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Detroit's Growing Latino Population


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DETROIT DEMOGRAPHICS: For Hispanics, growing numbers aren't resulting in more influence

October 14, 2003



In the 11 years since Hugo Arellano moved to southwest Detroit, he's seen the area grow to the point where businesses and home buyers are pushing the traditional boundaries of Mexicantown west toward Dearborn.

What's even more surprising, Arellano said, is that he speaks more Spanish now than when he moved to Michigan.

The familiar red, white and green of the Mexican flag, storefront signage in Spanish and competing southwest Detroit Spanish-language radio programs tell Arellano that much of what was familiar in Mexico can be found in the Motor City.

The Hispanic population in Detroit has grown from 28,473 in 1990 to 47,167 in 2000 -- a nearly 66-percent jump, compared to nearly 61 percent for the state. Yet, their growing numbers have not translated into growing clout in Detroit, which reported a population of 951,270 in 2000. The city has no Hispanic elected officials and few Spanish speakers at most levels of government, let alone fluent Spanish speakers to address some of the growing social, legal and political needs of people living in what has often been called the forgotten part of Detroit.

Although Arellano isn't sure of the exact numbers, he is convinced the estimated 47,000 Hispanics the U.S. Census Bureau says live in Detroit is probably low.

He's not alone in that opinion. The Detroit Regional Office of the U.S. Census Bureau acknowledges there was a "modest" undercount. And locally, city officials and demographic experts also agree there was an undercount.The estimates vary from 5,000 to 50,000.

"Getting beyond anecdotal data is difficult, but I have to believe that the numbers seem to be there," said Kurt Metzger, research and analysis director at the Center for Urban Studies at Wayne State University. "It's hard to prove or disprove undercounts, but there are a lot of folks out there and just talking to people you sense that the growth is there."

Some observers say an accurate Hispanic count could have put the city's population much closer to -- and potentially over -- the symbolically and practically significant 1-million population mark and garnered Detroit additional funding from the federal government. The Census Bureau has acknowledged an undercount of African Americans, nationally, in 2000. And African Americans make up more than 80 percent of Detroit's population.

The city missed its opportunity to boost the population count by not taking a more aggressive approach to penetrating the largely Spanish-speaking community of southwest Detroit during the census takers' interviews that led up to the actual head count, say political observers.

And the problem isn't limited to Detroit. Similar concerns of undercounting have been expressed in areas like Pontiac, which has the largest population of Hispanics in Oakland County, and in western Michigan, where the number of Hispanics has grown by 300 percent in some communities.

But the biggest numbers are in Detroit.

Hispanics are the fastest growing ethnic community in Detroit, according to census figures. Local activists suggest their numbers in Detroit are closer to 100,000, based on the number of homes being purchased, businesses opening up and sheer foot traffic throughout the city's southwest side.

On a typical Saturday afternoon, southwest Detroit's main thoroughfares are jammed with cars and SUVs, often with Tejano music serenading passersby. Young families can be seen frequenting everything from restaurants to insurance offices, often with plenty of money to spend.

"One misconception about the growing Hispanic population in Detroit is that it's no longer about the poor struggling immigrant that is coming here," said Harvey Santana, a community activist and an urban planner for a metro Detroit engineering firm. "You have people from different social classes coming to Detroit and paying cash for homes, in some cases, which tells you that some of these immigrants have means."

Political pundits point to the fact that Detroit residents have historically run into problems of undercounting by census takers dating back several decades.

After the 1990 census, then-Mayor Coleman Young took the Census Bureau to court for underestimating the city's population. At the time, Young estimated the undercounting of close to 40,000 residents by the Census Bureau cost Detroit $6.5 million.

"There are so many people from Mexico coming to Detroit looking for work, that once they find it they just stay here or open up their own businesses," said Arellano, the father of four, who bought a house on Chamberlain Street a few years ago. "Things have gotten so crowded in places like Los Angeles, Chicago and Texas that more people are coming here for opportunities."

Detroit Budget Director Roger Short said undercounting Hispanics in Detroit and thereby missing the symbolic figure of 1 million residents wasn't just a blow to the city's ego.

"Yes, block grant funding, which is a major funding component from the federal government, to the tune of about $52 million a year, is based on population as a component of the decision-making factors," he said. But Short said it was unclear what the exact financial toll was to the city's coffers.

"It's a tricky proposition to pinpoint the precise amount the city lost," he said. "But it is certain that we lost money."

Often marginalized by elected officials and political pundits over the years, the largely Hispanic population in southwest Detroit has rarely factored into major policy decisions in the city.

"We do have the potential to win seats that have historically gone to individuals who are either Caucasian or African American," said Juan Jose Martinez, chief of staff for Detroit Councilwoman Sheila Cockrel. "But we just haven't exercised that power in the Latino community."

Hispanic residents have yearned for representation on the Detroit City Council, which has never had a Hispanic member, as well as on other levels. But some political observers have argued for years that Hispanics are effectively shut out of decision-making at City Hall because of the difficulty of electing a council candidate in a citywide vote. The nine council members are elected at-large.

"Elected officials play a critical role in making sure that resources are applied to areas that are in most need," said state Rep. Steve Tobocman, D-Detroit, who represents southwest Detroit. "Without having that kind of connection to the constituents, it becomes difficult to provide services."

Despite mounting anecdotal evidence pointing to waves of new immigrants moving to Detroit over the last decade, very little of that so-called sleeping giant of a community has made its way onto voter rolls.

Flower shops, auto body repair outfits and new Latin-American restaurants opening up are signs of the times. Even a Blockbuster Video store in Mexicantown is responding to the changing demographics by offering the largest selection of Spanish-language films of all the chain's stores in Detroit.

"If you go to the churches and the clinics, our numbers are a lot higher than the census projections," said Jane Garcia, a community activist who specializes in collecting census data. "Over the last several years, Hispanic-owned businesses are popping up all along Michigan Avenue going toward Dearborn, catering to the growing Hispanic presence that is spreading."

Contact ALEJANDRO BODIPO-MEMBA at 313-222-5008 or [email protected].

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