Miguel Lopez knew few other Hispanic students at school as a child in central Arkansas.
Hispanic Arkansans were “rare” at the time, the 30-year-old Little Rock banker said, with the US Census Bureau reporting 8,816 residents in Pulaski County in 2000, but it has since been “unbelievably low. see the population boom ‘over the past two decades.
Today, 33,513 people in Pulaski County are Hispanic, according to the 2020 census, representing 8.3% of the county’s population.
Born in Mexico, Lopez has lived in Arkansas since the age of 5 and calls the state “the best place in America to fulfill the American dream“.
Arkansas’ Hispanic population has grown steadily over the past two decades, according to census data. A variety of jobs and a relatively low cost of living have made Arkansas an attractive destination for immigrants, and their children have chosen to stay in the state, according to Hispanic community leaders.
Local and statewide business and advocacy organizations have sought to build relationships with Arkansa Hispanics in several sectors, from business and finance to higher education and civic engagement.
Census data recorded 256,847 Arkansans identifying themselves as Hispanic in 2020. Many are of Mexican descent, but some have roots in other Latin American countries, such as El Salvador, said Greg Fess, president and CEO of Univision Arkansas.
Sevier County in southwest Arkansas has the highest proportion of Hispanic Americans in the state, with 5,508 people representing 34.8% of the county’s population.
Benton County in northwest Arkansas has the most Hispanic residents, with 50,540, or 17.8% of the county’s population.
Northwest Arkansas, which has seen the largest increases in total population and density in the state, is home to many second-generation Hispanics whose parents immigrated in the 1990s and worked in settlements. poultry factories, Fess said. Many of these immigrant children chose to stay in the area and start families, he said.[HISPANIC POPULATION: Map of Arkansas not showing up above? Click here to see it » arkansasonline.com/19arkcounty]
“They are leading the way, buying houses, starting new businesses, going to college, opening bank accounts – all the things you would think of” in terms of moving to the area, “Fess said.
Lopez also noted the role of the Hispanic community in the burgeoning population of Northwest Arkansas.
“I would say it’s largely on the backs of the Hispanic and Latino populations who move into these communities and not only to take jobs, but also to create more with their entrepreneurial spirit,” Lopez said.
Jobs in poultry factories have also attracted immigrants to Sevier County, Lopez said. Agricultural jobs in rice paddies and tomato farms have also attracted Hispanic immigrants, while commercial and residential construction jobs have drawn Hispanic immigrants to central Arkansas.
Lopez said the cost of living and buying a home statewide has increased at a slower rate than in other states, such as Texas, prompting immigrants not only to come to Arkansas. but to stay there.
At Encore Bank, Lopez helps Hispanic immigrants open bank accounts and adjust financial decisions to their new country. He previously worked for the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce and said the Arkansas business community has struggled to attract Hispanic immigrants and give them stable jobs.
“They saw how important immigrant labor is, not only on farms but also in construction and trucking,” Lopez said. “As a banker, this is one of the things that I am most proud of and most passionate about.”
His parents first tried to settle their family in California after immigrating from Mexico, but it “wasn’t quite what we wanted and needed,” he said.
“We had an aunt who lived in North Little Rock, and she said we should check out, and it was the biggest breakup of our lives,” Lopez said.
“A LIFE OF DIGNITY”
Many first-generation Hispanics dream of starting their own businesses, said Mireya Reith, founding executive director of Arkansas United, a non-profit immigrant rights organization with offices in Springdale and southwest Little. Rock.
“It’s exciting to see, in very rural parts of Arkansas, an appreciation and demand for authentic Mexican cuisine,” said Reith.
Reith is a second generation American born in Fayetteville to Mexican parents and has said there is no part of Arkansas “that is” not touched by the immigrant population. “
Arkansas United began in 2010 when the United States Senate debated the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act, which would grant conditional residency to immigrants who came to the United States as minors and remained illegally.
The DREAM law has yet to be passed in Congress, but Arkansas United has continued its mission of helping Hispanic immigrants become U.S. citizens, register to vote and consider running for office, said Reith.
