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Juan Salinas joined the group Tloke-Nahuake in a dance performance celebrating the Day of the Dead at La Milpa restaurant in November.
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Day of the Dead festivities at La Milpa
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La Milpa owner Martin Gonzalez
On the first day of November, Martin Gonzalez transformed the parking lot of his Hull Street Road restaurant, La Milpa, into a cultural mecca for Latino immigrants like himself to celebrate Dia de los Muertos, or the Day of the Dead. In Latin America, it rates as one of the chief holidays — a day to remember those who have died.
About 200 people converged on La Milpa this year, Gonzalez says, to celebrate with traditional dishes served by his staff and with performances by Tloke-Nahuake, a group of dancers adorned in intricate ceremonial costumes.
For Gonzalez, the lively event is not just a slice of his native Mexico. It also illustrates a community and county government that has been welcoming of Hispanic culture and business.
When he opened his first restaurant and Latin-foods store in Chesterfield County back in 1997, it was one of the only Hispanic businesses on Jefferson Davis Highway.
Nearly 15 years later, there are almost too many Hispanic-owned businesses to count along the corridor, Gonzalez says. He tried opening a restaurant in Henrico in 1995 with limited success, but in Chesterfield, "the [Hispanic] community started growing really fast, and then the business was growing also. ... Chesterfield is a wonderful place for opportunities, and the government is helping out the businesses to grow, to open doors ... and these are the advantages we're looking for."
Since 2001, Chesterfield's Hispanic population has grown by a whopping 810 percent, from around 2,500 to about 23,000 today, according to U.S. Census figures.
Chesterfield County Multicultural Liaison Juan Santacoloma says that when he came here in 2000, he knew of one Latino business. Now the county has at least five distinct, vibrant Hispanic corridors: eastern Hull Street Road; eastern Midlothian Turnpike; the Walmsley/Iron Bridge Road area; Meadowdale Boulevard and Hopkins Road; and Jefferson Davis Highway.
"The Latino businesses have grown a lot in Chesterfield County," Santacoloma says. "Just between Walmsley and maybe Route 10, we have at least maybe 50 or 70 different Latino businesses of all kinds — restaurants, nightclubs, markets, tires, ice cream, clothing stores."
Only 15 years ago, Hispanic families may have had to grow their own spices in the backyard to complete a traditional recipe. Now they can go to a variety of local markets to buy products direct from Mexico and South America, like the fresh cactus fruit Gonzalez sells at La Milpa, which also draws people from around the region for weekend outdoor barbecues. "People will find it the way they used to have it at home," Gonzalez says.
Chesterfield's government has been very welcoming to Hispanic business, says Gonzalez, helping to expedite business licenses and providing bilingual assistance to connect business people and citizens to needed services.
"We in Chesterfield County recognize the growth of the Hispanic community, and we want to assist in any economic development opportunities," says Will Davis, the county's economic development director.
The majority of the Hispanic community in Chesterfield hails from Mexico, according to census data, but many other nations and territories are also represented, such as Honduras, Cuba, Guatemala, El Salvador, Colombia and Puerto Rico, say Santacoloma and others.
Hispanics in Central Virginia gravitated to Chesterfield because of its strong church community, soccer leagues and business-friendly county government, Gonzalez says. And, says Puerto Rican native Teddy Elliott, "Hispanics tend to cluster together. Typically, you go where it's familiar. If you see there's business and apartments starting to build, people flock to it because they go with what's comfortable, with what's known."
Michel Zajur, CEO of the Virginia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, which is based in Chesterfield, says that if one wants to see the impact of a vibrant, large Hispanic business community, look to Fairfax County, where 9,600 Hispanic businesses make up 8.8 percent of the overall business community, bringing in $1.5 billion in annual sales receipts. Twelve Hispanic-owned Fortune 500 companies are based in Fairfax, including technology and security firms.
Zajur believes that the metro Richmond area could see the same sort of explosive growth of Hispanic business in the next 10 to 20 years. "Fairfax, they're older, they're more established. In the Richmond area, this is a new community. The [Hispanic] business community wasn't here, say, 15 years ago," Zajur says.
Many of the Hispanic businesses and homeowners are renovating and revitalizing blight-stricken neighborhoods, reopening storefronts and houses that once were boarded over. "What I see happening in Chesterfield and the Richmond area, a lot of these businesses are at the beginning," Zajur says. "Some of these businesses are going to [become] multimillion-dollar companies."
The Virginia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce is talking to county officials about ways to grow Hispanic commerce and forge international business ties with companies in Latin America.
Gonzalez, Elliott and other Hispanic businesspeople this year also formed the Club de Commerciantes de Virginia, or the Merchants Club Association of Virginia. Most of the initial member businesses are from Chesterfield, says Elliott, the club secretary, but the goal is to become a statewide association representing the interests of Hispanic small-business owners.
"We want to be one voice," says Elliott, an investment and insurance sales agent with MassMutual Financial Group. "If we unite together, there's power in numbers to make an impact on the community."
She hopes the club, which is headed up by Gonzalez, will not only advocate for Latino business, but will also support community endeavors such as The Steward School's Latino Education and Advancement Program (LEAP), a summer college-preparatory program for rising eighth-grade Hispanic students.
One thing is for certain: with a still-growing Hispanic population, the new club won't lack for Latino businesses in Chesterfield County.
"I don't know why they have the spirit to open and grow," Santacoloma says. "It doesn't matter if the situation is hard. They will say, ‘I need to work harder to grow my business.' ... They are working and working and working harder every day in order to provide a better life."