You can count on one hand the talking points most commonly associated with Minneapolis–St. Paul: the late musician Prince, Mall of America, and never-ending winters. What may not be as well-known is the metro area’s surprising cultural diversity.
Minnesota has sizable populations who have roots in Scandinavia, Germany, Ethiopia, India, and Mexico. The Twin Cities are home to the biggest Somali community in the U.S., as well as the highest urban concentration of Hmong people, who have links to Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, and China. With chef Sean Sherman—aka the Sioux Chef—of the Oglala Lakota Nation garnering national accolades for Owamni, his Indigenous fine-dining restaurant, the spotlight has also swung onto the area’s Native American community.
We asked residents from three of the Twin Cities’ diaspora groups to share slivers of their lives: Hmong American pastry chef Diane Moua, Swedish American physician John Litell, and Somali American performance artist Ifrah Mansour. (For recommendations on what to do, here are our ideas for how to travel deeper in the area.)
The Hmong community
The daughter of Hmong refugees, pastry chef Diane Moua has been nominated for five James Beard Awards, the first Hmong American woman to earn the recognition. After seven years directing the pastry programs for restaurants including Spoon and Stable in Minneapolis, Moua hopes to open her own place in 2023.
“Hmong are very family-oriented; we stay in our clans. One of our leaders, my grandpa, lived in Providence, Rhode Island, when he came to the U.S. from Laos, where our family got sponsored after fleeing the Vietnam War. When he moved to Wisconsin, my parents followed. They bought a farm in Junction City, where we were the only Asian family in town. The language barrier was hard, and people were so mean. They dumped dead calves in our driveway, threw fish at our door, and vandalized our mailbox.
As a teenager, I was just trying to find myself—learning to be more Americanized at school but then coming home to this traditional house that barely spoke English. My parents were strict too: When the kids weren’t doing homework, we’d be picking bushels of cucumbers or feeding the animals. We were never allowed to just hang out with friends because there was always so much work to do.
Marrying young was my freedom from farming. I had my son at 18 and moved to Minnesota, where my [now ex-] husband’s family lived. I learned quickly how to fend for myself. My mother-in-law worked at the sushi kiosk at Lunds & Byerlys supermarket in Chanhassen. The meat section looked so glamorous, and then there was pastry: cakes on cakes on cakes. I was in awe.
While growing up, dessert was just fruit or McDonald’s apple pie. If it was a special occasion, my family might make naab vaam, a tapioca-coconut dessert, or pound out sticky rice and dip it in honey. But there’s no term in Hmong for what I do today: How could my parents explain that their daughter ‘plates desserts’ for a living? But then, when I was a finalist for the James Beard [Award] in 2018, I took them to Chicago for the ceremony, and they were like ‘Oh, this is a whole world.’ They were really proud of me. After that, the expectations shifted. Like, oh, she can actually work in the food industry and still be something.
Though I didn’t appreciate it at the time, I’m happy I was raised on a farm; I wouldn’t have the work ethic I do today without my parents’ tough love. I’ve also been very lucky to work with some great chefs in Minnesota: Adrienne Odom, Tim McKee, Gavin Kaysen. But my dad has always pressured me to do my own thing. For my recent Mother’s Day pop-up, I made passion-fruit pavlova and brown sugar boba torte. I’m finally coming out of my shell, experimenting with Southeast Asian flavors. Being able to transform something like naab vaam into a plated dessert is really interesting to me.
The Hmong community here is so strong, you don’t even feel like you’re in Minnesota sometimes. The HmongTown Marketplace has a whole selection of authentic pork curry noodles, rice platters, and fresh papaya salads. It’s cheap and good and there’s a line out the door on weekends.
In making conversation with other young professionals, we’re all just figuring out who we are and what being Hmong means to us. When I think about Sunisa Lee [the St. Paul–born Olympic gymnast], I tear up. I’m just so proud of her for putting us on the map. It’s great to be acknowledged and for people to know that we exist.”
The Nordic community
Dr. John Litell
Born in Sweden, the elder child of two American expat journalists is now a critical care physician. Dr. Litell has served on the board of the American Swedish Institute in Minneapolis since 2018. He also won the 2020 Peirene Stevns Translation Prize for his debut literary translation, the English version of Andrea Lundgren’s book Nordic Fauna (Peirene Press, 2021).
“My dad’s parents are both Norwegian, and my mom’s side is Danish, Norwegian, and a little Swedish. I consider myself to be fully Scandinavian. I was born in Danderyd, a first-ring suburb north of Stockholm. We lived in a house across the street from a small lake, similar to what you’d find here in Minneapolis. I spent countless hours walking in the woods, paddling a canoe, and lying on the dock trying to catch fish to give to our cat.
My parents split when I was about six, and my mom decided it would be best to move closer to family in Wisconsin. The American Swedish Institute (ASI) was an important link for us—a place for familiar sights and sounds, especially around the holidays. Through the people at ASI, my mom learned about a summer camp hosted by Concordia Language Villages. Kids choose a Swedish name, use Swedish money, eat Swedish food, and sing Swedish songs. It was a profound way for me to connect to something we had left behind.
