Latina Like Me: Voices from people of color in Leelanau County

By Beatriz Cruz Moreno

As told to Sun editor Jacob Wheeler

Bea Cruz may be the ideal bilingual outreach liaison to our Spanish-speaking migrant population, a job she holds for Suttons Bay Public Schools, both in and outside of the classroom. Cruz’s family were migrant farmworkers, themselves, and she learned to grow up embracing two cultures while interpreting for her Mexican immigrant parents. A graduate of Leland High School, Cruz is the mother of three sons between ages 8 and 17. As an ambassador to the Latino community, she understands what it’s like to grow up a person of color in Leelanau County.

This series is inspired by the #BlackLivesMatter movement, which is provoking conversations nationwide about racial inequities. Visit our website for more stories by and about people of color and how they are treated here in Leelanau County.

I came to Leelanau County in 1987 when I was 8 years old. My family were migrant workers, and we would come up for the summers from Brownsville, Texas. Right after strawberry season we would leave again, at the beginning of August. We would always be back in Texas in time to start school. In the early ’90s we decided to stay a little bit longer each year. Then we stayed until after apple season and left in November. I’ve been living here for 31 years. That was back in the day when kids worked in the fields all day long. We’d also pick peaches, pears, blueberries, and apples. We would start the schoolyear here in Leland, and go back to Brownsville for the winter. I’m the middle child of six, and the only one born in Mexico, in Matamoras. I was 3 months old when we moved to Texas. My dad, Tomas Moreno, sold his property there to build a house in Texas.

I remember in Brownsville I would always walk to school. Everything was so close. We’d walk to the corner store. Everyone spoke Spanish there. In the barrio, houses were close to each other. Men worked, the moms stayed home. Everybody knew what time to go home and have dinner. My parents could communicate because everyone there spoke Spanish. Then we came up here and we found out that things were different. We had to step up from being kids and grow up faster. Not a lot of people are bilingual up here. So we had to step up and help our parents communicate with doctors, employers, landlords, and the school system. If we didn’t have money to pay our electric bill, it was up to the kids to call and find out how to make payments. 

I was in sixth grade, 11 years old, when we stayed in Michigan for good. We had a friend who had been in a bad car accident, and his family stayed here and asked us to stay, too. We loved the school here. We wanted to see the snow. Everything just seemed too perfect here in Leelanau. Texas is so hot. Once in a while you’d hear shooting. There are always so many fights. And the school was too big. So we kids pushed our parents, “Let’s stay”. My Dad never went to school, he was illiterate. When he was older, someone taught him how to write his name. Mom, whose name is Juana Pineda Moreno, only went through the sixth grade. But you’d never be able to tell. They stressed to us that we get an education. That first year we went from living in Lake Leelanau migrant housing to living in another migrant housing unit in Northport. There were maybe five apartments there, all Latino families. All working for Bob Weaver who had a fruit processing plant, only a quarter mile from where we lived. My parents would work in the winter and make $5 per hour. I don’t know how they paid for all the bills. We never grew up missing out on things. They did an amazing job of giving us what we needed.

All five of us kids graduated from Leland high school. We looked different. We were the only Latinos who stayed after apple season ended. We got pretty dark working in the fields, so we did stand out. When you’re that young, I don’t think [other kids] notice how different we were. They were curious. They knew we were coming from Texas. But we were consistent every year. I never felt like an outsider. I always felt I belonged. 

For my parents, it depended on who they came across. Some individuals got frustrated because they didn’t speak English. It gave them peace and comfort knowing that most accepted them in their community. I remember it was tough going into the bank with my dad to cash his check. He still struggled with signing his name. He would use the thumb print. I would interpret and say what he needed, and what he was trying to do. Sometimes we would go somewhere, and people didn’t understand my parents. They would scream or raise their voice. Still, to this day when I hear someone raise their voice to someone who doesn’t understand English, it gives me a bad feeling. I don’t know why they think that would help. I still see that at Burger King—an employee raising their voice to Latino customer. My parents’ way was, “We have kids. You can interpret for us.” My mom understands some English but not enough to have a real conversation. My Dad spoke only Spanish.

At home we spoke only Spanish. I didn’t learn English until I was in kindergarten, and I didn’t speak it until the fourth grade. Spanish was my go-to language; it was all I knew in Texas. So when I came here, I was super shy. I didn’t understand the words being said. I was constantly translating in my head what was being said to me. My brain was never relaxed, because here everything was in English. So many words were foreign to me. The pronunciation is difficult. So many words mean different things.

When migrants began to stay through apple season, there was only one student I remember who said, “You brown kids, you’re the color of dirt.” That was in middle school. It was the first time I heard someone refer to me as dirt. I was like, “Wow, this is what it feels like for someone to make you feel like you’re less than them.” As more Latinos stayed up here, I started to hang out more with them. But I also maintained relationships with [white] kids in my class. I was the only Latina that graduated from my class in Leland, in 1997. In my grade, there were no other people of color. 

