Missouri's Latino population has boomed. So why did the state's Hispanic commission disappear?
Hispanic Missourians used to have advocates built into the state government thanks to the bipartisan Governor’s Commission of Hispanic Affairs. It was introduced in 2003. About four years later, it basically disappeared.
It’s been fourteen years since the state has had a functional governor-appointed commission assigned to address issues facing Hispanic and Latino Missourians. Also since then, that population has seen a more than 40% increase.
'Barely scratching the surface'
At the Business After Hours social hosted by the St. Louis Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, attendees chatted, employing their own version of Spanglish and talked about their homes. Colombia, Cuba, Mexico.
Luís Antonio Bañuelos Serrano moved to St. Louis one year ago from Mexico City. He opened an accounting support and consulting business that provides services in Spanish.
"Meeting people, coming here, etc. talking, is something very exciting," he said in Spanish after stepping away from networking. "Since people start to know what benefits, what opportunities they can have, and especially getting to take advantage [of opportunities], right?"
Bañuelos Serrano and other attendees said events like these—that support Hispanic communities—are integral to their professional and personal growth. Attendees like Gabriela Ramírez-Arellano. She is an entrepreneur, executive director for the Center for Emerging Technologies and director of entrepreneurship at Cortex Innovation Community and language-access advocate who said there’s a need for more state efforts like these. [Editor's note: Ramírez-Arellano is also the co-host of St. Louis Public Radio's We Live Here Auténtico podcast.]
“One-hundred percent we need to do more. I mean, we’re barely, like, scratching the surface on the needs," she said.
Ramírez-Arellano served on Gov. Mike Parson’s Show Me Strong Recovery Task Force last year. It was created by executive order to alleviate some disproportionate pandemic pressures on underrepresented business owners.
“For me, it was important to be at that table to advocate for, like the struggles that we have," she said.
That executive order mentioned something called the Hispanic Business, Trade and Culture Commission. That was active under former Gov. Matt Blunt. It was earlier known as the Missouri Governor’s Commission on Hispanic Affairs under Blunt’s predecessor Bob Holden.
According to a nonactive website link to its former website, the Commission's responsibilities include "but are not limited to, gathering and disseminating information concerning matters relevant to the economic needs of Hispanic businesses; monitoring legislative issues pertaining to the Hispanic business community; submitting recommendations concerning business development issues relevant to Hispanic Missourians and, when appropriate, recommending legislative initiatives. The Commission shall also help to identify and facilitate foreign and domestic investment opportunities for companies of Hispanic origin."
It still served a similar purpose to Holden's Commission, with an extra emphasis on business. But after 2008, documents show the Commission stopped meeting.
Beatriz Calmet-Chinn visibly deflated when she heard the news: "Oh my goodness! They don’t? So that just segued into nothing."
She had served as a commissioner based in Columbia. Acting as a commissioner for the Governor's Commission on Hispanic Affairs was just one way she advocated for Spanish-speaking and Latino communities. On top of being a medical interpreter with MU Health, she filled a resource gap by creating a directory, El PuenteBridge, of Hispanic and Latino-owned businesses with the intention to connect them with Anglo communities and vice versa. (Puente means 'bridge' in Spanish, so putting the two phrases together, Calmet-Chinn said, exemplified its goal.)
Calmet-Chinn called her extra projects "gravy on the mashed potato," but unfortunately, she and her family decided she needed to step back from her unpaid, directory work and focus on her job in insurance. That job eventually moved her to Texas, where she said Hispanic communities are "more established" than those of Missouri. So there isn't as much of a need for her individual advocacy work.
“Too bad that the commission is no longer together," she said. "That’s really sad, actually. Because they need a voice.”
The Commission was ultimately created by the governor's office, but written and researched by two individuals: Carlos F. Orta and Ezekiel Amador. The last documented time the Commission met was in 2008. It was technically still in existence after that, but activity stopped some time during the transition to the Jay Nixon administration. Some commissioners were assigned in 2008, but there were no documented meetings set or directives from the Governor’s office about what commission responsibilities would be. Six years later in 2014, Nixon lessened it to a committee. That expired within the year.
Orta said there’s less government influence associated with a committee.
“If you don’t have a voice, and the government doesn’t know about this population, they’re going to be left out of opportunities. Not because people don’t care, they just don’t know," he said.
Orta worked with Amador and the rest of the commission to prepare annual reports throughout the years they were active, which they then presented to legislators. Their goal was to act as a direct link to law makers and show how Latinos were contributing to education, economic activity, health care and business. At the public meetings they hosted, members of the public were invited to discuss what they still needed in those areas.
Former Kansas City-based commissioner Jeanette Prenger said in an email she stopped receiving any commission-related communication when Nixon took office.
Jorge Riopedre, who served as the president for the St. Louis Hispanic Chamber of Commerce during that time, said in an email he was asked to be on the commission by a state representative, but didn't hear anything back after that.
In their preliminary research, the creators of Missouri’s former commission found states surrounding Missouri have pretty successful Hispanic and/or Latino commissions: Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas, Illinois.
"So there are commissions around Missouri, but not in Missouri," Orta said.
"We're not recreating the wheel. You know, this is something people have done for a long time," Amador added.
Like Iowa’s Commission of Latino Affairs. Among other things, they helped establish a statewide helpline called La Linea de Ayuda—where Spanish speakers can get resource help. Caleb Knutson has been its chair for more than two years. He encouraged Missouri to bring back a governor-appointed commission.
"Those states in those communities, especially Latino populations, like you have a voice. You have purpose. You are contributing members of your community," he said.
He said the fact that Iowa’s Latinos have a commission “gives them teeth.”
“If we were just some committee that got put together, some nonprofit, I mean, that’s us on our own legs," Knutson explained. "But when people hear that we are governor appointed, and we get an official letter and an email with the stamp and seal, that matters. People care about that.”
Both Amador and Orta said they are willing to help whoever steps up to start a commission again. Amador is currently working with community leaders in the hopes they will take it upon themselves to run the commission recreation.
"Somebody has to drive it, right? Somebody has to own it. So it was Carlos [Orta] and myself who owned it. He was the lobby part, I was the research part," Amador said.
The 53-year old father of twins had stepped back from the Commission during the Blunt administration to act as advisor when needed. He did so to take time to focus on his family and career. His and others' roles on the Commission was entirely volunteer-based. He explained it really comes down to individuals to push for the legislation to bring it back. He said he hopes speaking about the history of the Commission will "spark" others to revamp it, especially since there's already a template.
St. Louis resident and Spanish language advocate Gabriela Ramírez-Arellano said she is trying.
She co-founded STL Juntos, a volunteer-based advocacy group that works to provide information to Spanish-speaking communities and continues to amplify other Spanish-speaking entrepreneurs through her work.
“I would welcome the opportunity, not only for me, but who I can bring to the table," she said. "To be able to be at the table, and provide and share some of those experiences as challenges or as best practices, it helps the state actually acknowledge and realize that there are other people besides English speakers that they need to help.”
Gov. Parson’s office pointed out that they have appointed Hispanic Missourians to several other active commissions. But as of now, there hasn’t been any major development to reestablish a state commission designated for Missouri’s Hispanic and Latino communities. The only hint of its existence continues to live within dead hyperlinks and past memories.
This story was produced through a reporting collaboration between KBIA and Missouri Business Alert. Missouri Business Alert is a digital newsroom that covers business news across Missouri.