My partner, Britt, was also born in Sweden to American parents. Her family is actually more Swedish by heritage than mine is. I speak the language with our daughters; when my five year old started speaking it back, it was like my apex moment as a parent. I’d love for us to live in Sweden for a period, but short of that, I’m doing all that I can to maintain her interest in the language, the place, and its traditions. We listen to Swedish radio and watch Swedish kids shows, and they attend Swedish school at ASI.
There is generally more robust engagement with the outdoors in Scandinavia than in the States. We are fortunate to have this ribbon of green and blue woven through the Twin Cities; it’s easy to find yourself in a park or on a lake or in the woods, because they’re all connected. Even in colder weather, there’s fun to be had; the Loppet Foundation, which manages the Trailhead at Theodore Wirth Regional Park, does an amazing job with its cross-country ski trails.
And we love to sauna. I have coworkers who nerd out about their backyard setups, but sauna enthusiasm is so widespread in the Twin Cities, you really don’t need your own. We visited a lovely sauna on the rooftop of the Hewing Hotel and had memorable experiences through the 612 Sauna Society Cooperative. Their mobile sauna is maintained by people who give a nice orientation, so it’s warm and welcoming—no pun intended.
I don’t want to sound as if I am over-romanticizing Swedish culture. It has its own issues—like the rise of the political right and the tensions that come from embracing diversity while historically being fairly homogenous and monocultural. Over the years, I’ve watched ASI shift from being a primarily nostalgia-based, inherited-traditions kind of social club to the modern, dynamic museum and cultural center it is today, highlighting, among other things, the role of migration in our community and others as expressed through art. We think a lot about how to be a local resource and not just an exclusively white-skinned Scandinavian organization.”
The Somali community
The work of this multimedia performance artist, 2022 Bush Fellow, and Somali refugee was featured in the Minneapolis Institute of Art’s recent I Am Somali exhibition, the first major museum show in the Midwest spotlighting contemporary Somali artists. Mansour’s one-woman play, How to Have Fun in a Civil War, played at the Minnesota State Fair and the Guthrie Theater before touring London in 2022.
“I was around six years old when my family left Somalia. The civil war was traumatic; there was a funeral in our house almost every day. First we fled to my grandmother’s farm in southern Somalia. What I remember most— and what inspired me to make How to Have Fun in a Civil War—is that we were able to enjoy our childhood while bombs were falling. The kids would play hide-and-seek in these endless fields. Credit to my grandmother, who found a way to preserve our innocence and make sure violence and war didn’t steal our joy. We then lived in the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya for several years, waiting for U.S. sponsorship.
The first wave of Somalis came to Minnesota in the early 1990s, when the war broke out. By the time our family arrived, in 1998, the community had already set up businesses and were able to hire others fresh off the boat. We joke around now and say whoever that first Somali was who decided that Minnesota was the spot should be punished. [Laughs] Why not Texas or California? I grew up wearing sandals and going to the beach; sometimes we would sleep outside. The idea of not seeing your toes for two-thirds of the year was such a foreign thing to us. So why are all these tropical humans here? It’s about the power of built community—knowing people who can help you find a job, or buy a cheap car, or get good housing.
As immigrants, we watched how much our parents struggled without education. Most of us go for careers that make money; no one dares to even think about choosing a passion. I thought I wanted to be a nurse—until college, when I got a job at Mixed Blood Theatre in Minneapolis as a community liaison to local Somalis. As I watched these African American actors embody beautiful stories on the stage, it dawned on me that I wanted to go to my job more than my science classes. I would skip studying just to see a show. It was a scary decision to follow through on, but I feel like the arts picked me, not the other way around.
The Somali community views theater as an American thing, not a Somali thing. When I worked at Mixed Blood, some of the elders told me that theater is haram, forbidden. Yet when I was teaching them English, they were reciting poems they had seen in Somali theaters! Some of these elders were so against my passion, the only way to work on it was to hide it. That way, no one could make fun of me or try to change my mind. At the same time, I felt truly seen whenever I had an opportunity to be on stage—like I was finally living for me.
Minnesota’s arts community is robust and experimental. I’ve participated in the MayDay Parade and the Northern Spark festival. I love the small but mighty Little Africa Festival in St. Paul [every August]. And if there’s ever a hazing for artists, the [late summer] Minnesota State Fair is it. It’s the hardest crowd! People are in food comas; if you’re lucky, they might walk your way for two seconds. And here I am, barefoot in the heat, performing a civil war show told from a child’s perspective. I’m like, Is anyone hearing this? But a few people did, and that was really beautiful. We could be different politically, but the love of food, music, and culture is still there.
Most of my peers could never make this choice. It seems selfish, like, How dare you play with puppets while your people are starving? You need to get a better job and send money home! I still feel conflicted, but I know this is my role—to breathe value into my culture. Our stories become a lifeline, a parachute, for others to see themselves.”