America in Translation: Hispanic Heritage on Main Street


At Centennial Park in downtown Harlingen, Texas, a nine-paneled mural entitled The History of Mexico and Mankind encircles the central plaza. Created out of 905 handcrafted tiles by ceramicist and oil painter Raúl Esparza Sanchez of Torreón, Mexico, in 1975, it was presented to Harlingen in 2000.

If you take a closer look at the sixth panel from the left, you can see three masons fashioning the topography of the New World from rough-hewn stone. The figures of six great American liberators rise from the land mass like mountains of bronze – José de San Martín (Argentina), José Martí (Cuba), Simón Bolívar (Venezuela), Benito Juárez (Mexico), Abraham Lincoln and George Washington (United States). And the epigraph, a quote from Juárez: “ENTRE LOS INDIVIDUOS, COMO ENTRE LAS NACIONES, EL RESPETO AL DERECHO AJENO ES LA PAZ. (AMONG INDIVIDUALS, AS AMONG NATIONS, RESPECT FOR THE RIGHTS OF OTHERS IS PEACE.)”

As Main Street communities celebrate National Hispanic Heritage Month this year, they remember the contributions of Hispanic and Latino Americans not only in the grand tapestry that is the United States of America, but also in the stories of their own cities and towns. Harlingen, on the tropical tip of Texas, has had a long history of Hispanic settlement, being located in an area first settled by Spanish explorers in the 1500s and later fought over during the U.S.-Mexican War. The Harlingen mural illustrates how the shared history between the United States and Latin America can be traced back to the European colonization of the Americas, if not earlier. Here at Main Street, the inclusion of Hispanics in the work of downtown revitalization is more than a diversity initiative. It speaks to that basic truth that the progressive reformer Juárez recognized—simple respect among individuals is the foundation of peace. And, dare we say, progress.

Norma Ramirez de Miess, Senior Program Officer at the National Main Street Center, travels regularly from her home in Texas to work with individual Main Street programs all over the country and reach out to their Hispanic constituents. “Downtowns are at the heart of the community for everybody, and most cultures, even outside the U.S., have downtowns as their centers,” she told me. “There is great potential for Main Street to be the catalyst for inclusion.”

Norma distills her long experience of building inclusive Main Street programs into three key principles. First, understand what is shared among people in the district. Then, recognize the differences. And finally, build bridges. “These principles are not exclusive to diverse communities,” she stresses. “They really apply to everyone and anyone.” In this article, we want to showcase a few of our Main Street towns that have successfully used the Four-Point Approach to bring people from Hispanic and other cultures together under the banner of downtown revitalization.

A Growing Economic Force

In many Main Street communities, it is often the more recent immigrants of the Hispanic community that have become the primary economic force in once-forsaken downtowns. In Woodburn, Oregon, about 90 percent of the downtown businesses are Hispanic-owned. Sheri Stuart, state coordinator of Oregon Main Street, speculates that when an outlet mall was developed near the interstate some years ago, many downtown businesses folded due to competition. At the time, downtown was inhabited primarily by first generation migrants from Mexico. Where others might have seen vacant storefronts, Hispanic entrepreneurs in Woodburn saw an opportunity.

The Woodburn Main Street program is less than two years old, and Sheri, who was personally involved in its launch, sees a lot of potential. With nearly 59 percent out of a population of 14,189 identifying as Hispanic, Woodburn’s cultural makeup is unusual in a state where Hispanics make up only about 13 percent of the total population. “Woodburn provides a different experience from other retail opportunities in the region; it can leverage its Hispanic vibrancy as an asset, a niche that sets it apart from other places,” said Sheri. “The more we can engage with our diverse populations, the better off we’ll be.”

Main Street programs can do a lot to support Hispanic business owners, providing launching pads as well as avenues for growth. Tony Ramirez, owner of Frank’s Collection Record Shop at the back of the Antique Emporium, got his start at Harlingen’s monthly Market Day, an open-air street market. “I would take my albums out there and see if there was any interest in people buying,” says Tony. “And my little table and about six crates of albums were completely overwhelmed.” Thanks to the business network built through Main Street’s monthly coffee events and other activities, if customers go into other stores looking for records, they are sent Tony’s way.

Also in Harlingen’s downtown is Renae Perez’s Bod Squad Training Studio, which has become a community for women who want to change their lifestyle. Renae told me that diabetes is a big issue in the Hispanic community in the Valley, with food being such a central part of the culture. When she opened her studio a year ago, she was pleasantly surprised at how many Hispanic women signed up for her nutritional counseling and strength training services. “I take my clients for jogs around downtown. People see us running and it creates a little more activity in Harlingen,” she told me.

