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Interview with Edgardo E. Rodriguez



Edgardo E. Rodriguez was born in Puerto Rico. Rodriguez worked at Price Waterhouse as a senior accountant before being lured to International Multifoods as an assistant controller. Once retired, Rodriguez became the treasurer of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and the Chicano Latino Affairs Council (CLAC). He became involved with communities after joining the Metropolitan Economic Development Association (MEDA), a nonprofit dedicated in helping communities of color with their businesses. SUBJECTS DISCUSSED: Family background - religious influences - financial struggles - education - job history as an accountant - Minnesota weather and ethnic environment - MEDA involvement - Hispanic community and culture - Venezuela - helping Latino businesses - Small Business Champion of the Year for Minnesota and the Midwest - addressing education and documentation for the Latino community - importance of learning English and computer skills for Latinos - music and art - VocalEssence - and community participation.





World Region



Edgardo E. Rodriguez Narrator Lorena Duarte Interviewer October 25, 2010 Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Edgardo Rodriguez Lorena Duarte

- ER - LD

LD: My name is Lorena Duarte. I will be doing the interview today for the Minnesota Historical Society Latino Oral History Project. Today is Monday, October 25, 2010. I’m at the offices MEDA in downtown Minneapolis. I’m here with Edgardo Rodriguez. First of all, on behalf of the Minnesota Historical Society, thank you so much for taking the time. If you could, please, start out with your full name and how to spell it. ER: My name is Edgardo Rodriguez, Welcome to MEDA’s offices. For those who don’t know what MEDA stands for, MEDA is Metropolitan Economic Development Association. LD: Excellent. Can you tell me your date of birth and where you were born? ER: I was born January 16, 1944 in Santurce, Puerto Rico. LD: Can you tell me just a little bit about your family, your parents’ names and if you had any siblings? ER: My mother was born in Cuba. Her father was French and her mother was Puerto Rican. Her father was a circus man, and he came to Puerto Rico to a small town called Patillas to do a show. He came to send a telegram to his girlfriend. My grandmother was the telegraph operator, and the rest is history. LD: [chuckles] ER: Here we are many years later. So my mother was born in Cuba. My grandfather was born in France and my grandmother was born in Puerto Rico. On the other side, on my father’s side, they’re all from Puerto Rico.


Puerto Rico is a very small island and it’s predominantly Catholic, and I was born to a Protestant family in Puerto Rico, so our religion was not Catholic. We were Methodists. I think that’s part of the big influence in my life in my early age. LD: Let me get into that in just a second. I just want to check. Do you have any siblings? ER: Yes, I have one brother who is deceased now. His name is Carlos. I have one sister. She’s living, and her name is Elsie. LD: Were you the youngest, oldest, middle? ER: I am the middle one. LD: Tell me a little bit about why your religion influenced your childhood. ER: First of all, perhaps I should also tell you that we were born a very poor family. We didn’t have much money, and I did live in the slums. I think being Protestant in that environment protected me from gangs and from drugs. That helped me focus on education, and the rest is history. That’s what allowed me to be successful. I think so. LD: You were a studious child? ER: Yes. LD: What were you interested in? ER: Actually, I graduated from high school when I was fifteen. I entered college right away at the University of Puerto Rico to study accounting. I graduated from college when I was nineteen. LD: Wow! ER: I was planning to go on, and I had a scholarship to go to Michigan to study actuarial sciences, but I was greedy, and I was offered, I think it was, $280 [per month] for a job with the large accounting firm in town, Price Waterhouse & Company, and I went for the money. LD: [chuckles] Before we go into that. Other than school, were there any other passions you had? ER: Yes, we were all musicians. We were always interested in music. Later in my life, I was stage manager for the Caracas Opera Company for about eight years on a part time basis. I’ve done a lot of theater in my life. So music was a passion. LD: So you were twenty when you started working?


ER: I started at nineteen. LD: Tell me a little bit about the development of your career from that point. ER: All right. My goal in life, at that time, was to make $1,000 a month, which made me very, very eligible, so all the women were interested in matrimony. But I already had a girlfriend from church, and I got married when I was twenty. One of the highlights in my life was when I paid $1,000 in rent instead of making $1,000 a month. LD: [chuckles] You were married at twenty. ER: I was married at twenty. I have a daughter that was born in Puerto Rico, and then I decided that my goal was too small. I decided that I wanted to go to the United States and go look for the American dream. So I asked for a transfer to New York City with the company I was working with, Price Waterhouse. They were dragging their feet, because I believe they needed more people in Puerto Rico than they needed people in New York, which was where I was going to go as as all Puerto Ricans did at the time. So I took a vacation. I went to New York. I interviewed with several other accounting firms, and I had two offers, one from a local company called Sod. Lydersdorf and another one from Arthur Andersen. I went back to Price Waterhouse and I said, ―I want to move to New York, but if you don’t transfer me, that’s fine. I’m going to go anyway. I have these two offers. So I quit. I moved to New York in 1967, I think it was. I showed up in the offices of Price Waterhouse in New York on the first day I was there. I told them, ―I’d like to work for Price Waterhouse. I just quit in San Juan last week. I need to do it right away. If you keep waiting and waiting, I can’t wait. I have two other offers that I have to answer.‖ They told me that they had never heard about my intention to move. That coincided with a time in New York where Price Waterhouse had made the headlines in the Wall Street Journal because they didn’t have enough Hispanics in the organization. So, therefore, they said, ―Yes. Let us check with San Juan, just to make sure that it is true that you were working there.‖ So, they checked and they saw my records. They thought I was good, so they withdrew my resignation, paid for my move, and made me a senior accountant. When I left Puerto Rico, I was a junior accountant. I stayed with them for another five and a half years. I became a CPA [certified public accountant] in New York. I obtained a CPA certificate from New York University in 1970. After that, I went to work for a company called Borden Inc., which was then very well known as a milk company, but it was really a chemical company. I became their assistant controller. They moved their offices shortly thereafter to Columbus, Ohio. I was in Columbus a couple of years, but I did not like Columbus. There was a head hunter from Minneapolis looking for an assistant controller for a local large Fortune 500 Company, International Multifoods. They found me, and they made me


