COLUMBIA — On Columbia’s Paris Road, on the same block as a Gerbes and a Dollar General store, there is a very different kind of market.
The bright yellow sign with multiple colors of lettering reads “Los Cuates — Family Restaurant — Mexican Food.” Below, in smaller writing, it says “Taqueria — Carniceria — Ropa Vaquera.” “Tacos. Meat Market. Western Wear.”
Inside, nearly every product the store offers is imported from Mexico or another Latin American country. There are shelves full of brightly colored Mexican sweets, bags of dried chiles and can after can of seemingly endless kinds of beans.
In the back, there are racks of cowboy boots and hats, as well as a collection of soccer, or “fútbol,” jerseys. Spices are labeled in Spanish and English — both “Menta” and “Mint” — and bottles of “Maestro Limpio” share a shelf with one or two bottles of “Mr. Clean.” Even the Coca-Cola in the coolers is labeled “Hecho en Mexico.”
Upstairs, in the Mexican restaurant that is also called Los Cuates and owned by the same people, customers come in ordering traditional Mexican food and chat with the hostess, their Spanish conversation blending in with the cheerful Spanish music that plays throughout the room. The large room is decorated with the red, white and green of the Mexican flag, while flags from other Latin American countries hang over the far windows. The cooler next to the door contains Mexican sodas; several of the green-clothed tables have their own bottles of hot sauce.
Francisco J. Garcia was born in Mexico, but he and his family have owned and operated Los Cuates in Columbia for eight years. Garcia likes Columbia, saying it's a calm and pretty city. Most Hispanic people, he said, move here to find jobs, but others are simply looking for a better life. Most find it, he said. He thinks the Hispanic population is happy here.
Apparently so. The number of Hispanic people has grown an astonishing 115 percent in the past 10 years, according to data from the 2010 census.
In 2000, there were 1,733 Hispanic people in Columbia. That was about 2.05 percent of the city’s population. Today, there are 3,729 Hispanic residents, or 3.4 percent of the population — an increase of 1,996 people. It's worth noting that the census counts both legal and undocumented immigrants.
Domingo Martínez is director of MU’s Cambio Center, which does "research and outreach on Latinos and changing communities in Missouri," the center's website says.
Martínez said the “driving majority” of the Midwest's Hispanic population comes from Mexico. But people also are coming from the southwestern United States. Many are Spanish-speakers, and many are U.S. nationals. Some come to the Midwest to raise their children in a safer environment, he said, but jobs are the main reason they come here.
The overall population in Missouri — and in the Midwest — is getting older, Martinez said. There has been an increase in the population older than 45 and a decline in the population younger than 45. Because some “baby boomers” no longer can perform intense labor, he said, many younger Hispanic people are moving here to do it. The main jobs they come for are in meat-packing plants, hospitality, construction and farm work, Martínez said.
According to census data from 2000 and estimates from the 2009 American Community Survey, the Midwest's non-Hispanic population younger than 45 decreased by about 2.6 million, while the Hispanic population of the same age group increased by about 900,000, Martínez said.
Historically, Martínez said, migration occurs when a younger and poorer nation neighbors one that is older and wealthier. It's a demographic move based on labor supply and demand.
The boom in the Hispanic population started in about 1980, he said, and the biggest increase has occurred between 1990 and today. He said the feeling in smaller communities, though not yet confirmed by census data, is that the growth rate since then has been fairly steady, but the recession has caused it to flatten over the past few years.
Alfredo Jimenez, who works at Los Cuates, came to Columbia after family and friends already living here recommended it. He said people who already have come to the United States often suggest to others back in Mexico where to come live and work.
The increase in the Hispanic population is not unique to Columbia. Martínez said every state in the Midwest has seen an increase. Missouri, in fact, has one of the lowest percentages of Hispanic residents among surrounding states.
It's not just an urban migration, Martínez said. “You will find Hispanics, or Latinos, in every county in Missouri.”
Columbia has given rise to several groups over the past decade that strive to work with migrating Hispanics. One of the most prominent is Centro Latino, which provides educational, health and legal services to Columbia residents. It partners with several Columbia health organizations to provide interpreters and help schedule appointments, as well as spreading awareness about obesity and diabetes prevention.
For legal services, it helps clients find attorneys and provides immigration services to the general public, not only the Hispanic population.
Eduardo Crespi came up with the idea for Centro Latino in 1999, when he started an internship with Missouri's Office of Minority Health and realized there were barriers to access to health care in the state.
“I realized that what people needed was a resource center where they could get answers to their questions,” he said. He opened the center in 2000.
Crespi certainly has noticed the increase in the Hispanic population in the past 10 years. For example, when Centro Latino opened, there were 268 Hispanic children in Columbia schools, he said. Today, there are about 800.
The number of people who use the center’s services has been fairly stable, Crespi said, but it has seen more people coming for health assistance in the past two years. The center hasn't made huge operational changes because it is staffed by volunteers and has limited funding.
Still, Crespi said he has plans in place for the next two to five years, and Centro Latino will be ready for whatever happens, whether it gets more money or not.
“We will continue doing the work we are doing, regardless of whether the population increases or not.”
Centro Latino continues to grow. Construction started in July 2009 on Centro Latino’s new permanent home on Garth Avenue. In addition to having room for tutoring and lessons, the new center will also include a kitchen that will offer lessons in healthy cooking, and a small market for fresh fruit and vegetables. It's all part of an initiative to teach clients how to live healthy and prevent obesity and diabetes.
