The swift growth of U.S. Latinos is reshaping big states and small towns. Meet the faces of a new era.
By Suzanne Gamboa and Nicole Acevedo
Sept. 15, 2021
In New Hampshire, a Roman Catholic church where Irish and French Canadian immigrants used to worship now has the state’s largest Latino congregation. In the Deep South, a county in Georgia is one of the nation’s top 10 in diversity.
Hispanics accounted for over half of the nation’s population growth in the last decade. This is not just reflected in larger cities, but in mountain towns, Southern neighborhoods and Midwestern prairies.
“The Latino population has been dispersing across the United States for years — a reflection of where the nation’s population is moving and where opportunities are located,” said Mark Hugo Lopez, director of race and ethnicity research at the Pew Research Center.
Lopez, whose Mexican American family has been in California for over a century, has seen dispersion in his own family, with relatives moving to Washington state, Nevada, North Carolina and New Jersey as they followed job, educational and military opportunities, mirroring some of the data he and his team have recorded over the years.
Though a majority of Latinos — almost 70 percent — are U.S. born, Lopez noted that as “you see Hispanics pursuing opportunity around the country, oftentimes immigrants are leading the way” in terms of moving to places with new economic opportunities.
Amid Western mountains, new possibilities
For Lissy Samantha Suazo, 18, the open space of Big Sky, Montana — a small town near Yellowstone National Park — has been a beginning to wider, bigger possibilities.
“When I arrived here in Big Sky, I was the second person of color and Spanish-speaking person in the school and the first one who didn’t know how to speak English,” said Suazo, who was 12 when her family came from Honduras.
Waded Cruzado’s journey through Montana started a few years earlier than Suazo’s. She was hired in 2010 as president of Montana State University in Bozeman.
“I remember saying, ‘You know, I have never been to Montana. … Do you know what I look like? I don’t look like and sound like anyone in Montana,’” said Cruzado, 61, who was born and raised in Puerto Rico. “But I was wrong.”
Hispanics have been in Montana since the early 1800s as fur traders, ranchers, rail workers and laborers in beet fields, according to Bridget Kevane, professor of Latin American and Latino Studies at Montana State University.
But in the last two decades, Montana has been among the states with the fastest growing Latino populations in the country. Though the 45,199 Latinos who live in Montana are minuscule compared to the 15.6 million Hispanics who live in California, the state’s 58.2 percent jump in Latino residents since 2010 leads all U.S. western states over the last decade.
In California and in New Mexico, Latinos are half of the population under 18.
Suazo’s family was in New York after coming from Honduras when her father got a call to come work in Big Sky. Since then, Suazo has taken advantage of the opportunities available to her.
Now in her senior year in high school, the straight-A student is spending a semester at a leadership academy in South Africa and has found meaning beyond academics, starting with when she helped a fellow Honduran student learn English and get her bearings.
Suazo expanded on that by starting a Latino student union in her high school, creating a nonprofit group, GLAM, to assist people in other countries, including Honduras, and starting a Spanish-language newspaper, Noticias Montaña, with friends that among other things keeps Montana Latinos informed on local issues, including Covid-related information.
“At the end of the day, it is the impact that I make that makes me feel successful,” Suazo said.