Building a Sense of Community
It’s no secret that the communities McKenzie Electric Cooperative serves have seen an incredible increase in population over the last decade. In McKenzie County, what was once a quiet, rural midwestern area has quickly become a hotspot for the oil and gas industry. In doing so, people from many different areas of the country and the world migrated to western North Dakota, bringing with them their languages, aspects of their culture and traditions.
One of those population groups that has grown substantially in the state, and specifically in McKenzie County, are Hispanics. Over the course of a decade, the Hispanic population within McKenzie County has grown 1,000% according to the US Census conducted in 2020. As an area with residents who are predominately English-speakers, it’s inevitable that the language barrier gives rise to miscommunication and general confusion by both speakers. In an effort to bridge that gap, McKenzie Electric member Yolanda Rojas set out to create a program that would support English language learners and increase integration and inclusion within the community.
Rojas’ commitment to create more community involvement among Hispanics in western North Dakota eventually led to her forming the Hispanic Advocacy of North Dakota (HAND) in the fall of 2020. After pursuing her dream of opening a restaurant, she noticed there were way more Spanish-speaking residents than she had ever realized. When Rojas first moved to Watford City in 2014, her life revolved around a school-work-home routine which left her feeling secluded and disconnected from her culture; as a result, she became dedicated to ensuring no one would feel the way she did seven years ago.
The benefit of having residents who feel included and welcomed into the community can not only be measured in the economic development of the area but the overall quality of life. Due to the unique job opportunities the oil and gas industries create, some workers come to western North Dakota for the pay, but never plant roots and plan to make North Dakota their home long term. Rojas is working with community leaders, including Daniel Stenberg, Economic Development Coordinator for McKenzie County, to change this and to help Hispanics make western North Dakota a place that they call home.
“The more people feel welcomed and are able to find a taste of what they grew up in, the more they’re willing to stay;” said Daniel Stenberg, “this is another opportunity for an ethnic group to share cultural opportunities and help ease the transition of relocation and in turn aids in creating an adequate workforce.”
To create that sense of welcome, HAND will be holding a traditional Hispanic Christmas on December 12, at the Watford City Civic Center from 4 – 7 p.m. CST.
“Christmas represents a lot of different things for people, but for the majority of the Hispanic Culture, we celebrate the birth of Christ and the Nativity Spirit,” said Rojas, “Since many of the Hispanic countries are underprivileged, Christmas captures the spirit of coming together and helping one another, doing nice things for each other, and showing love and compassion to your family, friends and neighbors.”
La Posada, the title of the event, will be the first of its kind organized by Rojas and HAND and is open to all members of the public. During the event, there will be piñatas for kids, traditional Spanish Christmas music, food vendors serving various Hispanic cuisines and a short play explaining a traditional Hispanic Christmas. Guests who attend the event can also try ponche, a warm fruit punch made with natural fruits, spices, and berries. While this event provides a sense of welcome to Hispanic residents, Rojas hopes that all people, no matter their background, come out to enjoy the celebration and immerse themselves in something new by taking part in the La Posada festivities.
HAND’s primary goal for the future is to bridge the language barrier between English and Spanish, however, they are not singularly focused on that task. HAND also plans to provide business, educational, and financial workshops for the Hispanic community and create cultural exchange opportunities in the greater Watford City area. Planning is underway for more events in the future including a celebration for National Hispanic Heritage Month in September of 2022.
Rojas is eager to promote HAND and their upcoming events as a way of giving back and thanking the community that supported her through the COVID-19 pandemic while she pursued her dreams of opening a restaurant. For more information, and to find out about upcoming events, visit their Facebook page Hispanos Unidos en Dakota del Norte (Hispanic Advocacy of North Dakota), or stop by Los Saguaros in Watford City where you can find Rojas behind the counter keeping her dream alive.