an offer. I did not know where Minneapolis was, so I asked. All people could tell me was that it was cold. LD: [chuckles] ER: But I didn’t like Columbus, so I was flown to Minneapolis for an interview on July 4. The weather was beautiful. Three weeks later, I was moved to Minneapolis, and I worked for International Multifoods for twenty-nine years. LD: What year was this? ER: It was 1970. LD: What were your first impressions of Minnesota? ER: I liked it. I liked it immediately. Back in those days in downtown, the only tall building other than the Foshay Tower was the IDS Building. That had just been built. There weren’t too many buildings. After that, there was a lot of construction that went on immediately. Yes, I found it to be very friendly. Actually, relating to the ethnic environment, I never felt discriminated against. Never. Back in those days, actually, it was kind of like a plus to be Latino. It was construed that you had some kind of exposure in the world that was attractive. So I know I never felt back then that there were any problems. Of course, I was very protected in a corporate world. LD: Sure. ER: I remained protected under that corporate world pretty much for close to thirty years. We didn’t really know much of what was going on in the community, probably similar to many other individuals in Minnesota. Ten years ago, I thought that the only other Latinos in town were undocumented immigrants. That’s how isolated I was. When I retired from International Multifoods at the end of 1999, I didn’t work for a year. Then, an opportunity came up to become a financial advisor and, perhaps, represent some of the friends that I had made in Venezuela. I guess I didn’t talk about Venezuela. I have to talk about that in a little while. That didn’t work out because of licensing issues. So, since I had already become a financial advisor—I had taken my exams and was licensed—I thought maybe I can do something for my community. Let’s find out what our community is. I started doing research, and I found out that there was a Hispanic Chamber of Commerce in Minnesota. I called them, and I went and visited with them. I met some of the board members, Val Vargas and George Jacobson. Both of them were founders of the second Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. Shortly thereafter, I became treasurer. I became a member of the board at the Chamber. I was treasurer for about six or seven years. For the last four or five years, I have been on their Advisory Board.


George Jacobson, who was vice chair at the time, and I started talking, and he told me about MEDA, Metropolitan Economic Development Association, which works with the communities of color to help them with businesses. I thought that would be a real excellent thing for me during this retirement. It’s a nonprofit so they cannot pay me very much. I was making real good money at Multifoods. When I ended my career at Multifoods, for the last five years, I was president of the Venezuelan food operation. That’s where Venezuela comes in and I’ll talk about Venezuela in a little while. I joined MEDA, and then started finding out what the community was all about. I, for the first time, went to West Saint Paul. I lived in Minneapolis and Edina and never knew what was happening in Saint Paul. So I went there and became a trainer with the Neighborhood Development Center, NDC. and started giving classes on how to put together a business plan at REDA, the Riverview Economic Development Association. I taught there for about four years, and learned about the community. I met a lot of the community people, whom I know very well now. I found out that I was missing a lot in my earlier life as a corporate executive, and I was glad that I obtained the experience then that enabled me to be able to give back to the community. LD: When did you join MEDA? ER: I joined MEDA seven years ago, so it was 2003, something like that. Venezuela. I need to talk about Venezuela. I joined International Multifoods in the early 1970s. I was a financial guy. I was assistant controller. Around 1974, I was asked to go to Venezuela to solve a problem that they had with finances there. So I went there and became treasurer. I went on a three-year assignment and I spent eight years. When I came back, I was made controller of the corporation here in the States. I was controller for another twenty years or so. Then there was a need for somebody to run the operations in Venezuela, and I went there for the last five years. I sold the business, and when I came back, I retired. That’s all I want to say about Multifoods. It was a great experience and growth. I had opportunities to really learn about Latin America and Venezuela. It prepared me to do what I love, which is what I’m doing now in working with the community. Shortly after I joined the Chamber of Commerce and started becoming known in the community through NDC, I expanded the classes over at LEDC - the Latino Economic Development Center. I was giving the Minneapolis classes. Some other people were giving the classes in Saint Paul. I was doing that until this last year when I had heart attack and I had to kind of slow down because I over extend myself too much. But shortly after I joined the Chamber, I was invited to become a council member at the Chicano Latino Affairs Council [CLAC]. I didn’t know much about it. It’s interesting, because I was invited to join, but then I received a letter from Governor [Tim] Pawlenty


asking me why should he be nominating me. That’s okay. I told him why he should be nominating me, and now I am on the second term. I have two more years with CLAC. For most of my tenure with CLAC, I have been treasurer. Recently we had a new election, and since I’m getting close to the end of my assignment, I stepped down and somebody else is taking over. But I continue to stay very involved with the Chicano Latino Affairs Council. LD: This is great. It gives me a good base to go from. Let’s go back. What was it that drew you to wanting to serve the community once you were retired? Why? ER: It’s interesting. It was money to begin with. After I had finished my career with Multifoods, some friend of mine said, ―You know, there’s a lot of money to be made in the financial advisor environment, especially if you have friends and acquaintances that have money,‖ and I had those in Venezuela. I had very influential people that I knew in Venezuela. So I said, ―Okay, I’ll see.‖ It entailed taking a series of exams that you have to get to be able to have a license to sell securities. Since, I wasn’t working, I just took a month. I read books and I took the exam and I passed it. So, now, I had to do something. I started and I spent almost a year trying to make that work, but because of licensing requirements, I could not do what I wanted to do in Venezuela. Venezuela has laws that require you to be licensed, but it doesn’t have an viable process to get licensed. The local broker was not able to deal with that. So, we couldn’t do that. So now I had a career that I had finished with Multifoods. I retired when I was fiftyseven. I felt I still was full of energy and didn’t really want to be retired. Now I had studied and become a financial advisor. Then I started reading some books in Spanish about si se puede in the financial world, that the Latinos can and should be saving and they should be putting money away. I became an agent for selling health insurance. I became an agent to do to the whole thing, and then I started getting close to the community. When I started talking to the community, I started learning that their need was bigger than just financial advice. To be able to save money, you have to have money. LD: Yes. ER: You can save even if you don’t have a lot of money, but it’s easier. So it started pointing to the fact that they needed more business advice. Business appears to be a great opportunity for Latinos, to start their own business. They didn’t need advice on where to put their money in the stock market and things like that. So, I kind of did a switch and, then, with the combination of MEDA, it was great. I became very passionate for something I didn’t know I was passionate about, once I got the opportunity. In 2009, MEDA nominated me for the Minnesota Minority Small Business Champion of the Year from the SBA – the national Small Business Administration. I won the Small


