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Minnesota's Hispanic market grows along with population
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Rudy Trujillo started one of the first businesses on Minneapolis' Lake Street catering to Hispanics (MPR Photo/Art Hughes)
Estimates by the Minnesota demographer's office indicate a Latino population of 175,000 in the state, compared with a count of 143,000 by the U.S. Census four years ago. The growing Latino population is one of the reasons for Mexican President Vicente Fox's visit to Minnesota. As the Hispanic population grows, so does their economic power--estimated by marketing experts at more than $3 billion. New restaurants and service businesses catering to Mexican, Central American, Cuban and other Spanish-speaking residents continue to pop up all over the state. And there's also a growing number of firms hoping to teach other businesses how to tap into the Hispanic market.

Minneapolis, Minn. — With a head for numbers and fluency with both Spanish and English, Rudy Trujillo recognized the burgeoning Hispanic market early.

"I saw a need, that the Latino community was being underserved at that time," Trujillo said. "Being from Texas and being totally bilingual and bi-cultural I started the business." Trujillo's Tax Service started 10 years ago when there were only four or five Latino owned businesses along Lake Street. Now, there are more than 300. Trujillo provides a wide variety of services the sum of which don't seem to have a parallel in the non-Hispanic world. In addition to preparing taxes, his staff facilitate real estate translations, process mortgage loans and provide Spanish translations for any document. The office buzzes with customers waiting under a large, bronze-framed painting of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Trujillo said the business future looks strong.

I don't think it's going to slow down," Trujillo predicted. "In fact I think it's going to go the other way. There will be more and more Latinos coming into the United States."

The University of Georgia's Selig Center for Economic Growth estimates the combined buying potential of Minnesota's Latinos at $3.1 billion. That's nearly $20,000 for every Hispanic man, woman and child. The center predicts the number will double in the next 10 years.

St. Thomas graduate Tim Martinson recently returned to Minneapolis from Miami to start his own Hispanic marketing business. He noted the increase of Spanish language media in the Twin Cities, including six publications, one community access television show and commercial AM radio station Radio Rey.

Martinson said the Twin Cities don't have the Latino population of some larger cities, but the rate of growth is creating opportunities.

"The bigger ad agencies---they can have L.A. and they can have Miami." Martinson said. "I want this developing market niche. Milwaukee, Des Moines, Minneapolis, Mankato. Areas like that, that's really where a small group like my company can benefit."

Martinson, a self-described gringo, said the growth of Latino buying power in Minnesota is the sixth fastest in the country. He learned Spanish throughout high school and college before learning business. He remembers getting hired at a Twin Cities food company to teach English to Spanish-speaking employees.

"And the Spanish-speaking employees said, no, they should be the ones taking Spanish," Martinson said. "The market isn't quite there yet in Minnesota, but I think it's getting there. And I think it's right around the corner."

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Image Ramon Leone

Martinson is the newest member of a growing industry in Minnesota showing companies how to reach Hispanic consumers. He said it's more than just learning Spanish.

"Beyond that speaking to different values, speaking to family, tradition, culture..." Martinson said. "You've got people who've been in country fewer than eight years, 10years. What's it like to assimilate into a foreign culture? It's extremely difficult."

Martinson may be new to the industry, but marketing to Hispanics is not.

"We remind companies this is long range," said Rick Aguilar, the president of Aguilar Productions.

For the past eight years he's organized a conference in St. Paul to introduce businesses to the idea of selling to Hispanics.

"I've been with some companies, they'll hire a Latino--one Latino--and put some ads in a newspaper for six months and maybe do some radio and nothing happens they'll say, 'we tried'," Aguilar said.

Governor Tim Pawlenty appointed Aguilar to the Twin Cities Metropolitan Council. A St. Paul native, Aguilar's father was one of the Mexican migrants who pioneered the successful enclave of Latino culture on St. Paul's West Side.

Aguilar said the combination of established Latino residents and the continually growing new immigrant population puts the Twin Cities on a path to developing a more sophisticated and integrated Hispanic presence as has already happened in cities such as San Antonio.

"We have some great entrepreneurs coming here." Aguilar said. "Now we have to learn general marketing skills---the five year plan, the making sure we're mentoring managers and that type of thing. I think that's the next step for us."

"I've been with some companies, they'll hire a Latino--one Latino--and put some ads in a newspaper for six months and maybe do some radio and nothing happens they'll say, 'we tried',"
- Rick Aguilar, president of Aguilar Productions

Hispanic business owners often face obstacles that most others do not. Mexican President Vicente Fox's visit to the United States highlights the role immigration laws play for both Hispanic businesses and industries such as agriculture and construction. Bills under consideration in Congress would grant illegal immigrants temporary worker status.

South Minneapolis businessman Ramon Leon entered the country illegally in 1987. He moved to Minnesota from California in 1991 to find a less saturated market for his upholstery skills. He says he's never been without a job and never relied on public services. Even after buying a house, starting his own business, marrying a U.S. Citizen and having two children, he remained an undocumented immigrant subject to deportation. He said it's better for society if all taxpaying residents can reap some reward for their role in the American economy.

"We are here, we are paying taxes, but our children are not educated properly," Leon said. "We need to find a solution and we need to hold people accountable for that too. I mean we all face the same issues. The only difference that makes it more difficult for us to work on is the lack of knowledge of the system and the language."

Without education and other such tools, Leon said, children are especially easy targets for gangs or a life of dependence on others.

Leon was also undocumented when he and others held meetings after the Sunday Spanish-language mass in a south Minneapolis church. The group grew tired of complaining about police or immigration officials or other obstacles. He said they inventoried their skills to begin satisfying the Latino market's ready demand. In the process they learned they had a more widespread appeal.

"Then we realized that the market was not only Latino and we could also sell to Anglos, to the Black community, the Hmong community and, you know, the general community," Leon said. "And we could also use the economic development as a tool to fight for social justice issues. We could also use it to build political power."

The group helped secure $10,000 micro-loans from neighborhood groups. One of those loans turned into a business that now achieves sales of more than $5 million a year. Leon, who now heads the Latino Economic Development Center, says American immigration laws are forcing new arrivals to stay hidden as dishwashers, cooks and hotel housekeepers instead of encouraging their natural entrepreneurial spirit.

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