How Latinos are changing the Midwest’s economy for the better

June 13, 2011

By Niala Boodhoo

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(WBEZ/Niala Boodhoo)
Aurora is one example of a Midwestern city experiencing an increase in their Hispanic population.

Recent census reports show Midwestern cities are shrinking and people are moving out. But at least one group is growing - the Hispanic population. For the series Changing Gears, Niala Boodhoo reports that’s a good thing for our region and our economy.

Drive down the main strip of Aurora, Illinois, a town about 50 miles west of Chicago, and strip malls like the “Plaza del Sol” are a common sight on the landscape. In the 2010 census, Aurora ranked as the state’s second most populous town – a jump boosted by the growth in the Latino population.

“Aurora’s like Little Mexico,” said Javier Galvez, who’s a month away from opening his pizza shop on the corner of New York and Lake Street in downtown Aurora.

“Everybody stops here. They’re going to take their chances here first to start their business because they know that [in] a 40 mile radius or more, there are going to be towns they can take advantage of,” Galvez added.

Aurora actually extends into four counties – two of them, Will and Kendall, had explosive population growth in the past decade.

Even if Aurora is not as well-known as other Hispanic enclaves like Chicago’s Little Village or Pilsen, its population goes back generations. (I did a story last fall looking at small businesses in Little Village.)

Galvez came to Aurora when he was two years old because his father got a job working for Burlington Northern, laying railroad track across Illinois.

Galvez started in industry, too. He worked his way up at Caterpillar, where he started on the floor, building excavators, but moved into employee training and logistics.

Then two years ago, he was laid off. So now he’s using those management and logistics skills to run the restaurant, Spizzico, which has already found success in its first location in Elwood Park.

Galvez said their slogan – “the best pizza for the best price” – is especially suited for large, Latino families looking for a bargain.

“I know that everybody says that restaurants and everything are the first to flop,” Galvez said, “But you never know if you don’t take that chance, right?

He’s not the only one.

According to the Aurora Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, one out of every two businesses in Aurora are Hispanic-owned. Executive Director Norma Vazquez describes the growth as “unstoppable”.

In the three years since Vazquez become executive director, the chamber’s membership has gone from 50 to 342 members.

One of the Hispanic-owned businesses that’s been around for a while is Frank’s Digital Printing.

While the recession has been hard on the business, owner Frank Garcia said he still gets lots of new business from other Hispanic entrepreneurs who come to him to have their new signs and fliers printed.

Frank’s oldest brother, Manuel Jr., said that when their family moved to Aurora, there were probably just ten others.

That was a 100 years ago, when Burlington Northern recruited Mexicans, including Manuel Sr., to work on the rail lines.

Many lived in boxcars because they weren’t allowed to live in town. Frank told me he remembers as a kid visiting his uncle who lived in a boxcar.

Frank and Manuel Jr. are two of nine children. A few generations later, the entire Garcia family numbers almost 80. They all still live in Aurora, where the Latino population makes up almost half of the 200,000 or so people.

The Garcias are part of a nation-wide Hispanic population boom that happened between the 2000 and 2010 census.

For the first time in fifty years, there were more Hispanic births than immigration.

The Hispanic population across the Midwest is still small compared to traditional population centers in the southwest and Florida.

But here, Latino growth stands in stark contrast to declines among white and African-American populations.

A few hundred miles away in South Bend, Indiana, Allert Brown Gort has been studying the economic impact of these ethnic encalves.

Gort is the associate director at the University of Notre Dame’s Institute for Latino Studies. He told me while Latino households are still mostly low-income, they have a greater economic impact than other poor American households.

“What we see is a difference in how money is spent and on what things money is spent on,” he said.

That’s in part because Latino households are larger, and have more wage earners, because children tend to stay at home longer.

The Institute has researched how Latino households also have more spending power in two key ways: more money goes towards buying food and clothes, and more of those purchases are made at small, mom and pop stores owned by people who also live in the same neighborhood – so the money stays within the community.

“There is a lot more local shopping, there are lot more small businesses that are being maintained through the shopping,” Gort said.

Hispanic enclaves are popping up in places you might not expect – outside of cities like Indianapolis, Columbus, and Detroit.

Melvindale, Michigan, is just south of Dearborn, home to the largest Arab-American community in the Midwest.

On Oakwood Blvd., not far from the police department, the ivy green awning outside the Town Market grocery store is in three languages: English, Arabic – and Spanish.

Inside, cans of fava beans are stacked next to salsa and refried beans. There is pita bread, and tortillas.

“I was thinking it was going to be an Arabic store,” owner Faoud Waseem said.

Waseem moved to Melvindale from Dearborn because he knew a lot of Arabic newspapers were setting up shop here, and lots of his fellow Yemenis were buying houses.

“But when I got here, a lot of Spanish started moving here and they started asking me to bring their products here,” said Waseem.

Before he came to Melvindale, he didn’t have a clue what a tortilla was. But his customers made sure he learned – they would bring in cans from home, and tell them this is what they needed in the store. He called the companies and found distributors who could provide the food they wanted.

Now, Latinos make up about 20 percent of his customer base. He’s even hired a Spanish-speaking clerk.

It’s not just Melvindale.

In other Detroit suburbs like Lincoln Park and Allen Park, the Hispanic population has expanded in the past ten years from southwest Detroit.

“The Latino community in Detroit everybody knows each other – it’s pretty small,” said Angie Reyes, the Detroit Hispanic Development Corporation’s Executive Director. She’s spent her entire life in Detroit.

“About five, six years ago, at the Cinco de Mayo parade, we’re looking at the people and we’re going, who are all these people? Because we saw so many new faces.”

She said that’s when she started to realize how much the Latino population had exploded in recent years.

Michigan is the only state that lost population in the census. Reyes pointed out had it not been for the 30 percent increase in Latinos throughout Michigan — the overall population decline of Detroit – and the state – would have been even worse.

The Hispanic Development Corporation offices are off Trumbull Street near downtown, in a neighborhood where Dominican hair salons are just as common as Mexican taqueiras.

Reyes said these businesses often start small, but then they grow – like her own nonprofit, which she started in her house.

“You’ll see a little shack, then it’s brick, then it’s a two story building, then the next thing you know they’re have another location that’s down the street,” she said.

 

That presence is starting to get noticed. More and more business owners from the rest of the city are now coming to the center to sign up for Spanish classes.

And Reyes said as others start to recognize the role her community is playing not just in Detroit, but the region’s economy, they’re starting to refer to Latinos as the “silent giant”.

Changing Gears explores the future of the industrial Midwest. The series is a public media collaboration between WBEZ, Michigan Radio, and Ideastream in Cleveland. Support for Changing Gears comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
 

 

Conrad Herwig, "Adam's Apple", from the CD The Latin Side of Wayne Shorter, (Half Note)