Business Champion of the Year for Minnesota, and I won it for the Midwest. I didn’t make it any further. LD: Congratulations. ER: One of the pictures that I sent you is Ed Daun, who is the director presenting the award to me. I went from not knowing anything about the community to being the Small business Champion of the Year in about eight or nine years. So, yes, I did make a big switch. It maybe was good that I waited that long, because then I could be more passionate about it. LD: Tell me about the needs that you saw and that you wanted to address. ER: Education. I came across several community members that appeared to be successful. They were successful because they had the entrepreneur’s blood in them, but I could see if they had the right kind of exposure and education and help in the business world, they could be much more successful. So education is a key. The other big one that still breaks my heart, and is very difficult for me to deal with, is the issue of documentation. Not having documents is very limiting. I don’t want to get into politics and say, ―I think everybody should be a citizen,‖ or ―Not everybody should be a citizen,‖ but I think that we need to be more humane about the way we’re treating the people who are undocumented. The problem needs to be solved. Somehow, something needs to be done so that these people’s situation is formalized in a way that they are able to be part of the economy and make the contribution they need to make. One of the biggest and more challenging issues that I think a lot about now is the economic contribution of the Latinos to Minnesota. If we look at the statistics, the Latinos are going to be a very large portion of the population in Minnesota. If you start looking at outstate, there are some areas outstate where the students in the schools are in excess of eighty or ninety percent Latino. LD: Wow. ER: So these are small towns where the traditional families; their kids grew up, they got some education. The kids don’t want to come back there and, then, the next generation of new immigrants is coming in to take their place. We need to do something about the Latinos to make sure that they can be positive contributors to the economy when they become such a large portion of the economy. When you look at the subject of economic development for Latinos, you have to go down to the basic ground, and it really starts with education and workforce development. Before the Latinos can really get to that level—it’s back to your question: what did you find that was needed? What is needed is to see that their businesses were never going to get huge or big. They’re not going to be able to really move into the mainstream society, because there’s so much lack of knowledge and education about what you need to do. So


most of our people in the community tend to be retail service oriented and on a small scale, not with big aspirations. We need carpenters. We need roofers. Oh, by the way, I believe our community should learn to speak English. So, when I give my classes, and tell people about opening up a business, there are two things I tell them. I say, ―You must learn English, and you must get computer skills, both of them. They’re basic to be able to succeed anywhere in this day and age.‖ So if you know English and you have computer skills, then we have to, as a society, provide the opportunities for developing people in trades, developing mechanics. Obviously, if you have that training only in English currently, well, you’re not going to be able to educate the community because they don’t speak English well enough yet. Training has to be provided somehow in Spanish, while, at the same time, requiring them to become proficient in English. I think that’s a big need that needs to be fulfilled. We need a workforce that can, first, be good carpenters, be good roofers, and, then, when they learn English and they learn skills, they can get their license, and, then, they can own a business. They also need to get their documents in order, whatever that means, whether it is citizenship or some kind of whatever. I don’t know what the answer is. It’s too big for me to figure out. By the way, on that subject, I think it should be the Federal Government that should deal with that and not the local government. Am I confusing? LD: Oh, no. ER: I think all these things need to come together. LD: Yes. Do you think that the needs that you saw when you first became involved with the community are the same today or have they evolved? ER: [pause] I think the needs are the same. I don’t really think they have evolved a lot. I think there are more people that are talking about it, so, maybe, the environment is there for it to evolve. I know that very recently, within the last year, the Latino Economic Development Center was granted some funding to start an OIC [Opportunities Industrialization Center]. It’s a workforce development school type of training. I don’t exactly know what they have planned. The emphasis for this biennium of the Chicano Latino Affairs Council was supposed to be economic development and we had some really, really strong meetings at the beginning of this year to try to get the community together. Unfortunately, for several different reasons, that didn’t get followed up. For the first time in as long as I’ve been working with the community, which is not a long time, ten years maybe, we were able to bring all of the Latino leadership together, and we had a meeting with the commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development, Dan


McElroy. We were trying to get everybody together. It seems to be hard also, because somebody has to take the leadership. It was expected that the Chicano Latino Economic Affairs Council would take the leadership, but the Chicano Latino Economic Affairs Council is a government agency with limited funding, getting shrunk more and more every year, so there’s not enough funding to be able to do that. What the Chicano Latino Economic Affairs Council has to do is try to organize and cultivate the community for them to take it over as a project. As human nature is, you know, each one of us has our own area, so it’s very hard to bring people together, but it’s doable. We have very, very, very qualified professionals. One of the factors that I think has improved what’s going on is the establishment of the Consulate of Mexico. I saw that as making a big difference. LD: How so? ER: Because there was somebody who was concerned about that largest population of Latinos in Minnesota. I don’t know the number, but it’s got to be between sixty and seventy percent of Latinos have to be Mexican, and many of them are undocumented. It is about human rights. Human rights is important with everything. There has to be somewhere where people can go for some kind of service. I thought the first consul general, Nathan Wolf, was good. Ana Luisa Fajer is just super. There’s no comparison. So I get involved with a lot of family. I’m an honorary Mexican. [laughter] LD: Tell me a little bit more about Latino leadership. What do you think are the challenges there and what needs to be done? You were talking about people looking around, and is CLAC going to do it? ER: I think we’re doing quite well. When I look around to other communities, I think we’re ahead. I think we’re ahead of them. But, still, we have a lot of growing to do. Being involved with a nonprofit myself, I know how difficult it is. It’s draining. It takes time. It takes a lot of effort. It takes a lot of energy, funding, and resources. We have excellent leaders that have grown in separate areas. We have Jesse Bethke Gomez. What he’s done with La Clinica is just spectacular. He’s very, very bright. He’s very, very sensitive. He knows how to do things so that he can serve the whole community, even though a part of the community may be viewed as not being entitled to have services because they’re not documented. You have Ramon León with the Latino Economic Development who has and continues to do a lot. I think on education, we are a little bit disorganized. I know there are some attempts. I believe Jennifer Godinez is trying to spearhead some of that. Having Patricia Torres Ray in the state legislature kind of gave us a little bit of impetus. Now, she’s going for reelection. Who knows what’s going to happen? [Senator Torres Ray was reelected in 2010]