Ultimately, two very important questions Main Street programs have to ask in their mission of supporting small business development are:

  • What market is this business reaching at this moment?
  • What market does this business have the potential to reach?

“Downtowns don’t have a single target market,” says Norma. “They have a very diverse range of audiences, of customer bases, and Main Street can play a valuable role in putting businesses in touch with these audiences.”

Betsy Cowan, Main Street manager in Egleston Square, Roxbury, Massachusetts, suggests that “tailored, on-site bilingual group training and one-on-one assistance programs designed for micro-businesses, although requiring a higher investment of time and resources, have been proven to yield results.” Through this strategy, Betsy helped the owner of a downtown grocery realize that with minor façade improvements and the addition of certain products to his stock, he could transform his business from a store catering primarily to Hispanic residents into a marketplace for all the neighborhood’s residents.

Harry Perez, owner of Plaza Meat Market has also expressed appreciation for Main Street’s outreach. He says it has helped him recognize business opportunities that have resulted from an enhanced position in the district and a larger customer base.

Organization: Building Ownership

A truly inclusive Main Street program needs to involve members of the Hispanic community on a fundamental planning level, whether through representation on the board of directors, partnerships, or volunteers. As Norma says, “When there’s no sense of ownership, there’s absolutely no commitment in the community to participate.” 

To successfully reach out to the Hispanic community, in particular, Norma recommends direct rather than indirect forms of communication. In other words, face-to-face meetings or visits to individual businesses, rather than e-mail or phone calls.

In Center City district of Amarillo, Texas, where almost 29 percent of the population of 190,695 identifies as Hispanic, the 13-year-old Main Street program partners with the Amarillo Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, the League of United Latin American Citizens, Los Barrios de Amarillo, and other Hispanic groups to attract volunteers and sponsorships. In Hammonton, New Jersey, Cassie Iacovelli made it a point to visit each Hispanic-owned business personally when she was hired as Main Street manager four years ago. By forming personal connections, she encourages Hispanic business owners to get more involved in Main Street.

The city of Monett, Missouri, where 19 percent of its population of 8,873 identifies as Hispanic, started its Main Street program only in January this year, and wanted to get off on the right foot. Monett Main Street launched a Hispanic Outreach Initiative and invited Norma to spend a day in Monett, conducting a walking tour of downtown businesses and moderating a bilingual town-hall style meeting with business owners. Norma also met with members of the Hispanic community relations group Asociación Latino Imagen. Two Hispanic business owners were elected to the Main Street board as a result of this initiative

“We need the help of the Hispanic community to revitalize downtown, because if we don’t have the involvement of 50 percent of downtown, then I don’t think we could call it a success,” says Monett City Administrator Dennis Pyle. 

Bringing different cultures together is not as simple as having bilingual meetings and putting people together in the same room—although those are the basics. In Woodburn, Oregon, while most downtown businesses are Hispanic-owned, it was a mostly Anglo-American neighborhood group that first expressed interest in starting the Main Street program in 2010. The group’s first priority, however, was to get the Hispanic business owners on board, so they invited Norma to Woodburn to give a bilingual talk about the possibilities of Main Street. Since then, the Woodburn Main Street has formed a representative board of directors, drafted follow-up work plan development processes, and developed a downtown vision.

While the city’s experience with the program has been positive and it has addressed many cultural issues they hadn’t considered before, says Community Relations Officer Robyn Stowers who remains very involved with Main Street, there was still room for improvement. It seems that while the Anglo-American residents were familiar with the formal processes necessary for non-profit organization planning, not all of the Hispanic business owners had the same level of comfort with protocols of participation. Woodburn Main Street saw fewer and fewer Hispanic business owners attend their meetings.

“When you have people working at different levels of the system, you get problems,” says Robyn. “Sometimes it makes more sense to start small, with the group that needs more coaching, and then strategically bring other groups in.”

Happily, both groups remain committed to working together. At the moment, Woodburn Main Street has three Hispanic board members, including the President and Vice-President. Woodburn Main Street hopes to gradually bring more business owners in as people gain more trust in the organization.

Promotion: Celebrating Heritage

Special events that celebrate important Hispanic holidays and festivals are perhaps the most visible way for a Main Street program to appeal to its Hispanic constituents. “I joke with people—just give us a reason and we’ll have a party,” Norma laughed. “Celebrations of heritage, of family, are great for any culture.”

Hart is an agricultural town in Michigan with a population of 2,126. After the Second World War, many Mexican workers migrated to the town to cultivate its asparagus fields and cherry and apple orchards under the bracero program. Back in the 50s, these Mexican migrants threw a now-discontinued annual fiesta for Mexican Independence Day on September 15, which drew tens of thousands of people downtown. Soon after Main Street came to Hart in 2010, manager Krista Dornfried was approached by Hispanic residents who wanted to revive this fiesta. In its modern Main Street incarnation, however, the committee wanted to include the more recent Guatemalan, Honduran, and other Hispanic cultures that have come to Hart. It was re-named the Hispanic Heritage Celebration.

