Sometimes home is a place that needs to be discovered.
“At the end of the day, we all need that sense of belonging,” said Yolanda Rojas.
When Rojas’ husband landed a job in the oil industry in 2012, she and her five children left Arizona for rural McKenzie County, North Dakota.
“We moved to North Dakota for the opportunities, just you know, a better shot at the American dream,” Rojas said.
While the oil fields around Watford City offered opportunity, the area lacked diversity she was familiar with back in Tucson, Arizona.
“I was like, ‘OK, we’re outnumbered,’ and I felt weird I felt secluded, and I didn’t feel part of the community,” she recalled. “I think what made me feel inadequate here, not seeing anything Hispanic like no programs, no organizations, no events, nothing that promoted a diverse culture.”
But much like the oil fueling a rush of people coming to North Dakota for work, diversity is also seeing a boom.
The 2020 census found North Dakota to have the fastest-growing Hispanic population in the country. The Hispanic community grew around 148% from 2010 to 2020.
Other states seeing massive growth in its Hispanic communities include South Dakota, Montana, and New Hampshire, according to a Pew Research report.
“When I was growing up here, it was Norwegians and Germans, and it was Lutherans or Catholics, were kind of the diversity that we had here,” said Daniel Stenberg.
Stenberg is Mckenzie County’s economic development coordinator. His family first came to North Dakota in the early 1900s, and he’s seen plenty of change in his lifetime.
The census found McKenzie County to be the fastest-growing in the entire country.
“I think rural America is generally considered to be resistant to change or not be super welcoming to newcomers and I’m sure we could find some of that here but just because we grew so fast so quickly that we didn’t see a lot of that resistant,” Stenberg said.
Rojas found for many in the Hispanic community, North Dakota was a place to work and not much more.
“The feedback I was getting was, ‘This is a boring town. There is nothing to do. I don’t like it here. Soon as I save up enough money, I’m leaving,’” Rojas said.
Rojas is now providing the help, she says, can be overlooked in communities changing so quickly.
She established an organization to help the growing Hispanic population better integrate into North Dakotan communities. It’s called Hispanic Advocacy North Dakota (HAND).
HAND holds cultural events and provides educational programming about Hispanic culture. She hopes one day to provide certified translators to help break down barriers that members of the Hispanic community may face when they arrive in North Dakota.
“We don’t want them to leave, we want them to feel comfortable in their own skin here, and just feel accepted,” Rojas said of those moving to Mckenzie County.
Rojas and her husband opened a Mexican restaurant, which she says would not have survived in the pandemic if not for the support of the same community she says she once did not feel accepted in, a place she now considers her home.
“I will not move from here. I jokingly said if they try to kick me out, I’m not leaving,” Rojas said. “This is my home now. I’m part of the community. This is my home. I consider myself a local here, and I have no intention of moving anywhere else.”