I understand from people that there is not enough representation in politics by Latinos. We do have some others but, in some instances, they are not even viewed much as Latinos. I heard recently that there’s a need for more Mexican second or third generation people to step up and want to be involved. We’ve got some Puerto Ricans. We’ve got Patricia who is from Colombia. The issues for Puerto Rico obviously are different. I am very, very concerned about the documentation issue. I didn’t have a documentation issue. I have an accent and I still look like a Latino, but I don’t have an issue with documents. So participation in government is needed more. We need to be doing more things together, so I think like CLAC can really play the role of trying to bring things together. You have Ramon in Economic Development. You have Jesse in health, and he does some education, too. I think the Consulate is kind of pushing some services, also, so that leadership is good. LD: What about in the arts? You talked about music being a great passion and you were involved with it in Venezuela. Are you involved with that at all again? ER: No, not anymore. I was involved, but not in the Latino side. In my youth as much as I could get away with my accent, I did a lot of theater. I was in one of the earlier productions of Candide over at the Guthrie Theatre, in the old Guthrie, and I did many shows with the Bloomington Community Theater, the Theatre in the Round, and an old theater in Saint Paul that was called the Chimera Theatre. I even did a year of dinner theater in a theater in downtown Minneapolis called Friar’s. There used to be small opera group from Saint Paul that did that light opera, the Saint Paul Light Opera. We also did hospitals and charity types of events. I got away with a lot. I did a few main roles, even some that I probably shouldn’t have done, like some Gilbert and Sullivan where I would play Sir Joseph [in H.M.S. Pinafore]. LD: [chuckles] ER: Then, I did opera when I went to Venezuela, for about six or eight years. That was a very interesting experience. That was in the good days of Venezuela. They had a very important once-a-year opera season where they brought international opera singers. It was like eight weeks. Every week, we did a different opera, so it was up and down, up and down all the time, but I got to meet many different people in doing that. When I first moved to Venezuela, because of my interest in music and because I didn’t know anybody, that was a way to meet people when you go to a new place. I saw that there were auditions for a chorus at the opera, and being the humble person I am, I said, ―Okay, I’ll go audition for the chorus.‖ So I went and auditioned for the chorus. I had a secondary singing part in that first opera season in two of the operas. The next year, I was just the stage manager. For the next eight years, I was stage management for the company, a big challenge, because I was working and trying to do that on the side. Nevertheless, I enjoyed it.


But here in Minnesota I have not done that. Now I don’t have time to do that anymore, because I’m doing so many other volunteer things. That takes a lot of energy and you need to be young. [laughter] LD: In the ten years that you’ve been working a lot with the community, can you tell me about some of the more important changes that you’ve seen in the community, both positive and negative? ER: There is one part of the community that seems to talk always about what is the obvious big need, which is the undocumented people and small businesses. But there is a large population in Minnesota, which is - like I was - in corporate America. There is a group called the National Society of Hispanic MBAs, and you don’t really see them involved with the community the way I have explained it so far. They are involved in a different type of development. That is dispersed. Nobody knows where they are and nobody knows who they are. Nobody is putting them together so, therefore, they don’t get counted and they don’t have weight and they don’t figure. I am a fan of Ana Luisa Faoer. I know that Ana Luisa, within the last years, has put together a group of Mexican professionals. That should pick up most of them. Eventually, that should really move on to include other nationalities, and she knows that, but she’s paid by the Mexican Government, so they have to be Mexican. Again, somebody else in the community should pick up that project. There are so many projects. That’s the problem; you have to pick one. You have to pick one mission and you have to stick with it. At MEDA, I do economic development, so I try to do this. I have opinions of all the others, but I cannot do them all. LD: Right. ER: Somebody else has to. I think that is an area that could really help a lot. LD: How so? How would it help? ER: Well, look at me. Once I became aware, look how much I could really help. LD: Right. ER: So if you multiply that times the number of people that are out there who could be doing the same thing, it’s just spectacular if that would happen. This becomes part of you, so you forget about this, but I am currently involved in an arts project. I have been for the last three years. It’s called VocalEssence. LD: Oh, okay.


