February 9, 2011 | Richmond Times-Dispatch | Original Article

Census reveals boom in region's Latino population

Filling a strip mall with Latino businesses would have been unlikely in Henrico County a decade ago.

But in 2003 a Guatemalan family opened El Paraiso Latino Market on Staples Mill Road and, by stocking the shelves with cactus leaves, fresh tortillas and a dozen pepper varieties, found an instant customer base. A Spanish-speaking tax preparer, a hair salon, a taco shop and a boot store followed, creating a vibrant Latino shopping district that one tenant refers to as "the barrio."

New census numbers provide evidence of what Latino business owners already know — the Latino population in the region is booming. The Henrico Hispanic population has increased 152 percent since 2000 to 15,000. Latinos now make up 4.9 percent of the county population.

"It's just going to get bigger," said Mynor Gonzalez, who owns the La Cieba Restaurant nearby. "Nothing's going to stop it."

Gonzalez, a 37-year-old Guatemalan who left home when he was 14, said Hispanics will continue seeking opportunity in America, and, in turn, Virginia.

"When … you've got kids hungry and starving, you'd do anything for your kids," he said.

Ed Christian, who has an office in the strip mall, called the transition to a Latino-dominated shopping center "a good thing." He said 40 percent of the work force of his employer, contractor Michael L. Cook Inc., is Latino.

"The people stepping up to the plate are the immigrants," he said. "Their work ethic is extraordinary."

He said he has enjoyed talking with Latinos he meets on the job and at the mall. "I was never afraid to approach and learn what I could," he said, adding that he found Latinos excited to talk about their homelands. "I found that pleasing."

According to census figures, the number of Hispanics in Virginia grew from less than 5 percent of the population in 2000 to nearly 8 percent in 2010. Chesterfield County leads the greater Richmond region in the growth rate for the Hispanic population with more than 22,000, an increase of 200 percent.

The influx has resulted in tensions felt elsewhere in the country over competition for jobs, concerns about too many people inhabiting one apartment, and questions about the local costs of illegal immigration. In 2007, a Chesterfield official proposed the county affirm English as its official language.

On Tuesday the House of Delegates approved a bill that would require state and local law enforcement to inquire about a person's citizenship status upon arrest — a bill some say promotes discrimination.

But there are plenty of people who welcome the new additions to the community. Julia Slusser, who works at a county office in the same shopping center, said she has become more open to Latinos since her son, John, married a Dominican woman three years ago.

"It's made me understand the culture better," she said. "Before, I was a little more afraid of them, because I had heard mostly bad things. I didn't realize how family-oriented they were."

Richmond is attracting Latinos, in part, because of the availability of jobs and a low cost of living — the same reason other Americans are locating here. Ricardo Gomez and his wife, Claudia Mata, escaped the bad weather and expensive housing in New York. She opened a hair salon at the strip mall on Crockett Street near Staples Mill Road, and he started a landscaping business.

"Richmond is a good environment to raise kids. It's more peaceful," Gomez said. "Here I can relax and spend more time with the family."

The more Latinos move here, the easier it becomes for them to live here. Jose Armando Benitez, who owns the Arco Iris Latino Market on Staples Mill Road, said there were five markets in the region when he opened his in 2001. Now there are closer to 50.

The stores allow people to replicate the life they had in Latin America. "I can get anything I was eating at home pretty much anywhere I go," said Benitez, who grew up in El Salvador and works seven days a week to run his businesses here.

After following members of his family to Richmond, Gonzalez, the restaurant owner, now urges other friends and family members to relocate here. He has built a comfortable life, starting a roofing company and buying two homes and a new truck. His biggest complaint is that his clients talk to his white workers rather than him, even though he speaks English well.

But he is proud that when he picks up his kids from school, their teachers know he has made something of himself because they watched him go from "zero" to a successful entrepreneur.

"When people respect you and know you, it feels good," he said, adding that he has lived in America longer than in Guatemala. "This is my home."