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Reputation, economy explain why Latinos in St. Louis are comparatively few

At Holy Trinity Catholic Parish in St. Ann, the feast day of Our Lady of Guadalupe is cause for major celebration. The north St. Louis County church honored the patron saint of Mexico last month with a special mass attended by more than 300 people, many of them Hispanic.

When the church bell struck noon, the parishioners processed around the church with an icon of the patron saint, singing songs in Spanish, led by a mariachi band. Inside the sanctuary, dancers in red moved to the beat of a drum, and the priest gave a blessing to the children.

Hispanics make up one of the largest ethnic groups in St. Louis. But compared to national population trends, and the population of other Midwestern cities, relatively few Latinos call St. Louis home.

For the feast day crowd at Holy Trinity, family and economic opportunity seem to be the twin ties that drew people to the region.

Field worker Jose Sanchez, for example, said he moved to St. Louis from Mexico because it was difficult to support his family there.

“Why do I live in St. Louis? Because it is beautiful and because of the economic situation in Mexico,” Sanchez said in Spanish, leaning against a wall in the parish hall where everyone gathered for lunch after mass.

At a table nearby, Alberto Cortez said his family lives in St. Louis because the Hispanic community here has been very welcoming. He’s a restaurant worker from El Salvador.

“We’ve seen that it’s a very pretty place to live,” Cortez said in Spanish. “The authorities respect us. In the area where I live — I live in Bridgeton — the police are very friendly and helpful.”

Ana Rivera works at her family's bakery on Cherokee Street, where the concha pastry is a favorite.
Credit Camille Phillips | St.Louis Public Radio
Ana Rivera works at her family's bakery on Cherokee Street, where the concha pastry is a favorite.

Drive 18 miles south of St. Ann to Cherokee Street, and Mexican business owners also say family and economic opportunity brought them to — and keep them in — St. Louis.

Bernabe “Chico” Rivera opened El Chico Bakery in 1998 after retiring from the American Can Company. He followed his brother to St. Louis when Rivera was in his 20s.

Standing in the sugar-sweet air in front of a display of colorful cookies, Rivera’s 30-year-old daughter, Ana, said family is the number one reason she lives in St. Louis. Born and raised in south St. Louis, Ana compared her family to another sweet treat.

“Kind of like gum, where I try to move away and it kind of just brings me back to my family,” she said with a laugh.

Numbers and Causes  

According to the latest Census numbers, there are more than 75,000 Hispanics in the St. Louis Metropolitan Area. That's not an insignificant number, but it's small enough to represent less than 3 percent of the region’s 2.8 million people. Kansas City has twice as many Latinos — about 8 percent of the Kansas City metropolitan Area. Hispanics make up almost 17 percent of the national population.

Why is the nation’s largest minority so under-represented in St. Louis? Experts interviewed for this story cited a small immigrant population, a lack of concentrated Hispanic neighborhoods, migratory patterns and  job opportunity as contributing factors. 


Routinized Industries

Recent immigrants who don't speak much English are less likely to move to St. Louis because the region doesn't offer as many jobs focused on repetitive actions or routines, said International Institute President Anna Crosslin.

Instead, said Crosslin, they are attracted to areas in Missouri and Illinois with economies focused on agriculture, tourism and meat packing.

"They are routinized industries, where you really only need to speak a minimum amount of English to be able to do the job. You can learn a function and perform it over and over again," Crosslin said. "If you look historically at meat processing, at chicken processing, at any of those kinds of industries, what you find is that immigrants have always been heavily employed within them."

Anti-Immigrant Reputation

For Saint Louis University Professor Ness Sandoval, Missouri’s anti-immigrant reputation is the primary cause.

“If you go to New York, you go to Miami, you go to Chicago and you talk about St. Louis, more often than not people will say, 'Oh, that’s in Missouri right? That’s an anti-immigrant state,'” Sandoval said.

Sandoval studies the demographics of Latinos and immigrants. He said the low cost of living and free cultural amenities make St. Louis a great place for immigrants to live. However, Missouri’s reputation as an anti-immigrant state — propelled by what he called a history of anti-immigration bills introduced in Jefferson City — stops more immigrants from moving here.