ER: Again, because I am honorary Mexican. I don’t know if you know what VocalEssence is? LD: I’ve heard of it. ER: There is a group called VocalEssence that has been around for many, many years. It’s world renown. The leader of that group is Phil Brunelle. About fifteen or eighteen years ago, they decided that they needed to outreach to the community. For the African American community, they started a program where they would commission others to write music and enter from any schools and, then, it became part of the school educational program. I won’t talk too much about that; that one was very successful. But, about three or four years ago, they decided to open up a single one for Latinos. It’s called ¡Cantaré! This year is going to be the third year they’re going to do a concert. It is right now exclusively Mexican. As a matter of fact, I have a board meeting next week where we’re going to start talking about maybe doing other than Mexicano, and whether we should stay with Mexican. That’s going to be discussed. This group in the last three years has commissioned three composers from Mexico, young composers, one to compose music for an elementary school, one for a high school, and another for a college. It has so far been Saint Olaf College [Northfield, Minnesota], but I heard that this year that they are going to somebody else. It escapes me who it is. These composers come here. They sit with the kids. The purpose is the cross cultural development of music. Then, it ends up in a concert each year. The first year, it was at Orchestra Hall. It was packed and it was full. It was wonderful. The second year was at the Basilica of Saint Mary in Minneapolis. You know what? There’s only been two. This is going to be the third year. I said I would be confused with the number of years. LD: [laughter] ER: Excellent. Top quality. About 500 kids get together and sing. Latinos and non Latinos. The American kids are being exposed to the culture, so, yes, I am still contributing to the arts, but it has just become second nature, and I don’t think about it. LD: Isn’t that amazing? ER: [chuckles] LD: Let’s keep talking a little bit about those changes that you’ve seen or that, perhaps, you’d like to see. ER: ¡Cantaré! This is one change that is good. LD: Yes. And you were talking about the Latino professionals.


ER: The Latino professionals are becoming more aware and contributing more. I think the Hispanic Chamber could also do more. It seems like it is a little bit stagnant, like it could do more. I think so. I think there is an opportunity to there. Everywhere the Latinos have gone, there’s been improvement in Minnesota. Areas where they have settled are cleaner, and they’re nicer, and they’re safer. Nobody is threatened. I wish Latinos would be more assertive and get around to other areas. They seem to stay in their own areas. I don’t think that’s good. So that has been different. LD: It doesn’t have to be an exhaustive list. [chuckles] I just wanted to kind of hear your thoughts. How do you think Minnesota’s Latino community has integrated into Minnesota as a whole? That’s the question but to go back to your… ER: I was just going to say, I think the biggest difference I have noticed is outstate, and that is probably pushed by the fact of the number of students in the schools. Outstate seems to be good and bad. LD: Tell me. ER: It is good and bad. Good because by the numbers, they’re being forced to have a presence. Bad because the dominant society is not necessarily accepting the integration. Long term, I have to believe that it’s got to be good, because we will outnumber them and the dominant society is not going to have any other choice. It would be nice if there could be an intentional integration. [break in the interview] ER: We were talking about leaders, right? LD: We were talking about leaders, but, actually, we were also talking about the integration of the Latino culture and the dominant culture. We were talking about leadership, but I kind of want to touch on that afterwards. How do you see the Latino community being integrated in Minnesota culture, if there is such a thing? [chuckles] I guess for lack of a better term, perhaps the dominant culture. ER: [pause] I don’t know. Who knows what the right answer is? I can only go back and talk about me. LD: Sure. ER: I was born in the slums. I was lucky to get religion, education, and a good family. Maybe God blessed me with some brains, also. Who knows? I have really never felt discriminated against in a significant manner.


Recently, I felt reverse discrimination. I had a problem with my heart, and I went to the hospital, and I went to the emergency room. They were going to hospitalize me, and I spent about eight hours in the emergency room. Finally, I get upstairs to the hospital at around midnight, and, then, this Spanish-speaking nurse comes to me, ―Ohhhh, they woke me up. I had to come all the way to talk to you.‖ I said, ―Why?‖ ―Because they say you don’t speak English.‖ LD: [chuckles] ER: I had been in the emergency room for eight hours speaking English, you know. So somebody decided that Rodriguez doesn’t speak English. The nurse was inconvenienced. I was inconvenienced. That was a little bit of reverse discrimination. What I’m saying is, ―You need to be assertive,‖ So we have to work with our people. We have to make them assertive. We have to make them value themselves. I think if you value yourself, there will be occasions when there will be difficulty, and there will be some discrimination, but most of it will be avoided. Educating the dominant society is also important, but what better way to educate them than by setting up your own example of your value? LD: Yes. ER: Then, who can question your value? LD: Why do you think that some members of our community lack that assertiveness? ER: There’s a big debate—actually, the [President Barrack] Obama Administration is debating this right now—as to whether the problems are culture and ethnicity or poverty and education. There is some culture and ethnicity, I believe. It’s the way you were raised. I said one of the factors I think was important for me was because I was raised a Protestant in a predominantly Catholic Society, so I had to be taught a discipline. I didn’t have to just fall on what was acceptable for everybody. I had to deal with uniqueness. I’m not proposing that Catholicism or Protestantism is better. I’m just talking about a situation that caused me to be outside of the mainstream, so I did not just fall into the usual way of doing things. That’s what the kids say today about gangs, ―I didn’t have any choice.‖ ―He just forces me into it.‖ In some instances, where you were born, what the environment was, what your parents did, were also factors. I also worked for a while on trying to set up a charter school for Latinos here in Minnesota. That was, again, something that you really had to be an expert on to be able to develop. There’s a need for one. The one thing that we were talking about is that parents need to be more involved. One of the things that happens in our society is that the parents don’t have the education, and the parents don’t have the cultural background. Why do