After graduation, I was literally lost. I didn’t know what to do next. All I knew was high school. So I took a year off to work. After that I knew I had to go to college. My oldest brother had gone for some time, but my circle of friends were not ones who had gone to college. It was a scary journey for me. My parents wouldn’t be able to help me because they didn’t have an education. So I went to Northwestern Michigan College (NMC) in Traverse City, where I got my associate’s degree, before pursuing a Bachelor’s in Social Work at the NMC University Center. I was later asked to be a liaison for Spanish-speaking families, and do child development home visits. I stopped going to college after I had my son Samuel when I was 23. 

My husband Jair and I met during the wave when many migrants were coming here from down south. We met about 21 years ago at a Mexican dance that was held in Leelanau, and where Spanish music was played. The dances were packed with many of our migrant families. We got married on Feb. 2, 2001.

With the help of a former teacher, I went back to NMC at age 26. There I remember two incidents where it was pointed out to me that I was different. I was in a speech class, and my professor was talking to me in Spanish. Another student said, “You’re in America, you should speak English.” I was taken aback, because I really had not encountered racial issues. I stared back. Some students were uncomfortable and pretended they didn’t hear it. But a girl behind me said to the first student, “We know we’re in America. You should learn another language.” I remember she said to me afterward, “You’re not the one with the problem. He’s the one with the problem.” That felt good. Having someone speak up meant so much. Because I didn’t feel like I was alone.

Then there was this other incident. I was 26 when I went back to NMC the second time. I went to the bookstore because I needed a special scientific calculator. I’m horrible at math. The lady behind the counter looked at me and said, “They’re cheaper at Wal-Mart.” She said, “They’ll be able to help you at Walmart.” She wouldn’t help me. So I emailed my sponsor. The next day I was told to just show up and they would give it to me. The same lady was working in the bookstore. She grabbed the calculator and handed it to me. She was upset. “I don’t know who you are,” she said. She thought I was just going to waste her time looking at the calculator.

I love living in Leelanau County. My family has been fortunate to live here for so many years. Here they know us. So, I don’t know if we’ve been targeted. But others have said they felt targeted, singled out. With more awareness, more people are stepping up, more are speaking out for the Latino community. When I was growing up we were very few. When I was a teenager, migrants came here in waves. Then it stopped all of a sudden. An increase in immigration raids hasn’t help. Nine years ago I remember I went to one migrant camp and saw my first raid, saw a man being arrested. I saw the children watch their father being arrested. That memory stayed with them. 

Now we’re working to rebuild trust in their community, working hard to convince kids that, if there’s an emergency, you need to call 911. Because when we were little, we were told that you can’t call for help. An officer could take us away. My role now is to educate the community that officers are here to help them. Especially the fire department. Sometimes people get hurt and they don’t call emergency. If you have a problem, there’s someone you can call. Just because you’ve had a bad experience with one officer, it doesn’t mean they’re all bad. I know that a lot of our Latino families are fearful that people are emboldened and allowed to be racist. Nothing will be counted against them because of what our current president has demonstrated.


If I’m walking down the street, I always notice my surroundings. Who’s looking at me, who’s taking pictures? Because I’m a person of color, I notice when I’m with my kids. Is someone too close? Being a mother of all boys, ages 17, 13 and 8, I’m always telling them, “You’re always polite. Always have your hands out where they can see them.” We are people of color. The way we’re seen is different by some. Even people aren’t racist, they all see color. I have told my kids, “You always have to speak up if someone isn’t being treated right. My oldest and my middle boy have had no problems. At times, my middle one has said, “They’re looking at me.” I’d say to him, “Are they looking at you to ask if you’re doing something, or are they curious?” In my family, we have Irish, Dutch, Cuban, Native-American. It’s important for our kids to see a mixture of race.

My mom lives with me now. My dad passed away on Feb. 27, 2013. His wish was to be buried in Mexico when he passed away. We took him to my Mom’s hometown of San Luis Potosi to be buried. That was a way to connect with his roots. 

As for the Black Lives Matter movement, we try to shelter our kids. At first, we didn’t talk openly about it. But my kids have been seeing the Black Live Matter signs in our communities. We want our 7-year-old to think he can trust police officers. We told him, “You know how we go to the mall and some people don’t help us first: they help someone who’s white? It’s important that we speak up. If we don’t, things will continue to happen. Right now this happened to an African-American person. We don’t know if it could happen to us.” We need to bring awareness to this. The fear is real that it could happen. Right now, in this community, more and more people are speaking up. 

I have a brother and sister who moved down to Houston, but I can’t see myself going back down south. My eldest brother who moved down there said he was tired of the snow. But I couldn’t see myself raising kids anywhere but Leelanau. Now that we have more color that’s visible in our County, people are starting to feel more comfortable. We’re grateful to those who are speaking up, expressing their voices so that we don’t feel scared. We feel like we’re backed up. Because we contribute to society like everybody else.