People of Willmar: Maria Larson

Born in Florida, Maria’s parents had come to the US with determination for a better life for their children.  They sacrificed a great deal to do so, it took courage and was not an easy path.  When her mother came to the United States, she didn’t see her own mother for ten years.   She didn’t know anyone and didn’t have family around while she was raising her family.  She didn’t speak the language when she came, yet forged ahead, worked hard, bought a house and a car.  She made it all work for her family. Maria’s mom had her children when she was young.  She was a very hard worker and was putting in long hours of labor.  This meant that she couldn’t be home with her babies as she wanted, or to nurse them for as long as she would have chosen.  Despite common assumptions about immigrants, their family was never on welfare, they worked hard to provide for their family.

They were also like so many others, undocumented.  The company her mother worked for in Florida ensured everyone got their Green Cards when the Reagan Administration provided amnesty.

At just one year old, Maria’s dad found employment in Willmar.  Her dad struggled with alcoholism and when he was taken to jail for getting in a fight, they took his Green Card away.  He was deported to Mexico, but since the security was far more relaxed prior to 9/11, he simply went straight back to the border, presented his papers, and came back across.  Now, technically undocumented, only her mother could work. Her father stayed close to home and lived in fear of being discovered.

Maria felt safe and comfortable in Willmar as a child.  There were very few Hispanic families here when they arrived, yet she didn’t feel different.  In sixth grade, while hanging out with a friend at her friend’s grandmother’s house, Maria spoke with her mother on the phone in Spanish.  When she hung up, the grandmother told her to get out, and made it clear that she didn’t like people like her.  Maria’s view of the world was significantly changed in that encounter.  Up until then, she hadn’t experienced racism.  It was so painful, that she became more aware of who she was with and where she went.  She became fearful of older women and protective of her family, not wanting them to endure what she had.

Her family did experience those things.  One day her mother was at the mall and had car trouble.  She asked a woman if she could use her cell phone to call for help.  The woman angrily rejected and scolded her, telling her to never ask her again.

Five years ago, her father was picked up and deported again.  This time he was unable to return to his family.  Having made his home here for so long, and not having family in Mexico to return too, it was very difficult for the family to be separated.  Always looking at the positives, Maria notes that her father is much more relaxed now that he is not living in the fear he was here.  Though, he lives a much simpler life than we can imagine here.  Despite working very hard at a good job, he lives with no hot water, no car, and in tiny accommodations.  Maria is grateful to be able to spend time in Mexico, where she can experience the positive qualities of life there, and come home and appreciate life in America.  The area they came from is truly beautiful, and on the coast, but it is very poor.  When people tell her that she is “not like other Mexicans,” she doesn’t know how to respond to that, because she feels very proud of her Mexican heritage.

Despite the alcoholism that plagued Maria’s parent’s marriage, she was confident that she would marry and have a beautiful family.  She believed a man was out there who she would have a strong bond and connection with.  A partner in raising a family.

Not only would Ben Larson be that man, the two would additionally find welcome in each other’s families.   Maria wanted a closeness in marriage, and with Ben she has just that.  They have one car, so they can spend the day bonding and connecting as they work together to each get to where they need to go.

Having grown up wishing her mom could be home more, Maria was determined to pave the way to be home when they eventually had a baby.  She began working multiple jobs and they started their own cleaning company.  When the cleaning company was up and on its feet, they decided that it was time to start a family.  She is appreciating the ability to be home with their little boy.  Her mom, who once raised her babies at such a distance from their grandparents,  stops by and rock her grandbaby on work breaks.

Maria’s husband Ben works full time, but his efforts are far reaching beyond his day job.  He and a friend started a program in Willmar for Minority Youth.  The kids plant and work a garden, and then sell the produce.  They gain job skills and community interaction in the process.  With the memory of her friend’s grandmother deeply engrained in her being, Maria says she is glad that the community is supportive and that the kids can see and feel the encouragement.

Maria and Ben also serve their church by leading bible study for the youth during the Latino services.  They serve on the Human Rights Commission in Willmar which allows them to help those who are hurting in the community and give them a voice.   They strive to bring peace to stressful situations.   Maria serves on the Board of Directors at The Goodness and loves that it is downtown

Maria’s mom laid the groundwork many years ago; providing them with a legacy of hard work, courage, determination, and love.  Experiencing Maria, who exudes those qualities, as she tenderly cradles her baby boy, one can’t help but feel hopeful about the future.  Truly, a beautiful family.

-Marn Steinwand