Since Centro Latino opened, Crespi has seen more agencies begin to serve the Hispanic population.
“That’s a good thing, to start something and for the organizations to continue,” he said.
Crespi said Columbia organizations are well prepared to accommodate the increasing numbers of Hispanic people. When the influx started, he said, organizations started making plans and coming up with strategies to help people.
Family Health Center, a federally qualified health-care provider that works to provide primary medical, dental and mental health care to underprivileged people, has seen an increase in the number of Hispanic people it serves, Executive Director Gloria Crull said.
To accommodate those patients, the center’s staff includes an almost full-time doctor who is fluent in Spanish, one nurse fluent in the language and many other employees who speak limited Spanish. One of the people who answers phones at the center is a native Spanish speaker.
When hiring its staff, the health center looks for people who are bilingual, and it sometimes hires local interpreters or uses a phone interpretation service called Language Line for translation.
“It’s expensive to provide those services, but you also end up with better quality of care,” Crull said. Local translators usually charge $32 an hour with a two-hour minimum, though that may vary depending on the person.
Crull said a lot of people have a misinformed notion that people who get care at Family Health Center are on the public dole, but they’re not. Though 25 percent of the center's revenue comes from a federal grant, and 14 percent from state and local grants, funds and donations, the majority, or 61 percent of the revenue, comes from patients. Crull said they appreciate the access to affordable health care and pay their bills.
Martínez said misconceptions often result from a lack of knowledge. So one of the main purposes of the Cambio Center is to exchange knowledge and research best practices, not just for the Hispanic population but for communities as a whole.
For example, he said, multicultural events in the Columbia area often leave out bluegrass and other parts of local culture, which means newcomers are not introduced to local culture. He said everyone should learn about other cultures.
“We don’t need to protect any culture,” he said. “We need to spread cultures.”
Parts of the Hispanic culture are spreading to Columbia’s non-Hispanic residents, too. Jimenez said almost 100 percent of the people who shop at Los Cuates speak Spanish, a figure that includes the American people who come in for sweets, salsas, Mexican Coca-Cola and more. Centro Latino offers Spanish classes for English-speakers, a program Crespi said about eight people are involved in.
Martínez said that the way newcomers to Columbia fit in varies, but from his experience he has seen that children of immigrants are quicker to acquire English skills than past groups have been. There is no evidence that schoolchildren are not learning English, he said.
"Most information suggests that language acquisition is happening in the second generation," Martínez said.
Crespi said that in many of the families who come to Centro Latino, the parents speak limited English, so the center gives them information about programs and events at school.
“We help the parents be part of kids’ education,” he said, making sure they are aware of what is going on in their children’s schools.
Adults can also take English classes at the center, which Crespi said about 10 do.
Garcia and Elizabeth Ramirez, who works in the restaurant above Los Cuates, both said they speak English “un poquito” — a little bit.
Ramirez said it is hard, but she has to learn it to communicate with the English-speakers who visit the restaurant. She has a book that she is using to learn.
Garcia speaks mostly Spanish but knows a little English. Some people don’t like that he doesn’t speak English, but most are friendly. He said it’s necessary to learn English because it’s the language of the country. He’s learning “poco a poco,” little by little, reading or watching television in English or working with his three children, who all speak English.
Ramirez came to the United States from El Salvador three years ago. She did construction work in Alabama for a time, but moved to Columbia along with some of the people she worked with. Her family, including her four children who are 17, 15, 11 and 7, still live in El Salvador. She has not seen them since she came here. It would be very difficult for them to come here, or for her to visit home, but she has phone calls and photos. She sends them some of the money she earns. Eventually, she said, she plans to return to El Salvador.
Like Garcia, Ramirez said she thinks Columbia is pretty. She enjoys the culture and the city's parks. It's also a good place for Hispanic people to live because they can find jobs, she said. She added that the local Hispanic community is united and communicates a lot.
Martínez has noticed the change in the community’s Hispanic population. When he first came to MU, most of the Hispanic people like himself were at MU for academic reasons. Now, he said, they are working in residence halls and doing other maintenance work. Twenty years ago, there were none working in hotels and restaurants; now there are many. Laughing, he recalled a now-closed Chinese restaurant where all the cooks he could see were Hispanic.
One of the easiest ways to see the growth of Columbia’s Hispanic population? Check the phone book. Martínez said he used to be the only Martínez there. Today, there are nine.
Renzo Meneses, a graduate of Rock Bridge High School who works at Columbia’s Taquería El Rodeo, has lived in Columbia for 12 years. He and his sister came here to be with their father, who had moved to Columbia for job opportunities; his father had followed an aunt, who was attending MU. Meneses and his sister had only planned to be in Columbia for a time, but decided to stay because there are more opportunities here, and because Meneses's asthma had improved since he came to the city.
Meneses said people are more open here. If you say hi to them, they’ll say hi back. Columbia is a “perfect little city,” he said, calm and safe and full of opportunities, such as a better education.
Meneses has gone back to visit Peru a few times, but he said it doesn’t feel like home anymore. He belongs in Columbia.
“I feel welcome, I feel like I’m at home,” he said. “If I move, I’ll feel like I’m homesick.”
EDITOR'S NOTE: Interviews with Francisco J. Garcia, Alfredo Jimenez and Elizabeth Ramirez were conducted in Spanish and translated by the reporter.