Walking into one of the city’s authentic Hispanic or Latino grocery stores offers a unique, colorful look at a vibrant community that a number of its neighborhood leaders say is still not as well known in Northeast Ohio as it should be.
Brightly colored flags of Hispanic and Latino countries hang proudly from the ceilings of some stores. Jerseys for sale representing global soccer teams are stacked neatly on shelves. Coconut milk, arroz rice and Inca Kola are favorite products among customers. Notes are pinned to community bulletin boards in stores advertising local traditional dance groups or art shows.
But some voices say not enough Northeast Ohioans know — or care — that exciting Hispanic and Latino communities call Cleveland home. The biggest challenge to communities, and the biggest responsibility of others outside the culture, is combating invisibility.
We asked some of these leaders to address the challenges faced and initiatives needed to bring Hispanic/Latino communities more to the forefront in Northeast Ohio.
Ramonita Vargas, CEO, Spanish American Committee
Ramonita Vargas, CEO of the Spanish American Committee (SAC), says what she identifies as the Hispanic/Latino/Latinx community is underestimated in Northeast Ohio in several ways.
“People don’t think we are here. But we are. We are large and we are growing and we are thriving,” says Vargas, whose nonprofit, social services organization celebrates its 57th anniversary this year. “We put a lot of tax money into our communities, and we don’t always get recognized for our contributions and accomplishments. We stick to ourselves. We don’t always try to be in the limelight or create problems. But just because we don’t do those things doesn’t mean we are not here. It’s not always a black/white issue. Our brown communities get left behind. And I see it every day.”
Vargas identifies the language barrier as the biggest challenge facing the Hispanic community in this region. She sees that as a huge problem, especially for non-English speaking individuals seeking work.
“If companies hired a bilingual staff person, those challenges would be lessened,” she says. “Businesses would then have an employee already on the inside who can communicate with someone who is a hardworking individual that simply wants to support his family. A language barrier means not getting hired or accepting a low-paying job.”
Vargas recognizes that residential and commercial construction companies here “are becoming more diverse,” which is especially important because of the field’s labor shortages. But it’s “not enough,” she says, wishing more companies would offer ESL (English as a Second Language) classes once a week that would help foreign language speakers learn technical terms necessary to perform in trades and professional job situations.
SAC offers the Latino Construction Program, which graduated its 14th class in 2022. The program partners with trade unions, builder associations and individual construction companies. Its curriculum covers construction common terms and hazards, opportunities and unions, labor law and more. More than 130 participants have been placed in a variety of trades.
Vargas counts the housing crisis for Hispanics as the second most difficult challenge. Every day someone comes to the SAC looking for an apartment to rent, but “even if they find one, they can’t afford it,” she says. It’s a problem directly related to the language barrier and not getting jobs, she says.
Technology fluency is also a major problem for older Hispanics, according to Vargas. Navigating online housing applications, medical records and appointments, financial transactions and receiving help from social services requires more and more digital knowledge, according to Vargas — something seniors may not have.
While Vargas sees external factors making it more difficult for Hispanics, she also wants her community to accept some responsibility and make changes. That includes nonprofit groups, special interest groups and political groups within the community.
“We all need to partner more in the Hispanic community and work together more,” says Vargas. “That’s one thing that has always been an issue here. Someone always wants to be the top leader instead of working together. We shouldn’t be competing against each other. United, our numbers would be more powerful. In other communities, even if certain groups can’t stand each other, they will get together and get what they are looking for.”
Despite the challenges, Vargas is proud of her neighbors and allies across Cleveland.
“My community is made of hard-working people who care about their families, people in general and the environment,” says Vargas. “If someone has food on their table and can serve someone else, they will. No one goes unfed in a Hispanic family. No one. My mother used to say, when you feed four, you can feed five. When you feed five, you can feed six. There is always enough for someone else.”
Monica Torres, Executive Artistic Director, LatinUs Theater Company
Monica Torres, executive artistic director for LatinUs Theater Company, says, “Without public and community support, arts organizations, especially theater (which entirely depends on having an audience in the seats) would be nonviable.”
