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When Eduardo Crespi worked as a nurse at the University of Missouri Hospital in Columbia over 20 years ago, he had a full load of patients to care for.
But on top of that, he was also called upon to translate for Spanish speaking patients who were not his own.
“That’s how it started,” he says. “They were asking me if I could go help them. “
At the time, the hospital did not employ paid translators – which is now mandatory – and instead relied on other staff or even family members of patients.
Crespi says the stories he heard from these patients moved him deeply, ultimately inspiring a career change to become a paid translator, after the hospital opened an interpreter service in response to Crespi and d ‘others.
“I’ve seen so many Latinos from the meat packing plants, going to the hand specialist, the elbow specialist, the shoulder specialist,” he said.
As she prepared to write about Hispanic Heritage Month in Missouri, The Independent’s Rebecca Rivas was confronted with the question: is she Hispanic? A Latin? Latinx?
She interviewed her friends and family and discovered different and strong feelings about who we are and the words we use to describe ourselves.
Read his story.
In 2000, Crespi founded the Latino Center in Colombia, which has become a resource center for immigrant workers and their families now living in central Missouri.
At the same time, people across the state were seeing the effects of a surge in the number of Hispanics and, like Crespi, were trying to figure out how they could help.
When the 2000 census came out, it showed that the Hispanic population of Missouri had almost doubled since 1990. This increase was the creation and expansion of several meat-packing plants, which aggressively recruited workers from Mexico or cities along the US-Mexico border in the mid-1990s.
Schools, hospitals, fire stations in these small, rural towns with factories scrambled to find translators in areas of Missouri where hardly anyone spoke Spanish.
So in March 2002 people from across the state – teachers, social workers, lawyers and researchers – gathered for the first Cambio de Colores conference to urgently respond to the rapid influx and chart a course for integrate these communities.
Since then, they have met every year.
But almost 20 years later, some Spanish-speaking communities – especially in rural areas – still live completely separate from non-Spanish speakers.
September 15 marked the start of Hispanic Heritage Month, which coincides with the anniversary of independence from Spain for the Latin American countries Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua.
Mexico and Chile also celebrate their independence days on September 16 and 18, respectively.
The Hispanic community in Missouri continued to grow and discrimination isn’t necessarily the biggest barrier to bridging the cultural divide in these cities, said Maria Rodriguez-Alcalá, former county engagement specialist at the University of the Missouri Extension.
It is confidence.
Rodriguez-Alcalá, who has led several outreach projects in southwest Missouri, said there are organizations that want to offer resources like loans, health care and business support, but these programs require the trust of the Hispanic community.
“If you build trust and their relationships first, and they learn what you offer, then they will come to you,” she said. “And that’s what we’re missing.”
Unite the community
Carthage, a city of 14,000 in southwest Missouri, held its first celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month on Saturday. About 1,000 people came throughout the day to watch the folk the dancers twirl their traditional brightly colored dresses and hear the bands playing. The restaurants presented dishes from their region.
“Our goal is to unite the community,” said Maria Sanchez, a real estate agent who moved from California to Carthage 16 years ago.
Carthage is home to several factories that have attracted Hispanic workers over the past two decades, including the Butterball Poultry Processing Plant.
Now the city is 30 percent Hispanic – compared to less than one percent in the 1990 census.
Bank loan officer Luis Rangel moved from Mexico with his family to Diamond, just south of Carthage, when he was 9 years old. His whole family still lives in the area. He was one of the organizers of the celebration of Hispanic heritage. But Rangel and Sanchez have bigger goals than just an annual party.
They created Hispanic Connection, a group of Hispanic professionals trusted by both Hispanic and non-Hispanic speakers, and they hope to serve as a bridge between the two.
“If they see that a community leader is part of that group and the information is coming from a group they belong to, they’re more likely to be more responsive to it,” Rangel said of the Spanish speaking community.
Rodriguez-Alcalá said this is exactly what the region needs.
