The St. Louis region is already home for many Latinos and more are moving here
The overall population in the St. Louis region has barely budged in the past 10 years, but there has been robust growth in minority communities, particularly Latinos.
Their population grew nearly 50% in the past decade across the 14-county St. Louis region defined by the U.S. Census Bureau, adding about 35,000 people to eclipse 100,000.
Latinos were one of the only groups to add people in every part of the region.
Hispanic vs. Latino?
The U.S. Census groups “Hispanic or Latino” together in its datasets, but there is a difference in the labels. Hispanic refers to people and cultures relating to the Spanish language. In this story we’ll primarily use Latino, an umbrella term for people in the United States of Latin American descent, but there isn’t universal agreement over the correct term to group Americans from the Latin-American diaspora together. Others prefer “Latinx,” a gender-neutral version of “Latino.”
You can learn more about the history of those relatively recently coined terms from NPR’s Code Switch.
The most recent census results also build on a trend from 2000 to 2010, where the percentage of Latinos in the region roughly doubled. Most of the growth in the past 20 years has come in Madison, St. Clair, St. Charles and St. Louis counties and St. Louis, where Latino residents now account for more than 5% of the city’s population.
There are a variety of reasons for the influx, but many are practical.
“The lower cost of living, amazing educational opportunities as well as professional opportunities,” said Gabriela Ramírez-Arellano, director of entrepreneurship for the Cortex Innovation Community, in listing some of the most popular reasons.
The “small but mighty” community is contributing to a growing vibrancy in the region’s economic development, she said.
“The Hispanic population in the metro area is majority professional,” Ramírez-Arellano said. “People are coming here because of their jobs or because they come to a university and they decide to stay and make a living and raise their family here.”
There’s good support for Latinos looking to start a business in the St. Louis region, Ramírez-Arellano said.
Lusnail Rondon Haberberger tapped into these resources after moving to the area from Rochester, New York, in 2015. She started LUZCO Technologies in 2017 and has found considerable success contracting with Ameren to help design and maintain the local electric grid.
Rondon Haberberger had aspirations to start her own business, especially after earning an MBA in addition to a master's in electrical engineering from the University of California-Los Angeles, she said.
Running her own company was a way to add flexibility between work and spending time with her kids, she said. Rondon Haberberger added that she and her husband decided it made the most sense to relocate to the town he grew up in.
She admits the move to St. Louis was scary, but after nearly six years here, the Venezuelan native has found roots in the community.
“Caracas is a place I was born and raised, and it is my first home,” Rondon Haberberger said. “St. Louis is my second one. The Arch now has become a symbol for home to me.”
While it required considerable effort on her end, Rondon Haberberger found many people and organizations ready to support her when she first started her company.
“There are a lot of free resources for entrepreneurs from how to do your business plan, how to do your accounting, marketing or even recruiting,” Rondon Harberberger said. “How many Latinas do you know that are engineers? That are even in a C-suite position? That are entrepreneurs? The percentage is very low.”
Organizations like the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Metropolitan St. Louis have been instrumental in her success, referring many people to work for her company, she said. Of the 50 people she employs, 17 are first-generation immigrants, 11 are Latino, and 21 are from minority communities, Rondon Haberberger added.
“I feel like I’m a trailblazer; I can make an impact,” she said. “I can actually attract more Latinos to come here. We might not be Los Angeles, we might not be Miami, but we’re growing.”
The move to the St. Louis region can be jarring for some Latinos, though, especially if they’re relocating from parts of the country or world with much more diversity.
“I was familiar with the Midwest, but moving from Florida to here, that was already going to be a bit of a culture shock,” said Julio Suarez, who leads community affairs at Anheuser-Busch. “While the diversity of St. Louis is evolving and growing, frankly I think it’s been a very Black and white community.”
Suarez arrived in St. Louis in the middle of 2014 and said he spent a lot of time at work in his early years in the region. There wasn’t a large Latino population at Anheuser-Busch, but he sought out those connections when he could, he said.
“I became aware of three ladies who had relocated from our Modelo company in Mexico to St. Louis,” Suarez said. “There was something I was craving, whether it was the food, the music, conversations about other parts of the world. It’s hard to put my pulse on it other than the fact that I was missing something.”
That first connection eventually grew into a monthly luncheon, as Suarez quickly discovered more Latinos both inside and outside of work, he said.
“I sought them out and ended up starting a Latino employee resource group,” he said, “not just in St. Louis but within Anheuser-Busch.”
Suarez, who is originally from Panama, said the community and culture he’s a part of is powerful.
