Hispanics in the Heartland / Hispanos en el Corazón del Territorio

Para leer este artículo en Español, aprete aquí: Hispanos en el Corazón del Territorio

From left to right, Oscar Argueta, owner of El Heraldo Hispano, a bilingual newspaper, and his assistant, a journalist from South America; National Main Street Center Program Officer Norma Ramirez de Miess; Mt. Pleasant business owners Luis and Gloria Perez; Main Street Iowa Coordinator Jane Seaton; and Iowa Downtown Resource Center Director Thom Guzman pose for a picture after a quarterly Main Street Directors training session in Burlington, Iowa.

In 2008, Main Street Iowa (MSI) became the first Main Street Coordinating Program to launch a diversity initiative. The pilot program focused specifically on the state's fastest-growing minority - the Hispanic population. By 2030, Iowa's Hispanic presence is projected to increase by more than 250 percent, representing nearly 10 percent of Iowa's population. The entrepreneurial presence of Hispanics is growing almost as rapidly. Hispanic-owned businesses increased by nearly 90 percent from 1997 to 2002, contributing sales revenue of $288 million to the state economy, along with a combined payroll of $54 million.

Considering the strong entrepreneurial presence of Hispanics, their preference for the atmosphere of historic downtowns, and their strong participation in social and civic activities, the staff of Main Street Iowa believed that Main Street districts offered an ideal environment to encourage business development and community participation among the state's rapidly growing Hispanic population. Working with MSI to create and implement its diversity initiative was National Trust Main Street Center Program Officer Norma Ramirez de Miess. Here is her account of the initiative's first year.

Building Diverse Communities: How Main Street Can Help

  • VALUE DIVERSITY. Focus on building an environment where diversity is valued. Integrate diversity into services, programs, and activities that benefit everyone. Promote a sense of place that is diverse through citizen participation and the creation of a diverse, local economic base.
  •  COMMUNICATE. Communicate diversity through programs, processes and tools. Guide, support, and motivate all new and existing stakeholders.
  • BUILD RESPECT. Build relationships of trust through proactive outreach. Foster an environment where people respect and value each other's contributions. Strive to incorporate diverse perspectives into respected leadership positions.

I had met the Main Street Iowa Coordinator, Jane Seaton, back when I was starting my journey as a new Main Street Director in Elgin, Illinois, and she came to the community as part of a Main Street resource team. She kept in touch and observed the changes we were able to implement in Elgin by bringing aboard a more representative leadership base and increasing the offerings of the program during its early years. In March 2008, at the National Main Streets Conference in Philadelphia, Jane and Iowa Downtown Resource Center Director Thom Guzman invited me to lunch to meet with the Main Street Iowa team and discuss how I could help them launch a diversity initiative that would focus on the growing Hispanic population in Main Street communities throughout Iowa.

I visited with the MSI team several times after that and researched Iowa's racial/ethnic demographics to confirm that Iowa's population had indeed changed rapidly in recent years. Hispanic presence had increased 153% from the 1990s to 2006.

We embarked on the pilot initiative that summer by visiting the three MSI-selected southern Iowa communities of Osceola, Ottumwa, and Mt. Pleasant. My personal background as a Hispanic woman born and raised in Latin America and living in the United States for almost 20 years and my firsthand knowledge as a former Main Street director helped our team outline and conduct the on-site visits to these communities. We met with Main Street staff, board members, and city leaders to learn about their understanding of their local demographics, their perceptions about newcomers, and their concerns about the overall level of involvement and expectations. These meetings also gave us an excellent chance to share with these leaders the cultural values of the Hispanic community and potential opportunities created by their increasing presence.

Main Street Iowa and local Main Street staff take a walk through Mt. Pleasant?s downtown with Hispanic business owners.

We also met with Hispanic business owners as we walked throughout downtown, as well as at meetings set up with identified or already involved leaders. These visits offered an excellent opportunity for me to introduce the local Main Street director to Hispanic store owners; in most cases, this was their first contact with each other. Through this connection, we learned a lot about the needs and plans of Hispanic business owners, including their recent building purchases and renovation plans which allowed us to teach them about the design services offered by Main Street Iowa.  With the help of bilingual graduate students hired for the summer, MSI continued the connection process between Main Street and local business and property owners through follow-up visits.

As part of this process, we understood that information about Main Street needed to be translated into Spanish. I translated Main Street Iowa's brochure about the Main Street Approach and the services they offered and, with the help of the grad students, as well as other forms were also translated and made available for Main Street directors to give to Hispanic stakeholders.

La Tienda Jalisciense, one of several Hispanic-owned businesses in Ottumwa, Iowa.

For next year's work plan, I met with Main Street Iowa to determine the program's next steps. Although the planning process still continues, we identified opportunities that recognize the communities with most demographic changes and discussed potential services MSI could incorporate into their regular training and on-site visits as well as more specific activities to help the Anglo and Hispanic communities better understand each other's cultural values and the contributions both can make to build an integrated community.

This initiative is truly a result of Main Street Iowa's visionary leadership. Through this pioneering program, MSI is positioning its Main Streets as catalysts for the integration, leadership growth, and entrepreneurship development of its minority populations.

Read more about nationwide efforts by Latinos to save Hispanic heritage sites and revitalize their communities at Latino Heritage in Preservation.