Oak Grove group says Hispanic immigration heat has made life in New Brighton harder

Solomon Gustavo photo • At the Oak Grove mobile home park in New Brighton, some residents claim an uptick in immigration law enforcement activity is happening because of a discriminatory tip from a manager of Oak Grove Park Properties. The management company investigated the claim. The manager accused of contacting immigration authorities, Vicki Florio, was cleared of all wrongdoing and her attorney says the discrimination claims are “blatantly false.”

Solomon Gustavo photo • Gricel Alvarez translates for her mother, Maria Leandro, in their mobile home at Oak Grove Park in New Brighton. Leandro moved to the U.S. from Mexico 16 years ago and joined an Oak Grove resident group for a Jan. 5 vigil against Hispanic discrimination.

Solomon Gustavo photo • Participants lit candles during the vigil at Christ the King Lutheran Church Jan. 5, held by an Oak Grove resident group to discuss discrimination and immigration enforcement.

Solomon Gustavo photo • New Brighton Mayor Val Johnson, left, attended the vigil. New Brighton Director of Public Safety Tony Paetznick, seen in the background, was there as well.

Solomon Gustavo photo • After the vigil there was food and native Mexican dancers performed.

Gricel Alvarez, 16, sat at the head of the table in her mobile home in Oak Grove Park, the bright light from another recent white-out, wintry morning pouring in through a large window. Alvarez translated for her mother, Maria Leandro, 33, sitting to her left, to cross the language barrier. 

Capably and quickly, Alvarez, the oldest of five siblings, who attends Columbia Heights High School with plans to transfer to Irondale High School, translated Leandro’s Spanish. 

“I love New Brighton,” Alvarez said, translating for her mother. “We’re only afraid of ICE being here.” ICE is the acronym for the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.

Some residents of the Oak Grove mobile park in New Brighton held a vigil at Christ the King Lutheran Church in New Brighton Jan. 5, where Hispanic residents spoke about experiences they believe to be discriminatory. A group from the mobile home park also brought their concerns to the New Brighton City Council during its Dec. 15 meeting.

The women-driven group says instances of immigration agents stopping Mexicans and Hispanics, sometimes resulting in arrests or deportation, increased at Oak Grove in 2017.

Among other factors, the group mainly attributes the Hispanic-specific uptick in immigration law enforcement activity to a tip made by Vicki Florio, a manager for Oak Grove Park Properties. The group claims the tip was fueled by a dispute between Florio and Hispanic residents. 

Oak Grove Properties put Florio on leave and investigated the discrimination allegation, according to Florio’s attorney Philip Villuame. Florio was cleared of any wrongdoing by Oak Grove Properties and has returned to work.  

Villuame said the accusations of discrimination made against Florio are “blatantly false” and that Florio is “not a racist, is not bigoted.”


Lives in New Brighton

Leandro and her children live with her mother, Aurora Gorostieta, who works as a seamstress in Hopkins. Leandro is from Mexico — she moved to the U.S. 16 years ago with her mother and has lived in Oak Grove two different times, for a total of six years. 

Leandro said the Oak Grove community is largely Hispanic, and that the Hispanic people rally around each other. She said that her immediate non-hispanic Oak Grove neighbors and the greater New Brighton community are all “very nice people” who “are not racist to Mexicans.” She added that the city has great schools, is very safe and can be very supportive — like when Christ the King gave her children toys. 

One of Leandro’s favorite things to do is take her kids to the Eagles Nest at the New Brighton Community Center. She and Alvarez nodded in eager approval of the nest’s recent remodel. 

Leandro also praised the efforts of a New Brighton police officer she said would drive through Oak Grove and get out and talk to residents. Leandro said he was very nice and that he would approach Hispanics and encourage them to think of him as a friend. 

Alvarez and Leandro shared a laugh, reminiscing about when the police officer would try to speak a little Spanish — the moment faded as they said that they don’t see him around anymore. 

Sandra Gonzaga and her husband Louis Candela, who moved to the U.S. from Mexico together 19 years ago, later entered the home and joined the conversation. They have lived in New Brighton for nine years.

“There is a lot of community here, I like it a lot,” Gonzaga said of Oak Grove, as translated by Alvarez. Candela agreed. 


At the vigil 

Leandro and her family, and Gonzaga and hers, were at the vigil, and Gonzaga spoke. Leandro and Alvarez said they learned a lot about the greater Hispanic community. 

Oak Grove resident Mireya Ortiz, a native Mexican, spoke, saying she lives in fear even though she is fully documented. 

A high school girl fought through tears to talk about the pain families feel when a parent is deported.

Mayor Val Johnson was at the vigil. “It’s an honor to be here, we definitely want people to feel a part of the community,” Johnson said. She could not be reached for further comment. 

“I appreciate the invitation to be part of this,” said New Brighton Department of Public Safety Director Tony Paetznick , who participated with community members in joining hands and singing hymns. “It’s great to be engaged with the local community here.”

State Rep. Mary Kunesh-Podein, also in attendance, said it was moving to hear stories of discrimination, adding that any family “looking for an opportunity to get ahead and give those opportunities to their children” should be supported. 

The service portion of the vigil included comments from Christ the King mission developer Ana Becerra and Oak Grove community group member Adriana Cerrillo, and testimonies from Oak Grove residents, all interspersed with Lutheran hymns. The service was followed by food and a performance by native Mexican dancers. 

Back in the home at Oak Grove on that bright winter day, Gonzaga said when she first moved to New Brighton there wasn’t much worry of immigration police or hispanic discrimination. She says that has dramatically changed in the last year, making things harder, but she is confident it will go back to the way it was before.


– Solomon Gustavo can be reached at sgustavo@lillienews.com or 651-748-7815.

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