you want to go school? Why don’t you go to work? You come home and there’s no support for doing homework. Even kids that have support for doing homework, have trouble doing homework, so imagine the ones that don’t. All these things are there, so if you could have a charter school where the parents could be involved—it would be for Latinos—they could be invested and they would make a commitment that they were going to make sure that the kids were involved. There would be a vision of going forth, and, then, you can move them forward. When I was talking to a gentleman a couple weeks ago, he was saying there’s no Mexican community here, with a second, third, or first generation that is really involved in politics or developing politics or becoming a relevant factor. I said, ―Well, what do you do about it? Do you teach the kids? How do encourage the kids to do this?‖ I know that recently Hector Garcia, our executive director at CLAC, was dealing with the Bremer Foundation to get some funding for doing some civic development and encouragement for kids in high school. Then, we can get into a debate as to whether CLAC is the one that is supposed to be doing that or whether somebody else should take it on, because CLAC doesn’t really have the type of personnel to be doing that. But, that’s something that needs to be done, civic engagement. Supposedly, there’s the dropout rate of high school students that don’t go on. Somewhere, when they start getting into high school, they say, ―why should I finish if nothing is there for me afterwards?‖ So making it accessible to go to school is part of the same subject. I tell you, if somebody is really a good student and really wants to go to college, I’ll bet you I can get them into college. I bet you I could get them scholarships. LD: It’s that push. ER: Yes, it’s just getting the community to give more of a push. Again, I think we’re ahead of other communities, but I want it to be even better. [chuckles] LD: We were talking about whether it is poverty or education, culture or ethnicity. It ties back to that push, that assertiveness. ER: Something is cultural, but, clearly, poverty and education are big, big factors. LD: Right. ER: A white dominant person that is poor and uneducated is probably going to be called disadvantaged. LD: Of course. We were talking about integration into this culture, that assertiveness and educating the dominate community. But what else do you see? When I first came to the U.S., the only Latinos that we saw were second and third generation Mexican Americans. To us, it


seemed like they had almost lost their, well; certainly, most of them had lost their language and lost their Latino-ness. Do you think that Latino communities nowadays can integrate into the more dominant community without giving up those aspects of their culture, which they value? It seems to me in the past, if you look at Irish. ER: They give it up. LD: Yes, they’ve given it up. ER: I think because of the numbers, we’re going to have a better chance of preserving more of it. LD: And why is that important—or is it? ER: Oh, okay, so you’re talking now to a Puerto Rican. LD: [laughter] ER: We have been U.S. citizens forever! Look how old I am and I don’t even know before me. We speak Spanish in Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico has never been independent. It’s a teeny little island. Let’s find out what’s working. Puerto Rico is a commonwealth. It’s not a state. All you have to do is get on an airplane and come here and, then, you start voting for president. You start paying taxes, too, by the way. Nothing is free. It works. People are constantly talking about, ―Well, should English be the first language?‖ I really think that English should be the language in the United States, but I also think that you should accommodate basic needs and human rights through providing services in other languages in some areas. But do I support the idea that people never speak English and that the communities remain separate? No. No. We’re here. This is the U.S. English is the language. LD: Yes. Let’s talk a little bit about what we were talking about before in leadership, politics. Let’s put it in this context. What needs to be done? What do you hope happens in these different areas? ER: That’s why I said leadership, because I wanted to go back to something there. We started trying to put together and kicking off the economic development focus of CLAC this year, and MEDA went and helped do that. They paid my salary so I could go and help them, so it would work out because I have both passions. Senator Patricia Torres Ray was present at the meeting. Of course, when you get a group like this together, and they’re talking about opportunities to present to the Legislature and things like that, everybody says, ―Money.‖ ―We want money.‖ ―We want funds.‖ Then,


we spent an hour just talking about all of the programs—by the way, I can share that presentation with you; it was in the CLAC website; I don’t know if it still is—trying to define all the issues for Latinos from an economic development point of view. Patricia said something like, ―You know, it’s a lonely world out there where I am, because we don’t have political power to be able to demand this, so we have to make ourselves relevant so that we can get ahead and we can have an impact.‖ We can scream and shout all we want to, but we are just a small number on that and the ones that vote is even a smaller number. How do you move these things forward? She said, ―What you have to do is you have to find one or two very specific, narrow things at a time and go and start winning small battles.‖ Why am I saying this? Because this is one of the things where we need leadership. I think our leadership spends a lot of time on broad motherhood and apple pie issues. We’ve always heard it, ―We need. We need. We need. We want. We want. We need to move this and that.‖ What Patricia was saying is that you need to start coming up with specifics. We have the brains and we have the talent, so here is one place where you could really connect with the Latino professionals out there. If these professionals became interested and passionate, maybe we can have the strength and the intelligence and the knowledge to be able to start coming up with very specific proposals that are doable and that have value, instead of just saying, ―I want the Latinos to be recognized on University Avenue, because the train [light rail] is going to go there.‖ What? What is it? What is it specifically that you want, and how would you do it? It’s easy to say, ―I want it. Let’s do it.‖ But how would you do it? What would happen? What is concrete? No single person is able to do that. It has to be a collective effort. LD: Right. If you had your way, what are some of those specifics that you would love to see the Latino leadership take on? ER: I’d like to really see the workforce development effort that LEDC is doing develop to the level of the Native American one that is on Franklin Avenue in Minneapolis. There they even have alliances and partnerships with corporations where there people are being trained on trades and things like that. Actually, while they’re training, they have internships there, and when they finish training, they give them jobs in that area to learn and develop. I know that we have to do the best we can do. I’ve been teaching this sixteen-week course on how to put together a business plan for NDC, which works with all the neighborhood groups. Then, neighborhood groups try to help people develop businesses. I teach it in Spanish. I teach to a lot of poorly educated people with zero English skills, with zero computer skills. I’m going to teach them and try to help each of them become a business person that can run a business. MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology], Stanford, and Harvard now have an entrepreneurship degree where people go and study to be an entrepreneur. When they graduate from those schools, they are told, ―You don’t go and open a business. You go and learn about a business. You go work for somebody else. You learn about your trade.