The nonprofit is also closely monitoring the census to make sure the Hispanic population is counted as accurately as possible, Reith said, because the census has historically underestimated this ethnic group, as well as other groups. minority. Census data determines how the federal government distributes billions of dollars, so an inaccurate count can result in insufficient resources for these communities.
Arkansas United worked to ensure the US Census Bureau hired Hispanic staff to reach out to members of their own communities while collecting data in 2020, Reith said, but she believes the population was still under estimated. The covid-19 pandemic was a barrier to in-person awareness, and former President Donald Trump said he wanted to add a citizenship question to the census form.
“The courts struck it down and the office wasn’t going to do it, but once the news got out it was really hard for the community to feel confident and participate,” Reith said.
She said she was proud of the work the Arkansas Hispanic community did during the census collection process, but ensuring that “our community has access to a life of dignity” is an ongoing effort.
In addition to the allocation of resources, census data determines how legislative constituencies are redrawn every 10 years. Two-term state representative Megan Godfrey D-Springdale announced in November that she would not be running again this year because her redesigned district “no longer contains the Latino community that I was so proud of and grateful to represent, ”she said. in an interview on Saturday.
As a Spanish speaker and co-director of English language learning, Godfrey said she feels “connected” to the Hispanic community in Springdale. She sponsored a 2019 state law allowing immigrants covered by the federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy to obtain a nurse’s license.
DACA – which is in legal limbo after a federal judge raised concerns about the policy’s legality with an injunction last year – provides job eligibility and delays potential deportation of immigrants who came to the United States as minors and remained illegally.
Adding DACA-eligible nurses to the workforce has been particularly valuable in 2020 due to the pandemic, Godfrey said.
She said she appreciates the “cultural and linguistic diversity” of the community she represents.
“My community in Springdale is doing better because of the voices and stories of those who live there,” said Godfrey. “I am grateful that we have the experiences of those who are new to the country, new to Arkansas, and new to learning English.”
‘A BETTER FUTURE’
Some educational institutions have prioritized Arkansan Hispanics as valuable current and future students. Pulaski Technical College, part of the University of Arkansas system, has asked Arkansas United to help educate potential Hispanic students in the school’s professional certification programs, Reith said.
The local college in Sevier County is the only Hispanic institution in Arkansas, which means the student body is at least 25% Hispanic.
The University of Arkansas-Cossatot Community College has made its population a priority to reflect the population of De Queen and Sevier County, said Chancellor Steve Cole and Erika Buenrrostro, Director of Achievement and Enrichment students.
“My number one goal was to do what I could to share new ideas and bring new initiatives to try and make everyone feel welcome,” said Buenrrostro, who joined the UA- administration. Cossatot in 2013. “It’s one thing to say that we I want you to be here, but what are we actually doing to show it?”
Cole said that actively recruiting Hispanic faculty and staff is critical to the mission of recruiting students from the same background.
The college holds several events each year to welcome and honor Hispanic students and seeks private funding for scholarships for them, Buenrrostro said.
Additionally, before the pandemic made travel inadvisable, UA-Cossatot called on staff at the Mexican Consulate in Little Rock to visit De Queen to help any local Mexican citizen obtain copies of the documents needed to vote in the Mexican election. It helps people save money because they don’t have to drive five hours round trip to and from Little Rock, Buenrrostro said.
The college publicly honors its first-generation Hispanic students, she said.
“We say we understand this is an important milestone, not only for you but for your parents,” Buenrrostro said. “One of the reasons they came here is that their children could have a better future, and it is happening.”
Buenrrostro’s parents immigrated from Mexico in 1989 to give their children more opportunities, she said.
“They wanted us to be bilingual, learned the [English] language and have a better chance of finishing school, ”she said. “It’s possible to finish high school in Mexico, but it’s more expensive and there are more barriers to education as a whole. Getting a degree is on a whole new level. “
She said she believed her work in making UA-Cossatot a welcoming place to her community made her parents proud.
“[I’m] here for a reason, and if it’s to sit down at a table and explain that it’s like that for the Latino community, I feel like it contributes to the state, ”said Buenrrostro.