Alma Onate: From Mexico to Minnesota, finding a better future for her family

Words by Tesla Mitchell, photographs by Harrison McCormick

The day Alma Onate made up her mind to cross the border into the United States with her husband and four children was the day that gangs were shooting at each other in her neighborhood.

One of the bullets had flown through her house and hit a wall in between her daughters. Alma knew if she called the police, they weren't likely to come.

Where she lived in Guanajuato Mexico, it didn't matter if gangs were shooting up a neighborhood or if people were stealing the copper plumbing that was commonly found on the outside of houses. Either way, the police were not likely to respond.

Between that and the jobs that paid exceptionally less than a livable wage — Alma and her 15 siblings had to hand make items for their mom to sell to survive — she decided enough was enough.

Together the family chose to take their chances in the U.S.

"This [country] is safer," Alma said (through the translator that assisted with this interview). "The police pay more attention to you."

It was a perilous journey for them. Even more so for Alma, who was separated from her family while crossing.

She looks forward at some point to sharing her full story once the legal pathway she's in is finished, but to give a short description, her journey included snakes biting at her, dogs chasing her, man made holes designed to trap immigrants if they fall in, and a lot of running and panic.

"I like to share my story with some people so they know not all us immigrants are coming to take away stuff," Alma said. "We're just trying to make a better future."

Once making their way into the U.S., Alma and her husband eventually found their way to Winona — which has become a community she's thoroughly loved being engaged with through art, building relationships, and community leadership.

"Now I try to live my life and be as happy as I can," Alma said. "I protect my kids so much. They say I'm overprotective. I say go ahead and call 911 and say I'm overprotective of you."

Despite that one of the main reasons for coming to the U.S. was the attention law enforcements gives the community, that attention wasn't always wanted for Alma and her husband.

A significant challenge that they had to face was not having the ability to get a driver's license. Previously in Minnesota, a person needed a social security card or proof of legal presence to get a driver's license. Not only did the lack of driver's license stop them from driving legally, it meant not being able to get insurance, qualify for jobs, and even prevented them from checking their children in and out of schools.

"I remember the first time my husband got pulled over by a police officer while my son was very young," Alma said. "He didn't have a driver's license so the police officer said he couldn't drive and sent them home walking."

It was downpouring.

"And then the police officer, every time he saw my husband, he knew he didn't have a license and he would pull him over," Alma said.

When Alma found out about the Driver's License For All initiative, which would eliminate the requirements in order to get a standard Minnesota class D driver's license, instruction permit or standard identification card, she jumped at the opportunity to volunteer and advocate for change.

Alma had found out about the initiative through being involved in Project FINE's advisory group and hearing its success in other states. With Project FINE's help, Alma and others met with law enforcement — including the Winona County Sheriff, City of Winona Mayor, and Minnesota Senator — to ask questions and give their perspective of lived experiences.

"I really enjoyed that," Alma said. "I was right in front of the sheriff and I got to ask questions."

In October of 2023, the Driver's License for All law came into effect, according to the Minnesota Department of Public Safety website.

"I like to do things that will help the community," Alma said. "Having a driver's license is a huge help in getting to your job and it's even better for the law because if there's an accident [police] have more information."

Alma's activism isn't the only way she's involved with the community. She goes to as many of Project FINE's events as she can and especially loves to dress up for the occasion — whether that's with wearing her traditional Mexican clothing or trying a different culture's traditional attire.

"I like to meet more people," Alma said. "I have been telling Project FINE that they need to have more events where they're dressing up in their traditional clothing!"

One of her favorite events though is the Welcoming Table dinners where the Winona community comes together to have a meal and build cross-cultural relationships. Many times it involves community leaders and law enforcement who come on their own time.

"I got to learn about (police officers) and get to know them as a person," Alma said about the Welcoming Table events. "They are very transparent people. And then when they come and sit with you and have dinner with you, they show you they are just like everybody else. To have this kind of interactions with them, it's one of the best thing."

Between the events that Project FINE hosts and the work the organization does to make sure immigrants understand what rights they have, Alma felt excited to open up to new friendships and connections. Now when Alma sees the sheriff out in the community, she gives him a wave. And he waves back.

"I think if it weren't for Project Fine I would be happy here, but I would be lonely," Alma said. "I wouldn't know as many people as I know."

For the future, Alma is looking forward to teaching her crafts and artwork to the community through workshops and classes. When Alma was a child, her mother couldn't afford dolls or toys, so Alma and her siblings learned to make their own dolls. Now she enjoys that creativity and makes dolls out of whatever she can — whether that's out of corn husks or recycled bottle caps.

Alma has a class coming up that she's teaching and is ready to start planning more.

"I love to live in Winona," Alma said. "We came here to be a part of your community. We share the same goals. I think at the end we make Winona bigger and better."

Tesla (Rodriguez) Mitchell is a digital storyteller, journalist, and social media content creator. Learn more about Tesla and her passions for fitness, motherhood, and art at

Spillway is an initiative supporting artists, culture-bearers, and local organizations in their expression of the diverse cultures, communities, and histories of the Upper Mississippi River region.  

The stories shared here were produced through a collaboration between Art of the Rural and Engage Winona.

This activity is made possible by the voters of Minnesota through grants from the Minnesota State Arts Board, thanks to a legislative appropriation from the arts and cultural heritage fund.