You learn all these things. Then, in four or five years, you will be ready to go back and apply this to open a business.‖ We’re trying to move our community very, very fast without the tools to be able to move fast. We’ve got to be patient, but we’ve got to demand progress. We cannot be asking for the moon. We have to be asking for pieces and specific ones, like workforce development. If we could get a real good academy and where people could go, sign up, get into trades, and get education. LD: Education. It’s funny, among so many of the people that I’ve interviewed, that is absolutely the number one issue that people keep coming back to. We’ve been talking a lot about the community. Let’s go back to a little more personal history with you. What are some of the satisfactions in your life, the things that you’re proud of that you’ve accomplished? ER: Well, I’ve got two kids. LR: Oh, that’s right. You have a daughter. ER: My daughter it forty-five and my son is forty, and I have seven grandchildren and they’re here. LR: Here in Minnesota? ER: Yes, they’re here in Minnesota. That’s an interesting thing. My daughter, of course, her kids are named Score. LD: Score? ER: Yes, because that’s her husband’s name. LD: Oh, the last name. ER: My son’s kids are Rodriguez. Both my daughter and my son married blondes, Norwegian, German, Irish, whatever it is. So the kids may be blonde, blue eyes and Aryan. The kids that are named Rodriguez, they are Latinos, because they can’t hide it. The kids that are named Score could go through life, even though they are equally Latinos, without being able to say that being Latino was an obstacle. Is it race? Is it ethnicity? What is it? LD: That’s very interesting. ER: Is it education? Is it poverty?


LD: You could have a case study right there with your own grandkids. ER: Rodriguez’ kids, they could apply for scholarship in any school, and they’ll get it, because they’re Latinos. LD: Right. ER: The Score kids, they’re going be questioned. LD: Does that come up with them? I don’t know how old they are. ER: With the kids themselves? No. They are oblivious to the fact. They all know they are Latinos, but they’re like me. They don’t feel like that’s a problem. LD: The identity politics isn’t very strong? No. ER: None of them have been harassed or have not done well in school or anything like that, because they were Rodriguez or because they were not. I think it goes back to the thing that if you carry yourself like you own the world, you own the world. LD: Honestly, I do think that assertiveness is not a negative thing. For me, personally, a lot of what you’re saying resonates. I think that the history of colonialism and the history of all that does tend to push people down. Whenever I work with kids—I work with kids in the schools and do poetry workshops—I always say, ―I’m not here to make you a poet. I’m only here for an hour. But I’m here to teach you that your voice is very important and that if you don’t speak up for yourself, no one else will because you’re a person of color, because you’re poor, because you’re this, that, and the other.‖ Assertiveness is good. ER: Here at MEDA, we don’t work just with Latinos. We work with all people of color. LD: Right. ER: I experience that with the African American community. You have some African Americans that have no problem. But if you’re African American, you are identified. How do you hide that you are not? It just doesn’t happen. But, still, some of them can be more successful than others, just depending on their level of assertiveness. LD: Yes. Let’s go back. What else are some accomplishments that you’re proud of? ER: I said earlier that God gave me family, friends, and education, and, maybe a brain. Maybe, if I’m not humble, I would say I think I have intuitively been able to be successful…pushing the move to New York when they wouldn’t transfer me, realizing that Columbus wasn’t for me, and coming to Minnesota, going to Venezuela and having an incredible experience, and coming back and retiring early, and having the vision. Okay, I went after money, but, then, I came across a community with need, and now I


find this work can be very rewarding. I don’t know how to describe it, but all those are things that make me very happy. LD: What are your hopes for the future for yourself, and also for your community? ER: Well, I’m getting old, so there’s not too much hope for me. LD: [laughter] ER: My hope is that I stay healthy enough to be able to contribute for quite a few more years. But, that’s deteriorating quickly. That’s the hope. I think I have influenced a lot of things. I have done a lot of things. I have created a lot of stuff. I believe people can learn from other people. You can talk to people that work with me, and I think I’m good at that, letting other people develop themselves on the basis of my own experiences. I worry about the younger people. I worry. I worry a lot, because I have two kids and because I have seven grandchildren. Economically and financially, the U.S. is scary. It’s scary right now. LD: Yes. ER: Again, you can call me on being guilty of the same thing I’m telling you that needs to be done, which is to detail the specifics that can be done to solve that problem? I guess my answer to that is one person cannot do it. It has to be a collective effort. One person cannot do them all. It has to be each one in each area. You do your arts, I do my economic development, everybody does their own thing. I told you, I graduated from college, and I could either go with a scholarship to Ann Arbor or I could take a job for $240 [per month]. Today, the kids don’t have those choices. Today, when you graduate from college, there’s no work. You’re lucky if you find a job working in a restaurant. I worry about that. I got married when I was twenty, and I had a kid by the time I was twenty-one. I was making three hundred and some dollars. I bought a car, and I bought a house, and I had a family, and we felt that we were on top of the world. I know that times have changed and $300 is something different today, but, still, you were able to graduate from college and, shortly thereafter, be able to provide for yourself and have all these things. Something has happened in the world when that is not possible now. LD: Yes. ER: Two people in a family work and that’s not enough. They have to work, so they cannot take care of the kids, so the family is hurting.


LD: What are your hopes then? ER: I know that Jesse is taking care of health, so I don’t worry about health. I hope that God gives Jesse a long life so that he can continue doing that. I hope Ramon comes through with the same on workforce development. And I hope the government doesn’t cut the funding off for CLAC so that CLAC can continue promoting different activities in the community. I think that can start working. If we could get that large number of professional Latinos that are not participating in the community to come and participate in the community, then, there will be no stopping us. Maybe that’s my dream. LD: That’s a good dream. Is there anything else that you kind of want to touch on? We’ve covered a lot. ER: One other thing that I was able to do that I’m kind of proud of—I did this for my work—is this. [Mr. Rodriguez hands Lorena a paper.] LD: Oh. Entrepreneur of the Year? ER: Yes. Here is Cathy Cruz Gooch, and the second one there is Sophie Bell [Kelley]. She’s married to, Steve Kelley. She was the chair of MEDA at that time. Yvonne [Cheung], the Asian lady is the CEO [chief executive officer]. Cathy won an award. Cathy Cruz Gooch doesn’t speak Spanish. She’s Mexican. Her father owned the Cruz Distributors, and they were the early ones here that brought cheese and all the Mexican food. He sold the Cruz Brand and, then, she came into the business and she started making tortillas. Do you know about her? LD: It’s sounding very familiar. You tell me. ER: She starts making tortillas. She’s a very, very astute lady and everything like that, and, again, with a lot of assertiveness, and a lot of charisma, and a family that supports her. She was making tortillas, and her tortillas were good. She started selling tortillas to McDonalds. A Latina, with limited resources. The fact that she was Latina was really opening the doors. McDonalds wanted to buy from a Latina. The fact that it was a Latina product didn’t hurt much either. But, she had to subcontract the manufacturing because she didn’t have the funds to be able to do this. So she couldn’t manufacture, and she was sending a lot of her profits to the subcontractor. The first thing she does, as an assertive Latina, is that she gets involved in the community. I think the story might be there; I don’t know for sure. She became a board member at Second Harvest. You know what Second Harvest is, right? LD: Yes. ER: It is food shelters and food distribution. Another board member at Second Harvest—this is to illustrate about the value of community involvement—was the CEO


