Amid Western mountains, new possibilities
For Lissy Samantha Suazo, 18, the open space of Big Sky, Montana — a small town near Yellowstone National Park — has been a beginning to wider, bigger possibilities.
“When I arrived here in Big Sky, I was the second person of color and Spanish-speaking person in the school and the first one who didn’t know how to speak English,” said Suazo, who was 12 when her family came from Honduras.
Waded Cruzado’s journey through Montana started a few years earlier than Suazo’s. She was hired in 2010 as president of Montana State University in Bozeman.
“I remember saying, ‘You know, I have never been to Montana. … Do you know what I look like? I don’t look like and sound like anyone in Montana,’” said Cruzado, 61, who was born and raised in Puerto Rico. “But I was wrong.”
Hispanics have been in Montana since the early 1800s as fur traders, ranchers, rail workers and laborers in beet fields, according to Bridget Kevane, professor of Latin American and Latino Studies at Montana State University.
But in the last two decades, Montana has been among the states with the fastest growing Latino populations in the country. Though the 45,199 Latinos who live in Montana are minuscule compared to the 15.6 million Hispanics who live in California, the state’s 58.2 percent jump in Latino residents since 2010 leads all U.S. western states over the last decade.
In California and in New Mexico, Latinos are half of the population under 18.
- Idaho’s population grew by 17 percent, but its Latino population grew 36.1 percent in the last decade.
The timber industry in the northern part of the state and oil jobs in the east have drawn Latino workers, as have resorts in Bozeman and Big Sky, Kevane said.
“Scholars say this is a non-gateway state, meaning there wasn’t already a settled community,” Kevane said of North Dakota. “But it might be in the next 20 years.”
Suazo and Cruzado became part of that last decade of Latino growth amid the majestic outdoors — and the bracing winters.
“I’m not going to lie, that’s one of the things I had a hard time adjusting to, but now I love the cold and now I love the snow,” said Suazo, who regularly enjoys hiking and walking.
Suazo’s family was in New York after coming from Honduras when her father got a call to come work in Big Sky. Since then, Suazo has taken advantage of the opportunities available to her.
Now in her senior year in high school, the straight-A student is spending a semester at a leadership academy in South Africa and has found meaning beyond academics, starting with when she helped a fellow Honduran student learn English and get her bearings.
Suazo expanded on that by starting a Latino student union in her high school, creating a nonprofit group, GLAM, to assist people in other countries, including Honduras, and starting a Spanish-language newspaper, Noticias Montaña, with friends that among other things keeps Montana Latinos informed on local issues, including Covid-related information.
“At the end of the day, it is the impact that I make that makes me feel successful,” Suazo said.
Although most Latinos in Montana are of Mexican origin, numbering around 30,000, about 2,000 are Puerto Rican, according to 2019 census population estimates.
Cruzado, born in Mayagüez, Puerto Rico, left the U.S. territory to be dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at New Mexico State University. In 2009, after a national search, she landed MSU’s lead job.
Utah was the fastest-growing state in the West…
…its Latino population grew twice as fast as the state’s did. (Utah, 18.4 percent; Utah’s Latinos, 37.5 percent)
Eleven years since taking the helm, Cruzado has put her stamp on the institution, helping ensure it lives up to its mission as a land grant university, originally intended to educate the children of America’s working families.
“At MSU, we are not going to chase privilege. We are going to choose promise,” Cruzado said, a phrase she regularly emphasizes. “If we are able to convey that message to anyone out there — our Native American students or Latino students or African American students or Asian students, our students from rural communities in Montana, what happens if we give them the chance?”
Cruzado has launched a campaign to increase the average course credits taken by first-year students as well as a program to enroll more young people who are on the fence about college.
Although she wishes she could see her granddaughters in Puerto Rico more often, Cruzado said she’s found a kinship in the work ethic of the state’s residents.
She shares her Puerto Rican cooking with fellow Montanans and loves camping, soaking up the state’s stunning natural sites.
“I don’t focus on the differences,” she said. “I focus on what we can we accomplish together.”