Montana State University

Mountains and Minds

Schmalzbauer Studies Changing State of Montana November 27, 2007 by Jean Arthur • Published 11/27/07

Hispanic influence in Montana is as old as all European exploration of Montaña. However, despite a two-century history in the Northern Rockies, many Latino families now reside in Montana along society's fringes, according to MSU sociology professor Leah Schmalzbauer.

Leah Schmalzbauer has brought to MSU her award-winning work on the sociological and economic impact of a transnational America. She has also helped develop a new Latino Studies minor at MSU that will examine the issues surrounding Mexican and Latino migration to Montana. (Photo: Steve Hunts)
Leah Schmalzbauer has brought to MSU her award-winning work on the sociological and economic impact of a transnational America. She has also helped develop a new Latino Studies minor at MSU that will examine the issues surrounding Mexican and Latino migration to Montana.


Schmalzbauer, whose work has been cited in "The New York Times" and "The International Herald Tribune," studies immigrant families in crisis. Her research has taken her to sweaty, trash-strewn streets of Central America where she has studied some of the world's poorest people. Recently, she has turned her interest to immigrants in Montana.

"It's an interesting time in Montana to study immigration," Schmalzbauer says. "The fastest-growing immigrant communities in the U.S. are in the West, Midwest and Southeast. Jackson Hole, Wyo., actually has the fastest growing Latino community in the country in terms of percentage growth."

A recent census report revealed that Montana's Hispanic population increased from 18,227 in 2000 to 23,818 in 2006. Of that figure, 1,858 Hispanic people lived in Gallatin County in 2006.

The Minnesota native became interested in Latin America and Central America in college. Her master's degree is in international development from the London School of Economics and Political Science.

It was during the post-Hurricane Mitch (1998) era, while Schmalzbauer was working on her Ph.D. at Boston College, that she noticed Latino immigrants in Boston were sending money, as much as 25 percent of their income, back to families in Central America.

"I realized that the reason for migration was because of economic crisis leading to family upheaval in Central America and a large demand for low-wage labor in the U.S.," she says. The global economy has reshaped the traditional Latino family, especially poor families that now rely on a parent or both parents to work in the U.S. and send money home, she believes.

Schmalzbauer and her husband, Steve Bruner, moved to the Rockies when he was hired to write a strategic plan for Yellowstone National Park. She applied for a position at MSU, where she has taught classes on globalization, gender, poverty and immigration and studied transnational families in the Department of Sociology since 2004.

Studying changing demographics

Schmalzbauer teaches students that the typical Latino immigrant in Montana is an adult male who works in the construction industry in Big Sky or in agricultural jobs. Many are recruited by local employers and have H-1B visas, used by U.S. employers to hire skilled foreigners for temporary help. Soon a wife and children follow. Schmalzbauer meets many such families at the local food bank, where she volunteers as an interpreter. Wages vary widely, she notes, from $15 an hour at a golf course to $7 an hour for day labor through agencies.

The recent influx of Latinos sparked three months of heated debate on the editorial page of Bozeman's newspaper during spring 2007. Schmalzbauer says the letters to the editor revealed xenophobia in an otherwise accepting community.

"Some of the negative feedback comes from Californians who left California to escape Latino immigration there," she says. "That's why we wanted to start a healthy dialogue, debate and lecture series in Bozeman. Bridget Kevane, MSU Modern Languages professor, is spearheading this at MSU through the new Latino Studies program. Buck Taylor of the Gallatin Community Clinic is heading a group of local human service workers who are strategizing how to better meet the needs of the Latino community and educate the public on the issue. After all, statistics show that over half of the population growth in Montana is Latino."

As she befriends local migrants, Schmalzbauer finds a thriving, albeit fledgling, Latino community. Schmalzbauer says a major indicator of the growing population is the dozen local Western Union offices, which are vital for the transfer of dollars to Latin America. Other telltale signs are the number of Mexican-owned restaurants in the valley and a Spanish mass at a local Catholic church.

The changing U.S. and local demographics make relevant a new MSU Latin American and Latino Studies minor, Schmalzbauer said. It is designed to prepare students for the close cultural, political, and economic relationships developing between Latin America and the U.S.

Schmalzbauer's honors for her work include the 2006 Sussman Award for "Searching for Wages and Mothering from Afar: The Case of Honduran Transnational Families," published in the "Journal of Marriage and Family." She recently received a $5,700 grant from the American Sociological Association Fund for the Advancement of the Discipline/National Science Foundation for "Off the Migratory Map: Uncovering Family Survival Strategies."

"The importance of Leah's work is that it's talking in a global sense about immigration and the effects it has on us locally," says Kevane. "Hopefully, this generation of students won't have stereotypes or fears that others may have (of) the Mexican community."


Leah Schmalzbauer volunteers as an interpreter for Spanish speakers at Bozeman's Food Bank, where she meets some of the Latino/Hispanic laborers. (Photo: Steve Hunts)
Leah Schmalzbauer volunteers as an interpreter for Spanish speakers at Bozeman's Food Bank, where she meets some of the Latino/Hispanic laborers.