of Sunny Fresh Eggs, which is a division of Cargill that sells eggs to McDonalds. One day, Cathy was talking to him about her limitations, because she could not manufacture. He said, ―Let’s talk about it to see if Cargill and you can make a joint venture, and we can move you forward on this project.‖ So Cathy came here, because the important thing in bringing in Cargill as a partner, which is a large corporation, was that Cathy needed to preserve control and ownership of the business to be able to continue to be a minority-owned business, and, in her case, a woman-owned business. We [MEDA] were hired, and I was the person that got involved through the whole contractual process to help her to assure that that minority status was preserved. It was hard. It was difficult, because you had to get Cargill out of their corporate box looking at, yes, we want to make a contribution in the community and help a community member in a significant manner to move forward, not with a small business that is going to pay the salary for one, but with a large business that is going to create a lot of employment and a lot of opportunity. We accomplished it. She opened up her plant. She has done nothing but grow, grow, grow, grow, grow since that time. She hires, I don’t know how many hundreds of employees in Eagan, a state of the art facility. Her tortillas are the standard for McDonalds worldwide. LD: Wow. ER: She’s doing the ones for lunch and also for the wraps, and things like that. That’s the kind of businesses that we have to have in big numbers of the Latinos. LD: Yes. ER: Is it possible? It is possible. Is it going to be a little work? It’s a lot of work. Do we have to start with education and workforce development? Yes, we have to start with education and workforce development because these cases are going to be few and far between and rare. LD: But it does give one hope. ER: That it can be done. LD: Yes. Wow. That’s a great story. ER: I sent you this photo. I did not send you the article. I probably should send you the article. LD: That would be wonderful. ER: Of course, you know Adolfo [R. Cardona] published it. LD: Yes.


ER: So, I’ve done a few things. LD: You’ve done a few things. [laughter] Is there anything else that you’d like to share, business-wise, anything personally, the kinds of things maybe that you wish you someone had told you, or anything, advice, observations? ER: I know it all. Why would I think of anything? [laughter] ER: Actually, it’s really interesting because you don’t know it all, but you don’t always realize it. It’s just like when I told you I’m not involved in the arts, and, yet, I’ve been doing a huge, significant thing with the arts. Some things just become second nature and you don’t realize it. Yes, you learn every day. Yes, you can do better. Oh! I wish more people would be passionate and dedicated, because it’s tiring for those out there that are doing the passionate and dedicated things. It’s admirable that they stay for so long. But it would be better if it was shared by more people. And I hope that if somebody disagrees with me, or has some other idea, hey, bring it on. That’s the only way that you can grow is by challenging each other. You were talking about the arts. The art funds are huge. We’ve got to figure out a way to get our fair share for the Latinos in a good, constructive manner. LD: Yes. Well… ER: Have we exhausted all the topics? LD: We’ve come from Puerto Rico to Minnesota. ER: This is another one of my proud highlights: when I got my picture in the paper with Senator Amy Klobuchar. The only other thing is: these kinds of efforts are good, but they take so much effort and somebody starts it and, then, it just kind of falls by the sideline. I’m not sure, but I’m kind of thinking it was your father [Mario Duarte, publisher of La Prensa] that was trying to put together a series on Latino business. I’m almost certain. I’m almost certain it was Mario that was trying to put it together. He did three series. Oh, yes, see, ―Part 1 of 3.‖ I’m sure I have the others somewhere. He brought the community together, and he was trying to get more of a finance and economic development type of emphasis. LD: Yes. It kind of needs that.


ER: He did three good pieces, thinking about it and speculating about it. How many people do you think read that or got any value out it? LD: Yes. ER: So, again, until you have the community interested in this type of thing, it’s hard. LD: It’s hard to maintain. ER: Yes. Yes, beautiful work. I read it. I wonder how many other people did. LD: How do we maintain? Let’s end on that note. How do you think we maintain or develop that? ER: Well, I think the Latino press is in a good place. I think we have good press. I don’t remember how many there are right now, but it seems like it’s pretty stabilized. Now, we have to get people to read it. I guess that’s what our next challenge is, to read more than just the want ads and the social pages. Now, it seems like we had momentum on radio communication, but that kind of stopped. It’s just kind of like the radio station has become like, oh, there they are, but they are not moving to make a big participation in the community. So, that’s an area where maybe there’s somebody who could make a difference. Like I said, there are so many areas; you can’t do them all. We did get Channel 13, but I don’t really know what they’re doing in the community. Are they doing anything? LD: I don’t know too much. In the next few years, what do you see yourself doing? ER: I will work for the community till I die. Here is where I work, MEDA. I think I will work here until they kick me out or I die. I bought a condo upstairs so I don’t have to go too far. I can’t see myself not working for the community. I have slowed down because of my health; and it’s not getting better. Like I said, in two years, my Chicano Latino Affairs Council service comes to an end, because you cannot serve more than two terms. So somebody else will be going in there, and I’ll find something else to do. LD: On behalf of many community members, I have to say that’s a wonderful sentiment to make. I hope many more of our people have that mentality. On behalf of the Historical Society, I thank you so much. I know that your time is very valuable, so I really appreciate you being generous with your time and giving us this interview. I thank you very much. ER: Thank you, Lorena.