Immigrants old and new are side by side on Lake St.by Julie Siple, Minnesota Public Radio
If you're looking for a decent tortilla in the Twin Cities, it's hard to go wrong on E. Lake St. in Minneapolis. That's where you'll find some of the state's most recent Latino immigrants, and with them a whole neighborhood of Latino shops. But if you scratch the surface of the Latino culture, you'll find the remnant of another wave of immigration underneath.
Minneapolis, Minn. — Latino immigrants pulled Lake St. out of an ugly business slump in the early 1990s. One of the biggest projects on the street is Mercado Central, an indoor market where dozens of merchants sell their goods.
Here you can get tamarind soda, tamales, a birthday card in Spanish, even a Mexican crucifix. Latino music comes from one corner and Spanish-language TV from another. And the place is most always busy.
Claudia Olmedo sells herbs and oils. Like many business owners, she doesn't speak English. She's been in the U.S. for seven years, and most of her customers are Mexicans looking for products they miss from home.
In many waves of immigration to the U.S., those already established here have criticized new immigrants for not integrating, for holding too tightly to the old country.
Claudia Olmedo says it's not that her customers want to be different. It's something much simpler than that, something that comes from the gut.
"It's wanting to find the warmth of your people," she says. "Trying to find it in products, in objects, in conversations."
The warmth of this culture is evident up and down East Lake St., in family-run groceries and people talking on the street. But just a block from Mercado Central, there's a shop few of the Latinos at the market say they know, even though it's in plain view. It's Ingebretsen's.
"One of our biggest sellers is homemade lefse," says butcher Mike Svendahl.
Ingebretsen's is a Scandinavian food and gift shop. It's been sitting on E. Lake St. since 1921, when a Norwegian immigrant, Charles Ingebretsen, quit his job unloading banana boats in New York and came to the Midwest.
Ingebretsen's granddaughter Julie says he headed to Lake St. for the same reason other waves of newcomers would later make the neighborhood home.
"Rents were cheap, buildings were cheap," says Julie Ingebretsen. "It was a place where immigrants coming in could find a place to start a business."
In the early 1900s, Lake St. was home for thousands of Scandinavian immigrants who braved the Atlantic Ocean for a better life. Norwegians were arriving in Minneapolis all the time, many of them unable to speak English. To those already here, they spoke a strange language, and ate even stranger food.
Eventually, the immigrants themselves began to die off, and their families were lured to the suburbs. Lake St. was left for the next wave of newcomers. But Ingebretsen's never left, and people like Carol Johnson never stopped coming.
On a recent Saturday afternoon at Ingebretsen's, Johnson orders a quarter-pound of rullepolse, cardamom bread and limpa.
"I like to come here for one reason," she says, "because it smells like my grandfather's grocery store."
Johnson wasn't born in Norway, and neither were her parents. The connection goes back to her grandfather. In fact, these days many of the customers are second generation. "I'm Swedish," says Derek Bjorkland. Not completely Swedish, however.
"Unfortunately, I have some German and English in me. I'm half Swedish," says Bjorkland. "I come here because I'm proud of my heritage and want to display it."
Bjorklund doesn't let half his DNA get in his way. He buys Swedish flags to put on his truck, choosing the flags on sticks, which are near the flags on candles, which are across from the flags on mugs. And if tamales are the hot sellers down the street, at Ingebretsen's, it's the sausage, especially at Christmastime.
"I spend October, November, December in the basement, making sausage," says Gary Coleman.
Coleman fills pig intestines with meat, potatoes and onions. The store sells 1,500 pounds of sausage every day around Christmas. People stand shoulder-to-shoulder in lines snaking out the door to get their share.
Butcher Mike Svendahl says the big lines are even a draw.
"People come here just to say they've been here," he says. "They can come when it's not busy, but they'd rather stay in line to say, 'I stood in line for an hour and a half to get lutefisk at Ingebretsen's.'"
They come, it seems, wanting to find the warmth of their people and the old country, trying to find it in products, in objects, in conversations.
That's exactly why Claudia Olmedo says people come to her store in the Mercado Central. At heart, it's tempting to think that maybe the difference between sausage and tamales is little more than 80 years -- and a few waves of immigration.
- Morning Edition, 05/12/2006, 8:25 a.m.