Cincinnati's Latino Community Goes National

On steamy Thursday nights during summer, revelers spin, strut and sweat their way across Fountain Square to the lively rhythms of a dance form that heralds a sea change rippling through America. Courtesy of Cuba and Puerto Rico, salsa is one of many reminders that the US is becoming increasingly influenced by our neighbors to the south.

"At first it was only a few dozen Hispanics," says Neil Comber, a board member with the Greater Cincinnati Foundation who has over twenty years of experience as an advocate for the Hispanic community in Cincinnati. "Now there are usually several hundred, mostly non-Hispanic, dancing away to live hit salsa bands."

While Cincinnati may not be an enclave for Latin American émigrés on par with Miami or Los Angeles, the city has its fair share of Latino ties. Even former Mexican President Vicente Fox has roots in the Queen City, the birthplace of his paternal grandfather. But the story doesn't end with salsa and El Presidente Fox's family tree.

Today, Cincinnati is home to a vibrant Latino community comprising roughly 2.5 - 3 percent of the city's population, a number that is expected to double by 2030. This figure merely illustrate a much larger trend. At 50.5 million, Latinos now comprise roughly 16 percent of the US population, surpassing African Americans as the largest minority. The implications of this demographic spike are vast. From increased business opportunities and cultural diversity to a newly emerging political voice, the Latino community in Cincinnati and throughout the nation is poised to hold significant sway over the direction of the city, region and ultimately nation in the coming years. 

"The Cincinnati Latino community has grown in numbers and influence significantly over the last 10 years," says Alfonso Cornejo, President of the Hispanic Chamber and one of two organizers of the annual Cincy-Cinco Latino Festival. "With time, you will see Hispanics in more visible positions within the business community as well as within the political arena. The fact that we are now the largest minority in the country brings the awesome responsibility to work as hard as we can."

In 2006 the Hispanic Chamber Cincinnati USA commissioned the University of Cincinnati to do an economic study, updated in 2010, which concludes that local Hispanics contribute more than two billion dollars every year to the local economy. Comber puts this in perspective.

"That is four to five times what the professional sports teams contribute each year," he says. "It almost matches what the airport contributes - though it is likely more now that Delta has cut their flights by two-thirds. Net, Hispanics have a strong contribution to the local economy in sheer numbers."

This summer, from June 27 to July 2, Cincinnati's Latino community will host the annual LULAC National Convention and Exposition, a premier event that beats the drum for all things Latino and is expected to draw a crowd of 15,000. Hosting this major gathering represents a milestone in Cincinnati's relationship to this rapidly growing community, as this premier event does not go to just any city. The task of bringing the convention to Cincinnati has been over four years in the making.

Starting in February 2007, Jason Riveiro, the Ohio State Director and Chair for the convention, and leaders from Cincinnati's Hispanic community and the Cincinnati CVB, set out for San Antonio to make their case before LULAC's National Executive Board. Riveiro followed up this sojourn with personal trips to LULAC conventions in Texas, Arizona, Illinois and Puerto Rico. In the end, Cincinnati's efforts paid off when Riveiro and other Latino movers and shakers shared their vision at the National Convention, beating out contenders such as Dallas and Orlando (Disney).

"Our pitch, at the end of the day, was to show LULAC that their presence in Cincinnati would mean more than going to a traditional Latino destination," says Riveiro, who is also the Publisher and General Manager for local Spanish newspaper La Jornada Latina, which has roughly twelve to fifteen thousand readers every week, and local Spanish radio station La Mega 97.7fm, which has approximately 60,000 listeners. "Ohio is a growing region for Latino immigrants and this is where the organization [LULAC] needed to focus on."

Cornejo adds that bringing the convention "was a need more than a desire. The Midwest is the geographical area of the country that is struggling to accept this new wave of immigrants. Cincinnati is representing the entire Midwest on this struggle."

Indeed, it's fair and obvious to say that immigration is a touchy subject for many. The main issues usually cited include the supposed fact that a large proportion of immigrants are undocumented, and further, that these undocumented residents have become a drain on resources.

Using these assumptions as their premise, a few powerful pundits still expound 'nativist' rhetoric on the airwaves and online. Meanwhile those on the other side of the fence expose the contradictions of the anti-immigration side, in diverse ways, from serious number crunching to parody (e.g., Mexican-American film director Robert Rodriguez's recent 'Mexploitation' film Machete that deals with this topic.

The net result of this war of perceptions has been an image crisis for the Latino community nationwide. However, as more hard data emerges, the picture is becoming clearer.  

"I hope we can move past the negative stereotype that most immigrants in our region are undocumented," Riveiro says. "In fact, figures show that the majority of all immigrants in our region are documented."

A far cry from undocumented, many members of Cincinnati's Latino community have launched substantial ventures, such as Taqueria Mercado and Best Upon Request, and made a sizable impact on the local economy. There are more than 9,000 Latino businesses in Ohio. "This growth is necessary for our urban growth as we look to fill vacant buildings, fill retail space and employ more people," Riveiro says.

According to a study conducted by the Immigration Policy Center, 40 percent of Ohio's foreign-born population over age 25 have a bachelor's degree or higher, compared to only 23 percent for those over age 25 who are native-born. Further, a growing number of Hispanic young professionals are making their presence known, participating in the H-100 initiative, which is run by the Hispanic Chamber and aims to find 100 Hispanics to participate in volunteering throughout the community. A UC student group called Latinos En Accion is another venue for young Hispanic involvement.

With the help of Cincinnati's passionate Hispanic leadership, these efforts have converged, building the momentum that has brought the LULAC convention to Cincinnati instead of somewhere more typically associated with Latino immigrants. And if progressive voices are correct, winning the privilege of hosting this bash bodes well for the future of Cincinnati, a city well on its way towards greater levels of diversity.

"I believe every culture - not only Hispanic culture - enriches the overall USA culture and makes as a consequence this country stronger in all possible ways," Cornejo says. "Definitively a more diverse culture will out-perform homogeneous cultures. Diversity is the competitive advantage of this great country."

To learn more about the convention and the many workshops, concerts, and free events taking place June 27 - July 2, go here.  For related information about Cincinnati's history of immigration, go here.

Photography by Scott Beseler.
Dance lessons on the Square
Orquesta Kandela
Alfonso Cornejo
Salsa on the Square
Jason Riveiro
Fountain Square comes alive with dancers

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