At an after-hours mixer sponsored by the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, Monsanto strategy director Luis Copeland agreed that St. Louis is better than its reputation.

Luis Copeland, center, speaks with other people at the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce Business After Hours mixer.
Credit Camille Phillips | St.Louis Public Radio
Luis Copeland, center, speaks with other people at the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce Business After Hours mixer.

“I find that St. Louis is underrated. It is not Chicago, it is not New York, it is not San Francisco. But for the size that it is, there is so much (to do),” Copeland said, speaking over the murmur of 60 some-odd voices at an upper-level bar in Ballpark Village.

Originally from Mexico, Copeland's job with Monsanto has taken him and his family to seven cities in 16 years. Copeland said that when he first moved to St. Louis almost a year ago, he was warned that people had strong opinions about immigration laws.

"We heard that. I haven't seen or felt anything.  On the contrary, we've seen people extremely curious about ourselves, in terms of where we're from," Copeland said. 

"People (in St. Louis) are extremely friendly," he added. "A little bit hard sometimes to penetrate into deep relationships. So, you need to work on that a little bit more. And I understand why. There's a lot of people who grew up here and they have families here so they don't have the need to seek out for more." 

Chicken and Egg

Immigrants comprise about 4.5 percent of the St. Louis Metropolitan Area, with people born in Mexico making up the largest immigrant group. There are also substantial numbers of people born in Bosnia, China and India in the region. All told, about one in five immigrants in the St. Louis Metropolitan Area are Hispanic. Experts said that the diverse spread of countries of origin — with few strong concentrations — is another reason why some immigrants don't move to the region. 

After a 2012 study found that attracting more immigrants could spur economic growth, St. Louis civic and business leaders began a recruitment initiative called the Mosaic Project. That same study found that St. Louis has a smaller immigrant population than other cities about its size.

Sandoval is an advisor for the project. He believes that St. Louis has the potential to attract more immigrants.

“This is the chicken versus the egg," Sandoval said."Do they come and create the jobs? If the immigrants come, they will create the jobs. The immigrants just are not coming. They’re going to Miami. They’re going to Houston. They’re going to Dallas. And so you see tremendous job growth there,” Sandoval said.

University of Missouri-St. Louis professor Mark Tranel, however, doesn't see how more immigrants will be attracted to the region unless St. Louis develops a more active economy first. 

Tranel co-authored an update to the study that the Mosaic Project cites as the basis of its work. He believes the economy could prevent the project from being successful.

“The issue is what’s going to drive that sudden increase (in job growth)?” Tranel said. “Right now, we’re sort of at an equilibrium. There is economic expansion in St. Louis. There are new jobs that are created. It’s just that the rate, the level that is created is not much beyond what local demand can supply.”

So, will more immigrants create more jobs, or are more jobs needed to attract more immigrants? The Mosaic Project is betting on the first option, and is seeking ways to make St. Louis more welcoming and attractive to immigrants by recruiting immigrant ambassadors and working to increase educational and economic opportunities for immigrants.

In the meantime, Hispanic civic leaders such as Jaime Torres are working to educate St. Louisans about the variety and beauty of Latino cultures.

Torres moved to the Metro East in 1985, when the air force stationed him at Scott Air Force Base. As a U.S. citizen from Puerto Rico, Torres was drafted into the military in 1966.

Jaime Torres, left, and Tony Maldonado have both been active in numerous Hispanic civic and culture groups in St. Louis for decades.
Credit Camille Phillips | St.Louis Public Radio
Jaime Torres, left, and Tony Maldonado have both been active in numerous Hispanic civic and culture groups in St. Louis for decades.

Soon after Torres moved to Illinois, he was tapped to organize the base’s Hispanic Heritage Month. He’s been an ambassador of Latino cultures ever since, helping form the Hispanic Leadership Group in the 80s and serving on several boards.

“Prejudice can only be fought with education,” Torres said. To him, the only way to counter misperception is to teach people about Puerto Rico, Mexico, El Salvador and all the other countries that St. Louis Latinos once called home.

Follow Camille Phillips on Twitter: @cmpcamille.