“We feel invisible when theatrical writers make articles about the great shows happening in Cleveland and don’t even mention us. Maybe they say, ‘Oh, but their shows are in Spanish.’ But we always have English subtitles so that shouldn’t be an excuse,” says Torres.
“It’s also essential to start involving the youth in classes and workshops. We plan to start the summer of 2023. We are doing this not because we think it is easy, but because our community and city need it,” says Torres.
Magda Gomez, Executive Director of Diversity and Inclusion, Cuyahoga Community College
In the big picture, Cleveland’s Hispanic community is “not an older community, only about 60 years old, but it is close-knit,” according to Magda Gomez, executive director of diversity and inclusion, Cuyahoga Community College (Tri-C). When Gomez’s family came to Cleveland from Puerto Rico in the 1960s, the community relied mostly on social clubs and the faith-based community for support. Her father was a founding board member of the SAC.
Cleveland is “a great place for Hispanics to live now” because of the many organizations that offer opportunities to Hispanics and also because it is more affordable than most other big cities, according to Gomez.
“Many folks from Puerto Rico first went to relatives in New York or Florida, but then they found out Cleveland was more affordable,” says Gomez.
Still, she sees challenges. The language barrier is, of course, the top reason Hispanics find roadblocks to employment and education.
“For those professionals who have degrees or certifications, it’s hard sometimes for them to accept they have to start over,” says Gomez. “It becomes difficult coupled with assimilation and the transition of moving here.”
COVID-19 hit colleges hard across the board. But Gomez says nationally a significant 15% Hispanic enrollment drop, especially fueled by losses in two-year colleges, hurt the community. Two-year college students traditionally are commuters who may have families, jobs and other factors that made continuing school during the pandemic especially difficult. Gomez is optimistic, however, about Tri-C’s newest focus on “more intentional recruitment” and its move “toward workforce programming” that can make a difference.
Gomez also says lack of transportation and risk aversion to taking on debt also present problems for Hispanics seeking education or jobs. The community is “not always familiar with the financial aid offered in this country,” she says. Also, coming from a warm climate to lake effect snow can be unsettling, she adds.
Gomez is proud, however, that a younger generation of civic-minded Hispanics are heading and serving on nonprofit boards in the city. She also gives a shout-out to her friend, Chilean-born Marcia Moreno, creator of 100+ Latinos Clevelanders Must Know, a free online list (ammore.us) that serves as a source for many purposes.
In addition, the Hispanic Council at Tri-C is a 30-year-old program that assists students with admissions, enrollment financial aid and other concerns, says Gomez. The program does “a lot of hand holding,” she says, and Tri-C staff serve as mentors. The college-wide program also has three (a fourth is slated to open by summer) additional access centers in Cleveland.
Bienvenidos a Cleveland (“Welcome to Cleveland”) was established in 2017 as a result of hundreds of people coming to Cleveland after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico. The program, aided by more than 25 nonprofits and companies, became a conveyor and collaborator with the then overwhelmed existing social service agencies.
Today, Bienvenidos a Cleveland is primarily an online directory of services with opportunities for housing, clothing, free legal aid, etc., focused not just on Hispanics, but all those coming to Cleveland from anywhere in the world. The directory is accessible through Tri-C’s website, tri-c.edu.
Jenice Contreras, Executive Director, Northeast Ohio Hispanic Center for Economic Development (NEOHCED)
The Northeast Ohio Hispanic Center for Economic Development (NEOHCED) is the host organization for the Northeast Ohio Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. Jenice Contreras has been the executive director of the vital umbrella organization that supports Hispanic commerce for 10 years.
“I am most proud that we are a resilient community. No matter what you throw, we will figure it out. We take our lemons and make margaritas,” says Contreras, citing her community’s challenges.
Part of that action has been in response to the gentrification of the Clark-Fulton area where Contreras says one of the largest concentration of Latinos in Ohio live. The area will be redeveloped, she says, but it should “be redeveloped for the people who live there.”