“It’s only our second year doing this, but the larger Hispanic community is really becoming aware of Hart Main Street through this event,” says Cathy Casillas, one of the key organizers of the Celebration. Cathy says that though Hispanic culture is celebrated every day in the home, carefully passed down to successive generations in the U.S., the Celebration is the biggest Hispanic event in Oceana County and brings a great mix of the different Hispanic groups together with non-Hispanic ones. This year, the event committee put up flags from many different Hispanic nations all around downtown. They invited a mariachi band, folkloric dance groups, local vendors offering authentic Latin American cuisine, and even set up a kids’ tent with piñatas and a build-your-own maracas craft station.

And of course, with the large number of volunteers required for a special event, it is a great way to build a base of support in the Hispanic community for a growing Main Street program like Hart. “The Celebration has led to more of the Hispanic population volunteering for other events not specifically geared toward their community,” says Krista.

Another aspect of promoting Main Street is image-building. In towns with a strong Hispanic demographic, it is important to make sure that everyone can understand flyers, posters and other promotional materials, regardless of their primary. In Amarillo’s Center City, the Main Street program translated all of its advertising copy into Spanish and launched a promotional campaign on a Spanish-language radio station for the annual August block party.

While most, if not all, Hispanic residents are fluent in both English and Spanish, says Main Street Manager Beth Duke, “it meant a lot to Spanish speakers to hear the ads in the language of their home, it made them feel more welcome. Many people told me that they felt like they were truly invited to the event.”

Design: Respecting Cultural Diversity

The language barrier is also a design issue, and it goes both ways. In Bridgeton, New Jersey, where more than 43 percent of the town’s of 25,349 identifies as Hispanic, the Main Street program has many translators who generously volunteer their time to make sure every press release, flyer, and website update is bilingual. Manager Carola Hartley says that she used to hear complaints from English-speaking residents that it was hard for them to shop at Hispanic businesses due to the lack of English-language signs. In response, Bridgeton Main Street worked on getting grant money to fund façade improvements, and used them to help Hispanic merchants translate and put up signs and menus in both languages.

Often, a Main Street program is called upon to balance the importance of historic preservation with the need to respect the distinctive aesthetics of other cultures. In Harlingen, where 79.5 percent of 66,122 residents identify as Hispanic, Hispanic culture has long been tightly interwoven with that of the Anglo-Americans. More recent immigrants who are opening new businesses downtown, however, may have design ideas that clash with the existing built environment.

“There’s a different aesthetic in Mexico—large print, bright colors, the more signs the better—so you want to respect the culture but you also want to respect the original architecture of the building. You want to merge that,” explains Manager Cheryl LaBerge. Cheryl, who is also a folklorist, noted that one property owner wanted to do an infill project to make his historic building look like the Alamo. While it did have a border brick design, the building looked nothing like the Alamo.

In order to educate business-owners on the importance of preserving the community’s architectural heritage, Downtown Harlingen brings in architects and interior designers to work with individual businesses. “We’re just trying to tell the stories of the people that built them, to make sure the historic fabric is preserved,” says Cheryl.

Norma cautions against a heavy-handed approach to storefront improvements. She describes a city ordinance that only allowed signs on 25 percent of a storefront gave a Hispanic business owner problems in following façade improvement guidelines. When he duly removed all his signs, however, he noticed a 35 percent reduction in walk-in traffic. As she puts it, “Hispanic cultures use space as a marketing tool—they put up posters, neon signs, everything they can to say ‘this is what we have.’” So when all those materials were torn out from the windows, the store owner’s Hispanic customers thought that he had shut down his business.

A Relationship of Trust

SOTW-9-27-12_HarlingenFestivalAs we have seen in the Main Street towns we have profiled, Hispanic communities in the United States are exceedingly heterogeneous. Diverse ethnicities, nationalities, beliefs, and cultures are combined under the same umbrella terms “Hispanic” and “Latino,” and it is only when Main Street leaders understand the particular make-up of their town’s community that they can implement initiatives that will help these entrepreneurs revitalize their businesses and participate in downtown activities. Established Hispanic communities as old as the town itself have very different needs than more recent immigrants, or seasonal laborers.

When in doubt, the first step is always to respect the individual needs and rights of others, to build mutual understanding and trust. As Norma puts it, “Building a relationship of trust means to connect with a genuine interest in people, finding out their needs and preferences. The first efforts need to be about learning about each other.”

Once trust is built, Main Streets can then think about change.