Hispanic-Latinos: The challenge of social assimilation
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Hispanic-Latinos: The challenge of social assimilation

Date: May 10, 2012
By: Ildefonso Perez
State Capitol Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - Hispanic communities are growing in Missouri, and the state's principal challenge is social assimilation.

The staff is working in the office of the minority floor leader, the phone is ringing, the secretaries are typing on the computers and someone is reviewing some documents after putting them on the desk.

The door opens and Rep. Mike Talboy, D-Jackson County, comes in, takes the documents and prepares himself for the interview. It's the afternoon, and the office is bright from the sun coming through the windows and reflecting off of the white walls. He closes the door and now it is quiet.

Sitting on a chair in front of a big desk, Talboy begins to speak about his Hispanic heritage. “I speak very little Spanish. My grandfather immigrated to the United States from Bogota, but my grandmother was born in America. However, my grandparents moved to Bogota right after my mother and her twin brother were born. My grandfather returned to the States when he was 33 years old and became a citizen in 1995. Because my mother was raised in Bogota, I have had a broad range of exposure to different cultures.”

Hispanic communities are growing in Missouri, and the state's principal challenge is social assimilation.

According to the 2000 census, the Hispanic-Latino population in Missouri was 118,617, but in 2010 it reports almost 212,500, which means an increase of 79 percent in a 10-year period. Now, the Hispanic-Latino demographic is 3.4 percent of Missouri's population. It is not as large as some other states, such as California, but it has its own impact.

Since 2006, Talboy has been representing District 37 in the Missouri House of Representatives. His district includes the downtown areas of Kansas City. “My district has one of the two largest Hispanic populations in the state. They are a pretty vocal constituency and, given my heritage, I have very open communication with them. They have been very good at letting me know their concerns. We have a great working relationship, especially since we are aligned on many of the issues that concern them.”

A working relationship is possible because there are many Hispanic-Latino organizations in the area. The Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, Coalition of Hispanic Organizations (COHO), Hispanic American Leadership Organization (HALO), The Hispanic Development Fund, and Hispanic Capitol Day are just a few of the organizations the community communicates through.  “It is not just the immigration stuff,” said Talboy. “It is having living wages, having health care, and having business, educational and professional opportunities.”

The issues of the Hispanic-Latino communities are not only about immigration. According to the 2006 American Community Survey, they have a median age of 27, 60 percent of whom were born in the U.S.; around 60 percent 25 years and older have high school educations; and 12 percent have a bachelor’s degree.

Hispanic-Latinos work in production, transportation, sales or offices, but they also are business owners. According to the 2002 Economic Census, in Missouri there were 3,652 Hispanic owned firms, some being a familiar business, and 722 of them had 5,507 paid employees.

Because of the growth of various social groups and their particular problems and interests, the social assimilation process is made easier or more difficult, due to the particular problems and interests of the various groups. “Assimilation doesn’t mean shedding everything that makes someone themselves, and it isn’t shedding their heritage or their family or anything like that, but the process of assimilation does not happen over two to three years, it takes a little bit longer, and we need to make sure that people are more aware of that,” Talboy said.

Things that make the assimilation process of the Hispanic-Latino communities into Missouri society easier are, according to Talboy, “Their work ethic, their openness toward families and making sure that they have good relationships with their neighbors and the responsibility that they feel toward each other.”

But the biggest obstacle to social assimilation is the language. “My grandfather, for instance, immigrated here when he was 33 old, so it was tougher to learn English. Luckily for him, unlike what we do in the United States, their schools make a concerted effort when the students are young to teach them second or third languages and he knew some English. We’ve done a poor job of keeping up with other countries, requirements that students learn multiple languages.” Talboy said. The positive and negative aspects in these issues represent a challenge to Missouri in the long process of social assimilation.

The language problem is not only for Hispanic-Latinos or other immigrant groups, but it is also an economic problem for the state of Missouri. In its final report in 2006, the Special Committee on Immigration Reform recommended that the state recognize English as the language of official proceedings because of the high cost of interpreters, official publications and documents printed in multiple languages.

On the other hand, the different languages can be an opportunity. Talboy raised the question, “If you had aspirations of going into greater markets or being able to expand your business, why wouldn’t you want to learn how to speak Spanish or at least have people who could speak Spanish in your workplace?"

A possible solution could begin with “more understanding on the part of the government that there isn’t this greater conspiracy to come here and make everybody speak Spanish or kind of infiltrate the United States and make it different,” he says.

The fact is that the Hispanic-Latino communities are growing in Missouri, and they represent challenges to the government. Issues on which Talboy says he is working are “education, making sure that some of the safety net social programs are still around, the circuit breaker tax credit, making sure that you have programs that are available to minority and small business owners, entrepreneurial opportunities, access to health care, things like that.”

The quiet moment of good conversation comes to the end. Talboy, with a friendly smile prepares himself for the picture and attests that “the issues that are in the Hispanic communities right now are not unlike the issues that are in everyday Missouri communities.”

Hispanic-Latinos are present in the farms, factories, universities, business and politics and, step-by-step, they are working on the social assimilation process of Missouri society.

Talboy was born in Boise, Idaho. He has resided in Kansas City for 16 years. He graduated with a bachelor of arts in Communications from the University of Missouri-Kansas City. In 2002, he received his juris doctorate from the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law. He was elected to the Missouri House of Representatives in 2006 and has served on the House Rules Committee, as well as being a member of the committees for Health Care and Immigration. He currently serves as House minority leader.

 Editor's Note: ldefonso is a priest from Mexico participating in an exchange program between the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome and the Missouri School of Journalism.