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Small numbers, big changes: Local Latino community remains small, but visibility increases

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 16, 2011 - The changes, for Haniny Hillberg and her daughter, Elisa Bender, feel big here. Decades ago, there was one church with a service in Spanish. Now, several offer services in Spanish.

Then, tortillas seemed a rare treat. "Now, I can just walk into Schnucks or Dierbergs and find them," Hillberg says.

There were few business, few restaurants and few other Hispanic kids, says Bender, and the population of Hispanics and Latinos in St. Louis was tiny. "From 25, 30 years ago to now, it's exploded," she says.

Through her own lifetime, born and raised in St. Louis to a Bolivian mother and American father, the Latino community here seems to have grown tremendously. She and her mother see signs of it everywhere, even if the numbers don't.

Latinos make up only 2.6 percent of the population of the St. Louis metropolitan statistical area, according to "Where We Stand," a report by East West Gateway Council of Governments, which uses Census numbers. St. Louis ranks 34 out of 35 other cities for Latino populations. That's just above Pittsburgh and well below Kansas City, with a population of 8.2 percent. The average is 15.7 percent, according to the report.

As a percentage of the population, 2.6 percent is small, certainly. But Latinos claim bigger numbers than Asians, with just 2.1 percent. And the population has, indeed, grown in the last few decades. In 1990, according to East West Gateway's report, the number crept along at just 0.3 percent.

"We have grown a great deal from where we were," says Vanessa Crawford, executive director of MIRA, Missouri Immigrant and Refugee Advocates.

But the community, regardless of size, still faces several issues, from the economy to racial profiling to the lack of a concentrated hub.

Still, Crawford says, small enclaves are springing up, in St. Charles, St. Ann and along Cherokee Street -- even if people don't see them.

"If you don't know, then maybe you don't know," she says. "But once you see where the communities are growing, they're really doing good things in the places where they are ending up."

Ties And Size

In Missouri, people of Latino origin make up 3.5 percent of the population, according to the Census. The state's number climbed from 2.1 percent in 2000.

In Illinois, it's 15.8 percent, up from 12.3 percent in 2000.

In St. Louis County, the Latino populations have grown from 1.4 to 2.5 percent; from 1.5 to 2.8 percent in St. Charles County; from 1 to 1.6 percent in Jefferson County and from 2 to 3.5 percent in St. Louis.

That's growth, to be sure, but St. Louis may have geographical and historical factors working against a larger influx of Hispanics and Latinos.

"St. Louis has not historically been a destination city for Latinos in the same way that Kansas City and Chicago have been," says Joel Jennings, an assistant professor at St. Louis University whose work focuses on Latino immigration and citizenship in St. Louis.

Those cities, located along the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe railroads, became common stopping points for the community.

Jennings, coordinator of SLU's developing Latino Studies program and board chair of Interfaith Legal Services for Immigrants, says that from about late 2004 to 2006, however, he witnessed high numbers of immigrant growth in St. Louis, and often, that included people making their second stop in the country.

At one point, he says, he heard as many three families were moving into the area each week.

Gustavo Arango, an attorney with U.S. Legal Solutions, says that Latinos tend to move where relatives and friends already are. In that way, he thinks, the Latino community in St. Louis is still very young.

In his practice, though, he sees six or seven clients each day and always makes a point of asking how and why they came to St. Louis. Affordable housing is often a reason.

"And I see more people coming now, especially from California," he says. "We see more Latinos, but it's never going to be a New York or a Florida or a Miami."

Now, Jennings says, the overall trend of Latinos and Hispanics moving into the area seems to have slowed, thanks to the economy.

That, he says, reflects a national trend. Jennings points to the work of Doug Massey, co-director of the Mexican Migration Project at Princeton. In a July 5 New York Times story, Massey reports that for the first time since the 1950s, interest in coming to the United States is at a low. He also projected a net zero gain in undocumented immigrants coming from Mexico.

"The reality, too, is that the Latin American economies are doing somewhat better," Jennings says. "So you have less demand on the U.S. economy side, which has always been a huge factor."

Despite the economy, however, the Census reported in May that between 2000 and 2010, the country's Hispanic population grew by 43 percent, which adds up to more than half of the total population growth in the entire country. Forty-one percent lived in the West, 36 percent in the South, 14 percent in the Northeast and 9 percent in the Midwest in 2010.

The population grew everywhere, the Census reports, especially in the Midwest. Kansas saw a growth from 7 percent of the total population to 10.5, Nebraska from 5.5 to 9.2, Oklahoma from 5.2 to 8.9, and Wisconsin from 3.6 to 5.9.

