BEMIDJI -- As a child, Jorge Prince came to Bemidji all the way from San Diego, Calif. As an adult, he travels much of the world as part of his career. But regardless of where he's been or he goes next, Prince said the First City on the Mississippi will always be home.

Recently sworn in as mayor, 48-year-old Prince also works as the chief financial officer for LaValley Industries in Bemidji. In his latest role, Prince is serving a community that he says adopted him at a young age.

Originally born in Mexico, Prince spent his younger years in San Diego while his father was in the U.S. Navy. Once his father -- who is originally from Bemidji -- finished his military service, the family moved back to Minnesota in 1976.

Prince was a first-grader when they arrived in northern Minnesota. The family lived near Wilton, just off U.S. Highway 2, and Prince attended the school in Solway.

"I spoke nearly no English, and really only spoke Spanish," Prince said. "The Solway school did the best they could and that was to put me in a speech class. I started to learn how to speak English by watching television. Most people think I speak English very well, but it's actually my second language. Every now and then I still get tongue tied."

Newsletter signup for email alerts

Language wasn't the only change in the move from the Golden State to the Land of 10,000 Lakes. From the food, to the weather -- there was a lot adjusting.

"It was the first time I'd ever seen snow when I first got here," Prince said. "I remember really liking snow, and thinking of how neat it was. The cold, though, took me a while to get used to. It's a whole different world, getting used to the climate."

Used to a traditional Mexican diet, he also had to adapt to a whole new variety of food options.

"When you live in California, you can access that kind of food very readily and easily," Prince said of the Mexican cuisine. "When you come here, it's a completely different thing. I had to get used to things like pizza, hamburgers and hotdish, which was completely foreign to me."

Another factor in the move was coming to a less diverse part of the nation. In kindergarten, Prince said he was in a multicultural type of school.

"My best friend at the time was from the Philippines," Prince said. "Then, coming to Bemidji, we were one of the first Hispanic families here. I didn't meet another Hispanic person in the school system until I was in high school. That was another big change for me to see those differences."

While there were changes at school in Bemidji, though, Prince found it was a place he could excel.

Academics for opportunity

Prince said his family had to start from ground zero in Bemidji, and struggled financially at first.

"We didn't have access to things other kids did," Prince said. "I was the guy getting clothes at garage sales, standing in line for commodities, those kinds of things. But despite not having the same material things as other people did, I had great parents. They did a great job teaching me morals, how to work hard, to honor your word and keep pushing forward."

Prince carried that into his education, applying himself at Heartland Christian Academy before becoming one of the first students to participate in the post secondary enrollment option while attending Bemidji High School.

"I saw education as a way to move myself forward in life," Prince said. "My junior and senior years in high school, I actually spent a lot of my time at BSU. My exposure to higher education at a younger age made me excited about post secondary education, so I pursued that with a passion."

Prince completed his time at BSU and in doing so, became the first member of his family on either side to have a four year college degree.

"That was a big thing for our family, and I'm proud to say the rest of my siblings have all pursued post secondary education, including my sister who has a master's degree."

After graduating, Prince was selected for a 3M fellowship program and had a guaranteed job offer in the Twin Cities metro area. However, at the same time, Prince met Alan Korpi, who was building the first Valvoline Instant Oil Change in Bemidji.

"He offered me a position with him as he had a desire to expand to other locations," Prince said. "I had a desire to own my own business, and I figured this would be a great way to learn how to run my own."

Prince was with the company for 13 years, and he ran operations and business development for the last seven. Prince's professional career continued in Bemidji after his time with Valvoline, such as when he helmed the Small Business Development Center from 2007-2010.

"I've had a lot of good friends in this community and a lot of people treat me very well and have created opportunities for me, and I'm very thankful for that," Prince said. "That's not to say that over the course of my life I haven't experienced prejudice or racist types of things. Of course I have, but those have been individual people in individual situations. I've never felt that was the preponderance of the community. I think the community has treated me well over the years."

In return, Prince has spent time giving back to the community, working with nonprofits such as the Occupational Development Center and the Housing and Redevelopment Authority. At the latter, HRA Executive Director Debbie Wold said Prince was especially helpful in applying for additional funding and reviewing policies.

A place to call home

Prince and his wife Amanda have been married for 21 years, having first met in Brainerd. After about seven years of marriage, the two decided to start a family.

"My wife and I decided that we'd adopt two young men from an orphanage in Juarez, (Mexico)," Prince said. "We had been volunteering for this orphanage and we met our sons, and we just knew right away that they were going to be part of our family."

At the time, the oldest, Miguel, was 14, and the younger, Moises, was 10. In total, the adoption process took about a year and involved several trips to Mexico.

"Both of our sons were older and they are both hearing impaired, and my youngest communicates primarily through American Sign Language," Prince said. "They kind of paralleled the same journey I took in coming to Bemidji. They didn't speak English, they hadn't seen snow, and hadn't been this far north. All of the ways I had to adapt and change, they did too. But I had experience having done it, so as a father, I was in a great place to guide them through. The same way the community adopted me, the community adopted them."

Having been adopted by the community, Bemidji has remained the place where Prince belongs, no matter how far he goes.

"The atmosphere in our community is something I've always appreciated," Prince said. "For work I travel to Europe, Central America, Australia, and when my time is done there, I'm always grateful to come back home to Bemidji. That's not to say we're perfect or have everything figured out. But, I think ultimately we search for that place to call home, where we feel we belong and we want to contribute to. Bemidji has always been that place for me."