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Paynesville Press - July 28, 2004

Native Mexican becomes hotdish-making Minnesotan

By Kayla Welle and Michael Jacobson

"Gracias" means thanks.

That's what Maria Thompson, a native of Mexico who has lived here for the past five years, wants to express to friends and family who have welcomed her to Paynesville.

ethnic schedule Thompson - who as a member of the Paynesville Human Rights Commission heads this year's Festival of Ethnic Traditions - knows about promoting understanding between cultures, the purpose of the fourth-annual one-day festival, to be held this year on Sunday, Aug. 1. She taught English in Mexico, teaches Spanish in Minnesota, belongs to a church (Nordland) founded by Norwegian-Americans, and married her husband because she was impressed by his multicultural attitude.

Born, raised, and educated in Mexico, Thompson comes from the Mexican state of Sonora, located directly south of Arizona, sitting on the northeast coast of the Gulf of California (which separates the bulk of Mexico from the Baja Peninsula). She was raised in Cananea, a copper-mining town less than 50 miles from the Arizona border, by her engineer father and teacher mother. When she was in first grade, her father was hired by the mine, which had an American school. That's where she started to learn English.

After getting her teaching degree from the University of Sonora, she met her future husband, Robert Thompson, a native of Paynesville, while working at a Ford Motor Company plant in Hermosillo, the capital of Sonora.

dancer She was working at the plant as a technical and general English instructor. She taught the mechanics the technical terminology needed for their jobs.

Robert Thompson, a mechanical engineer, was working at the plant as a foreign service advisor.

Maria Thompson, a native of Mexico who now lives amid German-Americans and Scandinavian-Americans in Union Grove Township, loves to teach Spanish classes to kids and adults. Through teaching, she enjoys her Mexican heritage.

"When I met my husband, I was very impressed by his performance in the job. He took pride in working side by side with the Mexican people. He loves Mexico, and maybe that's why he fell in love with me," explained Thompson.

They married in September 1989.

After their marriage, the Thompsons moved to California where Maria worked at a daycare and as an English as Second Language (ESL) instructor. They lived in California and Nevada for ten years before moving to the Paynesville area in 1999.

Minnesota, Maria said, is real America. In Paynesville, she marvels at the hard-working farmers and the down-to-earth people. "Everybody is very friendly," she said.

According to a friend, Thompson now is "a true Minnesotan. She understands hotdish," which she is quick to make for friends in need.

Since she has been here, Maria is happy that religion and family are both very important values in this area. "These things are also very important to us in Mexico," she said.

Though it was hard leaving her family in Mexico, she feels like she belongs here. (Maria enjoys going back to Mexico about once a year to visit her family and country. Her family has also been fortunate enough to be able to visit her in America.)

Like her, the people around this area are proud of their heritage. She enjoys people saying that they are proud to be a German or a Norwegian.

She and her husband now live in Union Grove Township, where the ancestry of residents is predominantly German and Scandinavian. (Fifty-two percent German and 39 percent Norwegian or Swedish, according to the 2000 census.)

Teaching Spanish is one of Maria's passions. She teaches Spanish through Community Education in Paynesville and Cold Spring, and also teaches an adult Spanish course in Paynesville.

In Cold Spring, Maria founded an organization called Guadalupe, which helps Hispanic people with social skills, the English language, and self-esteem.

One of her most rewarding experiences was helping a Mexican fifth grader at Rocori. The girl could not speak a word of English when she first came but is now fluent in English. She now helps Maria with her classes and has earned a scholarship to St. John's Prep.

Maria is a volunteer interpretor at the Paynesville Area Health Care System, at various dairy and turkey farms, at Gold'n Plump in Cold Spring, and at the Paynesville Area Schools. "Some people come here with nothing and without knowing how to speak a word of English," Maria said, "and knowing that I had a hand in making them a fluent and good person makes me proud."

"I am so proud of my background and my roots. Spanish is my passion, and I love to teach the history, traditions, and culture," she added. Maria also has gotten herself involved with the community through the Human Rights Commission. "The ethnic festival is a wonderful way to promote an understanding of different cultures," said Thompson, citing the opportunity to try different foods, to hear rich ethnic music, and to learn about different cultures and traditions. "Everyone has something special to share with us," she noted.

Last year, she was asked to sing the Mexican national anthem at the festival and later cried because it went so well. She also led Mexican bingo, which she will do again this year at the festival, which will be held on Sunday, Aug. 1, starting at 12:30 p.m. The festival will be held on the athletic field at Paynesville Area High School, between the high school parking lot and the armory.

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