In St. Louis, established professional Latinos often live in west county, Jennings says, while newcomers with different levels of immigration status, from undocumented to citizens, live all across the area.

"It is a very fragmented community," Arango agrees. "It is very difficult, even for documented people, to get into the community and meet people."

But Cherokee Street, where several blocks of Latino businesses have set up, is a vibrant enclave, says Crawford.

"It's the Latino community that's really come in and revitalized the business district."

There's a growing community along the St. Charles Rock Road corridor, she says, moving into neighborhoods that have been deteriorating.

Still, Jennings says, the population is pretty diffused.

Will Winter, with the Public Policy Institute at the University of Missouri, St. Louis, says the largest percent of Latinos appears to be in East St. Louis. There are also clusters in south St. Louis, St. Charles and near St. John and St. Ann.

"They tend to be pretty spread out," he says.

Uncounted, unseen?

When she hears the numbers of Latinos in St. Louis, Hillberg thinks it sounds low.

"It is much higher, I can tell you, it is much higher, definitely."

And what's missing, she thinks, is the undocumented population, which might not have participated in the census, mostly out of fear.

There is a good-sized population of the undocumented, Arango says. "Probably more undocumented than documented when it comes to Latinos."

More and more seem to understand what rights they have, thanks to several "Know Your Rights" workshops put on by organizations like MIRA. But along with their immigration status come some big issues.

There are just a handful of programs, like SLU's Immigration Law Clinic and Casa De Salud, a health center.

And regardless of status, there are also institutional issues, Jennings says, when people speak English as a second language or not at all. That makes it difficult to navigate social services or to get proper prenatal care, for instance, and those hurdles slow down the integration of people into the community.

St. Louis culture is another hurdle, Arango thinks.

"St. Louis is very conservative," he says. "It's still very parochial. It takes time, it takes a lot of time to get to know people, to be accepted."

Driving While Brown

One other issue came up to a person -- the treatment by Hispanics and Latinos by law enforcement in certain areas.

"There is, I think, a lot more anti-Latino discrimination than we as a community would like to face, I believe particularly up in north county," Crawford says.

For Jennings' dissertation, he studied three communities in the metro area: St. Charles, Valley Park and one that remained unidentified in his study. He chose not to disclose it.

What he found was that each community took a different approach to how it dealt with immigrants from the time he was studying them, around 2004 and 2005.

In the unnamed community, there was a tacit approach to dealing with the undocumented, usually city officials working with police, but no official policies.

In Valley Park, the approach was antagonistic, and a well publicized battle surrounded "The Illegal Immigration Relief Act" that threatened to fine businesses and landlords for hiring or renting to the undocumented.

And in St. Charles, the Amigos program dealt with things head on, bringing together leaders and police with the community to address issues that may come up.

Each approach had very different outcomes, he says, and in the places that were aggressive or tacit, the approaches bled into the rest of the community.

"It basically creates an environment that is extremely conducive to racial profiling."

From Here

The changes here in the last decade, to Arango, all depend on your perspective.

"Honestly, if you talk to African-American or white populations in St. Louis who might live in a region where they do not come into contact with the Latinos, the Latino population is still non-existent in St. Louis."

But Hillberg and her daughter see them -- in their communities, building businesses and lives here, and at this weekend's Hispanic Festival of Greater St. Louis. Hillberg started the festival 18 years ago in Faust Park, and, like the Latino community in St. Louis, has watched it grow ever since. Now, Bender says, there are little pockets of Latinos, but what they bring she says, is a good work ethic and a sense of extended family.

Why the population isn't bigger, she isn't sure.

"Only, being from St. Louis, I have seen a tremendous growth."

Hispanic Festival

In its 18th year, the Hispanic Festival of Greater St. Louis returns this weekend, Sept. 16-18, at Soldiers Memorial Park downtown. The event features Latino bands, folkloric dances, a kid's corner, authentic food and crafts and a low-rider car cruise. New this year is a procession of flags at the welcome on Saturday, says Elisa Bender, a board member. People are encouraged to wear a local costume. Click here for more information.

Analysis of census data related to the Countdown series has been provided by members of the Applied Research Collaborative, a joint project of three of the region's leading research institutions: St. Louis University (Department of Public Policy Studies), University of Missouri-St. Louis (Public Policy Research Center) and Southern Illinois University Edwardsville (Institute for Urban Research).

Kristen Hare