“For me, leveraging the fact that I speak Spanish and English is a great value not only for me professionally but also for this company,” he said. “And it’s not just about being bilingual, it’s about being bicultural.”
It’s also one of the aspects of the St. Louis region that Norma Vega appreciates most, especially for her children.
“For example, the Day of the Dead tradition that Mexicans have. That doesn’t mean Thanksgiving shouldn’t be experienced,” she said. “On the contrary, they live here. They are also Americans.”
Vega moved to Fairmont City 18 years ago from central Mexico and said the largely immigrant village embraces her family.
“Fairmont City knows there are many Hispanics here and they have ways to help us,” she said. “They make you feel at home. They see you as a part of the community.”
And that’s nothing new for this small slice of the St. Louis region that has been majority Latino for decades.
“We’ve always been a community to welcome the immigrant, help them assimilate,” said Mary Migalla, a former Fairmont City social studies teacher and unofficial town historian.
While the rest of the St. Louis region is currently seeing strong growth among Latino residents, Fairmont City saw that same trend a century ago, Migalla said.
“That’s exactly what happened even back in 1920,” she said. “Between ’20 and ’30 [the Latino population] doubled.”
There was so much growth in Fairmont City that a Mexican American society formed in the city in 1940, Migalla said.
“There were no social programs in those days to help people who were new to Fairmont, new to the United States,” she said. “So this group of Mexican leaders started this program.”
Persistent struggles with language
Despite living in the United States for nearly two decades, Vega said immigrants like her face struggles achieving the American Dream, especially because of how many daily activities in St. Louis require being proficient in English.
“You can learn, ‘Give me one number 1’ and you won't be left hungry, but when it’s medical questions, legal questions, you need someone to help you,” she said, reminiscing on a time when she couldn’t get medicine for her daughter because of language barriers. “It’s frustrating. You want to start crying seeing your daughter sick and you’re not able to buy her medicine.”
While this has been a persistent issue in the region, Ramírez-Arellano said the coronavirus pandemic drove the point home that local governments need to share messages in more than just English. She co-founded STLJuntos for that reason, to fill the void of solid information about COVID-19 in Spanish.
“We definitely cannot wait around to put an emphasis on this kind of outreach,” Ramírez-Arellano said.
The language barrier for Spanish speakers also likely contributed to fewer Latinos across the region responding to the most recent census, she added, meaning the growth has been even larger.
“I definitely think there’s an undercount,” Ramírez-Arellano said. “Especially when you look at the number of people that we saw coming out once the pandemic started to some of the food distribution sites we were able to do.”
It’s something Vega also saw in her community of about 2,300. Many people just didn’t answer, she said.
“There were a lot of rumors and unfortunately here, we hadn’t had the opportunity for [the census] to really be explained,” she said. “For a lot of people, we guide ourselves on the rumors. Things like, ‘Oh, if you give your information on the census, immigration is going to come and take you away.’”
Ramírez-Arellano laments how a depressed Latino response to the census stymies resources for the entire region, like funding for schools, roads and libraries, as well as Latino representation in government.
Other support needed
There are other actions civic leaders can take to support the naturally expanding Latino community beyond providing more access to critical information in Spanish, Ramírez-Arellano said.
“The population is a lot younger, therefore workforce efforts maybe need to change,” she said. “We’re looking at what does the workforce look like in the future, but we’re looking at people that are already adults or people that are in high school.”
The majority of the Latino population in the St. Louis region is younger than 29, with those born in the U.S. trending younger. Across the country, the most common ages for Latino residents span 10-14.
Comparatively, the most common ages for white Americans span the late 50s and early 60s. And the most common ages for Black Americans are the mid-to-late 20s.
The growth in the Latino community will continue to be reflected in the professional population in 20 years, Rondon Haberberger said, adding she wants those children to someday be running companies like hers.
“I want those 11-year-old [Latino] kids to be the engineers working on my system 20-30 years from now,” she said.
While her personal journey to success as a Latina has been challenging, Rondon Haberberger said the community and support in St. Louis has helped her in every step along the way.
“For the Latino community, my message would be that it is possible,” she said. “If you have a dream, there are ways to achieve it. And if you don't know how, but you have even an idea, seek help because there are many people who are willing to do so.”
Eric Schmid covers the Metro East for St. Louis Public Radio as part of the journalism grant program: Report for America, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project.
Brian Muñoz is a staff photographer and reporter for St. Louis Public Radio. Follow his work on Twitter: @brianmmunoz