing up here, I never felt like I was any different,” Oliva said. “I’m hoping that at some point, we get to the point where this isn’t an issue, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t at least acknowledge that in the school district’s 100th year, I’m the first one.”

He’s experienced conversations about race personally.

Oliva was once told by a principal that he was very hirable, since there aren’t many Black Latino teachers. “That’s great,” Oliva said. “But maybe the fact that I’ve been teaching for 10 years and have a master’s degree, like that doesn’t have anything to do with it?”

Oliva got his Master of Music Degree in Boston and has taught music for years. He was once told by a principal that he was very hirable, since there aren’t many Black Latino teachers.

“That’s great,” Oliva said. “But, you know, maybe the fact that I’ve been teaching for 10 years at that point and have a master’s degree, like that doesn’t have anything to do with it?”

He said the city’s efforts for diversity should be focused on removing barriers and improving outreach, not reaching hiring quotas.

During his tenure on the school board, Oliva spearheaded an initiative to bring more student involvement to board decisions. During the school year, the board met once with high school students and once with middle school students.

“I said what if we revitalize this, so that way they can meet more regularly, and they can actually bring things to us and … influence our decisions?” Oliva said.

It took years of navigating logistics, but now student governments elect a board representative who attends at least one school board meeting a month. Oliva said it helps foster more meaningful engagement for students.

To Oliva, public service is about lending your talents for the good of the community instead of just self-interest.

“I feel that I have experience and do a good job of bringing in disparate groups to create some sort of consensus,” Oliva said, “or at least to have people walk away knowing that they’ve been heard, and in a respectful manner.”

Victor Rivas says he has not felt that racism has held him back, and that many immigrants he talks to feel the same way. ‘We’re just Americans, and that’s the main thing,’ says the son of Mexican and Salvadoran parents, who is running to represent Bloomington’s District 4. Credit: Courtesy Victor Rivas campaign

 Victor Rivas: Candidate in District 4

Victor Rivas remembers the days after he graduated high school. It was 1979, shortly after the Iranian revolution, and an influx of refugees had come to the U.S. Rivas had graduated early and had some time before he planned to start college, so he volunteered to help the Iranian people learn English as they found their footing in the country.

“Now most of these Iranian people that came during that time are very patriotic Americans,” Rivas said.

He, much like Oliva, believes that Bloomington’s efforts for equity are misguided. He doesn’t feel that racism has held him back as a Latino man whose parents hailed from Mexico and El Salvador. In fact, he says that many immigrants he’s spoken with feel similarly.

Earlier this year, the Bloomington City Council declared racism a public health crisis—but Rivas doesn’t see it that way. “We’re just Americans, and that’s the main thing,” Rivas said. “You know what all this is doing, is separating us again.”

Earlier this year, the Bloomington City Council declared racism a public health crisis—but Rivas doesn’t see it that way.

“We’re just Americans, and that’s the main thing,” Rivas said. “You know what all this is doing, is separating us again.”

Rivas said he has knocked on thousands of doors throughout the district, which includes about 4,800 people, and had positive feedback.

Rivas is running for the Fourth District of the Bloomington City Council—which includes part of the city’s east side—because he feels that the current city leadership has been unresponsive to his concerns. He says the city is heading in the wrong direction, and decided that the only way to correct the course is to make the bid himself.

Rivas grew up in California and has lived in Bloomington for about 13 years. He raised his family in Minnesota, where he’s lived for a couple decades. Now he’s a culinary director for a senior community, and said his experience handling large budgets and overseeing hundreds of people make him suited for the Council role.

He first moved to Bloomington because of its proximity to the airport, then he decided to stay. He likes the amenities, and he knows all the best spots for mushroom hunting.

“It just grew on me, the location, there’s no better location than Bloomington. You’re in the middle of everything,” Rivas said.

A central tenet to his campaign is inclusion. To him, it isn’t necessarily based on race or ethnicity, but including all voices in the city enterprise. He hopes to host town halls to allow residents’ voices to be heard regarding significant city issues.

Rivas said he’d like to see more police patrolling through neighborhoods and is concerned with ongoing rhetoric about policing.

No community center for Valley View Park

Valley View Park has also been important to Rivas. One of the most contentious debates in the city occurred when part of the park’s space was considered a possible location for an $85 million community center.

Under the long shadows of the evening sun on a chilly October day, the 34-acre park was bright. Young teenagers played in the playground, which is bounded by baseball diamonds, tennis courts, a pool, and other play equipment.

Rivas pointed to some of the amenities, saying he’d support investment in maintaining the park where his grandchildren like to play, and his three dogs like to hop through the winter snow.

The City Council chose to take no action on the issue in December 2019, putting the project on hold. In February 2020, the City Council made a symbolic 6-0 vote, with one member abstaining, that it would not put a community center at the park.

“The rumor is that the city is still considering. I don’t know that with certainty, but that is the rumor,” Rivas said.

With turnover and the shifting nature of politics, Rivas said he’s concerned that city leadership hasn’t made a statement saying the park is forever off the table for redevelopment. He fears that outside interests have had a hand in city politics, though did not point to any specific examples.

Rivas supports smaller government. He said he doesn’t believe in mandating vaccines for adults. Still, he is vaccinated because he works with elderly people. “If you’re a kid, and the vaccine is proven to work and the benefits outnumber the disadvantages of getting a vaccine,” he said “that’s okay” for public schools to require vaccines.

He also thinks the city’s choice to ban flavored tobacco was a mistake and hurts small businesses.

Rivas most wants to make sure all voices are heard more clearly in Bloomington government, and he said that’s why he’s running.

“To me, it’s very exciting to get to know people that have different points of view,” Rivas said. “But at the same time, we’re together. We need to work together.”

JD Duggan

JD Duggan is a Twin Cities–based freelance reporter, covering criminal justice and protest movements. JD's past work has appeared in The Intercept, Daily Beast, Star Tribune, and Pioneer Press.