Contributing factors

A new report says Latinos are an increasingly important part of the state’s economic engine

Latino shoppers and Hispanic businesses like Mercado Latino have become an ever more familiar part of the economic landscape in Nevada.

Latino shoppers and Hispanic businesses like Mercado Latino have become an ever more familiar part of the economic landscape in Nevada.

Photo By David Robert

As the dinner hour approaches, 41-year-old Teresa (not her real name) quickly tries to finish reading Barron’s Essential Words for TOEFL for the day. She sits in the University of Nevada, Reno student dining room as a slant of late-afternoon light filters in through a large tinted window—a lonely figure studying in a maze of empty tables and chairs.

Teresa, a Peruvian, is one of Nevada’s Latino immigrants, a community that contributes nearly $20 billion to the state’s economy, according to a new report. The figure represents more than one-fourth of the gross state product and includes their spending, their businesses, the sum total of their economic activity.

“I came to Reno in October 2002,” Teresa says. “I came here because I wanted to work as a nurse in America. But if I want to work as a nurse here, I have to pass the TOEFL [Test of English as a Second Language] test and the nursing test, so I studied English as a second language in UNR.”

Today, Teresa is preparing for the TOEFL. She also works at a salad counter at UNR. Proud of her origins, she is nonetheless surprised when told of the sizeable contribution that people from her part of the world make to the state.

“It is unbelievable,” she says. “I knew that Latin American people contributed [to the economy], but I did not know how much. It is good because we are helping build the economic situation in America.”

Indeed, Latino immigrants support some of Nevada’s top industries, such as gambling, construction and retail. According to the new report prepared by the Center of Work and Community Development in Chicago, there are 152,635 immigrant Latinos in Nevada’s workforce, a number that might well be greater today, as the report uses data from the 2000 Census and a survey conducted in 2002.

The study, commissioned by the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada, also reports that the economic activities of these immigrants lead to the creation of almost 85,500 additional jobs because Latinos often occupy positions at the lower end of an industry that in turn helps create and bolster higher-paid jobs for non-Latino natives. That brings the total number of jobs generated by immigrant Latinos in Nevada to more than a quarter-million.

Moreover, employers profit by hiring Latino workers because immigrants are often paid below the state average due to the nature of the jobs, employment discrimination and their powerlessness in the labor market—especially if they are undocumented.

“I think it’s not right,” Teresa says. “There should be more laws to support these people. They [Latinos] often work harder than American people. I can say that they often work for more than 12 hours and have a break for only half an hour. Latin people have to work more because they need money to send to their families in their own countries.”

The problem is greater with undocumented laborers, who pay taxes but are barred from enjoying the entitlement programs the taxes support.

“This should change,” says Antonio Velásquez, 29, a Colombian who works for a local law firm and a utility company. “Hispanics are paying taxes. They are contributing to the American economy by doing jobs that Americans won’t do, like working in the fields in California or working in the casinos, where the rates are really low.”

Discrimination toward Latinos pervades the society in subtle, insidious ways. Velásquez, a lawyer who is now waiting for a license to practice in California, faces a peculiar form of bias—astonishment—in his life.

"[Americans] label Hispanic people as those who work for five or six bucks an hour,” he says. “So people see it as incredible that I am applying for a license in California. They don’t understand how, being a Hispanic, I could have a title like that.”

In the course of his customer service work for the utility company, Velásquez encounters situations in which people judge him purely by his Spanish accent.

“I receive customer calls who request to be transferred to a ‘citizen’ because they assume that if you have an accent you cannot be a citizen,” he says. “This happens mostly with old people. Then, there are people who can’t stand Hispanic people and also those who just label anyone with Spanish accent as Mexican.”

Juan Marcos González, 24, a Puerto Rican graduate student at UNR, succinctly summed up the irony of the situation.

“America is a society that is very good for putting labels,” he says. “But I think some Americans forget that the only true native Americans are those who are now on reservations. So any others who don’t belong to that group [of American Indians] have ancestors who, at some point, were immigrants.”

Others, like Teresa, choose not to feel affected by the way people behave.

“I don’t care,” she says, with a shrug. “I am a professional. I came here with a goal. Human beings have too many reactions; it is normal.”

Besides, with the hefty financial contribution the Latino community is making to the state, Latin Americans in Nevada have good reason to let go of any feeling of inadequacy that the social system may have planted in them. Moreover, since the 2000 census, Republicans and Democrats alike have begun courting Latinos because that census showed a striking growth—a whopping 19.7 percent of the state is now Hispanic, nearly twice the figure from the 1990 census and sixth highest in the nation. Politicians who ignore the Latino voter do so at their own risk.

“I am not surprised that Hispanics are contributing so much to the state’s economy,” González says. “If you have a group that is near to becoming the largest minority in the country, you must expect a significant contribution. Not just wealthy people contribute to the economy.”

He adds, "Though I never heard the fact [of Latino economic contributions] before, I would say I am glad that something like this is coming out and is being acknowledged."