This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 5, 2009 - On a recent weekday evening, about two dozen people gathered at the cozy Nicaraguan restaurant Fritanga to celebrate the inauguration of El Salvador's new president, a leftist former television host named Mauricio Funes.
"It's good to be here to celebrate a happy day," said Marilyn Lorenz, program coordinator of the nonprofit group St. Louis Inter-Faith Committee on Latin America, just moments before reading translated excerpts from the inauguration speech. Her audience was a mix of Central American natives and St. Louis natives who travel frequently to that part of the world. (Lorenz has been to El Salvador 16 times.)
Along with the high-visibility festivals that celebrate Hispanic heritage, these small-group events are a part of community life in neighborhoods across St. Louis.
Soon, a milestone could be reached in this country for Hispanics -- the confirmation of Sonia Sotomayor, the would-be first Hispanic justice on the U.S. Supreme Court. President Barack Obama's nomination of the Bronx-born, Puerto Rican federal appellate judge has put the spotlight on the country's burgeoning Hispanic population.
That spotlight rarely shines on St. Louis's Hispanic community. Haniny Hillberg, a native Bolivian who runs Hispanic Festival Inc., a nonprofit that coordinates festivals and other community events, has one explanation for the lack of attention. St. Louis, unlike Kansas City and other medium-sized cities, doesn't have a barrio.
"We have pockets here and there, but we aren't concentrated in one area," Hillberg said. "That's why you don't notice [the Hispanic population] as much."
Those pockets include Cherokee Street, a neighborhood known for its Mexican eateries and antique shops, as well as Florissant and other parts of North St. Louis County. Hillberg said she's noticed an increasing Mexican community in St. Anne.
Jorge Riopedre, president of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Metropolitan St. Louis, said St. Charles has been particularly welcoming to Hispanic residents. Other cities in western St. Louis County, along with Metro East towns such as Granite City and Collinsville, also have clusters of Spanish-speaking natives.
Whether this geographic dispersal is a positive attribute of Hispanic life in this city depends on one's priorities.
"The thing about St. Louis is that people can blend into the neighborhoods," Lorenz said. "On the one hand you don't get the support from the barrio, but you're also not as identifiable and it can be easier to assimilate."
The Push for Census Accuracy
Just how many Hispanic people live in the St. Louis area is uncertain. The 2000 Census showed fewer than 28,000 Hispanic people living in St. Louis, St. Louis County, St. Charles County and Jefferson County combined. That amounted to about 1 percent of the total population.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau's 2005-2007 American Community Survey estimate, 9,100 people in the city and roughly 20,500 people in St. Louis County reported themselves as Hispanic or Latino. In each case, that's about 2 percent of the overall population.
It's widely acknowledged, however, that these statistics underreport the Hispanic population. Riopedre said the estimate often cited for both documented and undocumented Hispanics in the St. Louis region is between 80,000 and 90,000.
There are plenty of reasons the current data miss the mark. There's a fear among some Hispanic residents that filling out any kind of form increases their chances of being subject to government scrutiny. Catholic churches, for instance, have long been frustrated by Hispanic congregants who are actively involved but don't register with the church, Riopedre said. A secondary reason, he explained, is that responding to population surveys or other kinds of paperwork isn't part of the Hispanic way of life.
But there's an effort underway to get a more accurate count for the 2010 Census. Bret Bender, partnership specialist with the U.S. Census Bureau, said the agency is relying heavily on partner organizations such as churches, chambers of commerce and tiendas (stores) to help collect more complete data.
"They are the trusted voices in the communities they serve," Bender said in an e-mail. "It is them and not us that will convince individuals to fill out their forms."
Bender said that many Hispanic groups are pleased that for the first time ever people will be able to fill in their ethnicity on the census form. In past years, Hispanic residents were given four options: Mexican, Cuban, Puerto Rican and other.
Census questionnaires will also be available in Spanish. The forms aren't being mailed to households in St. Louis, but sites where people can find these forms will be publicized, according to Bender.
The Hispanic population stands to benefit from a more accurate -- and inevitably larger -- count. One example: Government services that require Spanish interpreters can be understaffed because census data don't show a need for more interpreters in the area.
Congress uses census data to distribute $300 billion in domestic spending a year, Bender said. The results of the 2010 survey will help Congress, the state legislature, local governments and corporations make spending decisions for the next decade.
"It's important we do this process right," Bender said. "This is the figure seen by governments allocating scarce resources, human resources departments trying to adhere to affirmative action plans, new immigrants considering a move to the St. Louis area, marketers, and countless other groups, individuals and organizations that use Census data occasionally or as part of their everyday lives."
A Diverse Population
While an accurate population count is missing, Riopedre says with confidence that St. Louis' Hispanic population is overwhelmingly (he estimates about 80 percent) Mexican. People of Central American heritage come in a distant second, he said.
Riopedre said the region's Hispanic population used to be more transitional or seasonal but now consists largely of families who have settled here. "People talk about St. Louis being a great place to raise a family, and that's at the top of the list for Hispanics," he said.
Lorenz said there are representatives from the majority of Spanish-speaking countries living in St. Louis. A large swath of people from Colombia, Venezuela and Chile, for instance, moved here in the 1950s and '60s and have raised their families here.
"People get this idea that everyone who's Hispanic is poor and new to the country," she said. "That's just not true. There are people here with all kinds of backgrounds and professional training."
That's evident from the Professional Latino Action Network, a group that includes the sons and daughters of immigrants as well as people with advanced degrees who have moved here for career reasons. Lorenz, who attends many of the network's meetings, said that while not everyone who attends is Hispanic, those who are represent fields like social services, banking and insurance.
Russ Signorino, a labor analyst and vice president of research at United Way of Greater St. Louis, said much of the immigrant population in St. Louis is professional and highly trained. Hispanics have been among those recruited by companies or seeking out better career opportunities.
Hugo Villegas, a Colombian native, moved to St. Louis in 1998 for a job as an architect. He now manages a website that lists information about restaurants, festivals and other happenings in both English and Spanish. He's also president of the Colombian Society, a social group that meets several times a year.
Slow Job Growth, Then a Bust
Villegas estimates that roughly 700 Colombians live in St. Louis. Many are recent arrivals, and some came here as refugees.
For many of these recent immigrants, St. Louis has not been an easy place to find a job. Signorino said the St. Louis area hasn't experienced much job growth over the past 20 years.
"This is an issue that affects many people coming into the country with few job skills," Signorino said. "If you're an immigrant who's here legally or illegally, you're going to be attracted to the places where you have the highest chances of getting a job."
In rural areas, agricultural jobs have been a mainstay. But in St. Louis, jobs such as construction have often been out of reach. Historically, these positions have been highly unionized, meaning that if you're a new immigrant and haven't gone through an apprenticeship program to become a union member before coming to St. Louis, chances of getting a construction job are limited, Signorino said.
In a good economy, when residential construction was booming, there was more work than labor available, so Hispanic immigrants made inroads. But during the recession, those jobs have largely dried up.
"People looking for blue-collar jobs are to a great extent the ones who aren't being attracted because of slow growth and the recent bust," he said.