“In a lot of other cities, you know where the Latino community lives, where Greek Town is or Asia Town. But we [in Northeast Ohio] haven’t established our ‘everybody-knows-where-we-are’ location yet,” she says.
That will partially change with the creation of Centro Villa 25 in Clark-Fulton. The adaptive reuse of a vacant 32,500-square-foot warehouse, office building and 12,500-square-foot expansion will be the new home to 20 micro-retail spaces, an outdoor plaza, commercial kitchen, gathering space for arts-and-culture events and the NEOHCED offices. Ground will be broken this March with a full completion date expected spring 2024. Almost 500 jobs are expected to be created once the complex is up and running.
“This is the most exciting thing happening on this side of town. Except for MetroHealth, there isn’t much else there. Yes, we are doing it for the Latino community, but also for everyone else. This is a $10 million project and will give all people a place to have dinner, buy groceries and celebrate our culture,” says Contreras.
Victor Ruiz, executive director, Esperanza Inc.
This year, Esperanza Inc. celebrates its 40th anniversary as a nonprofit organization dedicated to the advancement of Hispanic academic achievement. Throughout its history, Esperanza has provided more than $2 million in college scholarships. For the 2022-2023 academic year, the organization awarded $120,000 in scholarships. Other services include tutoring, ESL classes, career training, summer camps and digital literacy classes.
“I am proud of the number of students we have helped go to college and then come back as either volunteers or employees, “says Victor Ruiz, Esperanza’s executive director. “There are a lot of opportunities in Cleveland, but our community is still struggling to have access to them.”
With his strong educational focus, it’s no wonder Ruiz says educating others outside the community, including employers and politicians, is “a constant process,” but a necessary one. Sometimes you have to start with basic information. A national poll showed a majority of Americans did not know Puerto Ricans born in that country on or after January 13, 1941, are U.S. Citizens.
Ruiz, who came to the United States from Puerto Rico at age five, is also impressed with newcomers to the region who have started businesses in the traditional Hispanic and Latino neighborhoods of Cleveland and are also moving south.
“They are helping to change the face of some of our neighborhoods,” he says.
By the Numbers
- 48,699 people who identify as Hispanic live in Cleveland; 13% of the city’s total population.
- 76,316 people of Hispanic descent live in Cuyahoga County; less than 7% of the total population.
- The Hispanic population in Cleveland consists of 46,332 Puerto Ricans; 13,200 Mexicans; and 1,624 Cubans.
- Cleveland is second only to Columbus in Ohio in terms of the number of Hispanic residents.
- Cities in Northeast Ohio with the most Hispanic people include Lorain, Painesville and Brooklyn.
- Almost 456,000 Latinos live in Ohio.
- The median household income for all Ohio households is $56,000; Mexican immigrant households in Ohio have a median income of $43,000; for Central American households, it is $36,000.
- 212,000 Hispanic Ohioans are in the civilian labor force; unemployment is 7.3%.
(Sources: 2020 U.S. Census; The State of Ohio’s 2021 Ohio Latino Affairs Committee Annual Report)
Social, Business and Educational Resources
- Bienvenidos a Cleveland, email@example.com, tri-c.edu
- Catholic Charities Diocese of Cleveland, Hispanic Senior Center, Hispanic Men’s Program, Hispanic Women’s Program, Hispanic Youth Counseling, 216-334-2900, ccdocle.org
- Esperanza Inc., 216-651-7178, esperanzainc.org
- The Hispanic Council, Cleveland Community College Western Campus, 216-987-5691; Metro Campus, 216-987-4420, tri-c.edu
- LatinUs Theater Company, 216-369-7158, latinustheater.com
- Northeast Ohio Hispanic Center for Economic Development (NEOHCED), 216-281-4422, hbcenter.org
- Ohio Latino Affairs Commission, 614-466-8333, ochla.ohio.gov
- Spanish American Committee, 216-961-2100, spanishamerican.org