Through the MU extension, Rodriguez-Alcalá received grants not only to conduct research but also to offer programs aimed at helping immigrants become entrepreneurs, access health care and various other things. And while there are donors who want to help, Rodriguez-Alcalá said grants often require immediate impact. They do not take into account the time it takes to build trust and relationships with the community, which can take decades.
“First we have to understand what the needs are,” Rodriguez-Alcalá said. “We have to get away from those chains that are these kinds of barriers to build the network first and build trust. ”
Missouri: 2020 Census
Over the past decade, the influx has since slowed – the 2020 census shows a 42.6% increase in the number of people of Hispanic origin over 2010. And although there are still some new arrivals , Rodriguez-Alcalá said the majority of Hispanics in these communities are residents or citizens who have lived here since the early 2000s.
Although Missouri’s largest populations are found in Kansas City and St. Louis, the highest percentages of Hispanics are found in these small rural communities.
Milan is a small city about 100 miles north of Columbia in Sullivan County, with about 1,800 residents – yet 42 percent of the population is Hispanic.
After Premium Standard Farms opened a meat packing plant in 1993, the number of Hispanics settling in the city exploded. (The plant is now owned by Smithfield Foods, the country’s largest pork producer.)
Looking at a 2020 census map, Sullivan County is the only dark blue square in the middle of the state, noting the highest percentage of Hispanics – at 17%.
Not far behind is McDonald County at the southwestern tip with 12%, where Noel – a town of 2,100 people – is 41.5% Hispanic. Hispanics began moving to Noel in 1994 to work at a newly renovated poultry processing plant owned by Hudson, then later sold to Tyson. Another Simmons-owned and operated chicken processing plant opened around the same time, a few miles away.
These factories have caused a boom in the local labor market and created a labor shortage. Yet at that time, there were few public resources available to help communities adjust to huge demographic changes.
It was this challenge that essentially led to the creation of the Cambio Center, based at the University of Missouri-Columbia in 2004. The center hosts and organizes the annual Cambio de Colores conferences.
“It wasn’t an academic thing,” said Domingo Martínez Castilla, a retired agricultural economist who was the first director of the Cambio Center. “It was a problem with the state, which was the growth of the Latin American population.”
Faculty members from many different departments met weekly to research topics such as immigrant integration, access to social services and disparities.
“Something that was, I believe, relatively unique in the social sciences is that all of the disciplines actually contributed to the construction of the dataset,” Martínez said.
The past 20 years of research have taught Cambio Center leaders that change requires diverse collaborative networks, which means community leaders, newcomers, institutions and organizations all need to be at the table.
And the Cambio de Colores conferences remain a key element in achieving this, said Corinne Valdivia, interim co-director of the Cambio Center and professor of agriculture at the University of Missouri-Columbia.
“This is an opportunity to translate the research and knowledge we develop into information that can lead to practice,” said Valdivia. “And it is also the space where we can develop collaborative networks.
While there has been some advancement in service to the Hispanic community, there remains a great need to focus on educational opportunities for children, Valdivia said.
The number of Latino children in Missouri more than doubled from 2000 to 2015, making it the fastest growing child population, according to the La Raza National Council.
“Education is a capital or a key asset for them not only to get by, but also to move forward,” she said.
The Centro Latino in Colombia has been a place that has been dedicated to this effort for two decades.
“We have children who come to the after school program who are the sons and daughters of other children who came to the after school program,” Crespi said.
The program includes free meals and one-on-one tutoring with volunteer mentors, who are largely MU students. At the start of the pandemic, Centro de Salud put its operation online.
But on September 27, the students were finally able to return in person. At the moment, they welcome students 12 years and over who are vaccinated, and vvolunteers should also be vaccinated.
Next year will mark 20 years since the start of after-school and summer programs for kids, and Crespi is just starting to see the lasting impact of the hard work he and the entire Centro Latino team have put in since then.
“Empowering people, I think that’s the best thing that can happen,” he said. “You see kids who were in the after-school program, who are now doing well in college.”