Local, national Hispanic population trends differ

Published 12:00 am Friday, June 20, 2003

Tienda Mexico, the Hispanic grocery store on East Main Street, has been in business almost 10 years.

Inside, the smell of fresh tortillas fills the air. Along the ceiling hang pinatas for sale. The store is evidence of the strong, local Hispanic population, one that has fluctuated throughout the store’s existence.

Phyllis Talamantes and her husband, Joseph, opened the store because Albert Lea’s Hispanic community had grown.

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&uot;When we started there was a large Hispanic population,&uot; Talamantes said.

During their store’s lifetime, they’ve seen that population grow to become a large segment of Albert Lea’s population, but they’ve also seen it drop off at times.

Albert Lea’s trends reflect the larger, national trend. Wednesday, the U.S. Census Bureau released information that showed that Hispanics have become the largest minority in the nation, surpassing African Americans. But, with rough economic times locally, the Albert Lea Hispanic population has fallen off conversely to what is happening nationally.

Hispanics accounted for nearly half the growth in the U.S. population the past two years as a high birth rate and influx of immigrants helped secure Latinos’ position as the largest minority group.

Hispanics numbered 38.8 million nationwide as of July 2002. That was an increase of almost 10 percent, or 3.5 million, since April 2000, the Census Bureau estimated. During the same period, the national population rose 2.5 percent, or 6.9 million people, to more than 288 million.

Census Bureau director Louis Kincannon said Hispanic and Asian growth was somewhat surprising given the economy’s slip since 2000. That year’s census showed that immigrants, especially Hispanics, surged beyond gateways such as California and Texas and across the Midwest and other parts of the South in search of jobs.

Some went farther north; one of those bastions of employment was the Farmland plant in Albert Lea.

Talamantes said most of Albert Lea’s Hispanic population came to work at the plant. She and her husband noticed more and more business in their first eight years. In May of 2001, business boomed and they decided to move from their tiny store on South Broadway to their current, much larger location.

Just two months later, in July of that year, a fire ravaged the Farmland plant, destroying a place of employment for many of the community’s Hispanics.

What the Talamantes family soon came to realize was that the fire had damaged Tienda Mexico as well.

&uot;The fire hurt,&uot; she said. &uot;We definitely saw a drop in business after that.&uot;

She said that business hasn’t gone as well since then, but she said the poor economy hasn’t helped.

According to Collette Turcotte, of the Community Action Agency, the population did decline a bit after the Farmland fire, but said that since that drop, the population has been steadily building back up.

Turcotte said Freeborn County had the third-largest Hispanic population in the state just a few years ago, but has fallen to fifth since.

According to Diane Hill, the coordinator of the Adult Basic Education and English Language Learners courses, she has seen a steady yearly enrollment of around 250 students in her courses, which teach English language and cultural family skills.

Hill said her waiting lists have grown for the courses. She said those numbers don’t necessarily reflect a change in population.

At Albert Lea Medical Center, you see signs both in English and Spanish. Many brochures around town are also bilingual. City and county offices are finding it necessary to look for applicants with Spanish speaking skills to fill positions.

It is obvious there is a big enough population in Freeborn County to demand such things. However, there is no data to say whether that population has grown since the 2000 census, when the data said 9 percent of the county was Hispanic.

Turcotte said she thinks the population has made up a lot of ground since the fall out from the fire. She expects the Hispanic population could reflect the national trend, especially if a new packing plant comes to Albert Lea.

Talamantes thinks so too, and is hoping so, for the sake of her business.

She said many of those who moved away after the fire are still hoping to return to Albert Lea if more jobs come back.

&uot;People really love it here,&uot; she said. &uot;It’s a really nice, beautiful small town. A lot of people miss that. They want to get back here if the work is here.&uot;

The Associated Press contibuted to this report.