Two years ago, Nestor Carrillo could fit the demands for his Mexican candies and tortillas into one truck as he drove products to a handful of stores across Idaho. Carrillo now has four trucks, three employees and delivers to more than 110 stores in three states, including Washington and Oregon.
He often makes stops at El Centro, a business wedged in a mostly empty strip mall in Nampa, Idaho, to show his gratitude to the tiny financial center where he first obtained auto insurance after moving to southwest Idaho seven years ago.
Inside, rows of gray dividers separate a tiny army of tax preparers, mortgage specialists, real estate and insurance agents. The signs are in Spanish. The employees are bilingual. For a 35-year-old Guatemalan who recently moved to the United States and was renting a house for his family in Caldwell, the whole layout screamed opportunity.
At El Centro, Carrillo has purchased insurance and secured loans for two homes. He lives in a two-story, three bedroom house with his wife and four children, ages 1 through 9, and lets his sister live in the second home.
“When you rent a house, it’s like giving away your money,” Carrillo said in Spanish.
As part of the largest minority in Idaho, the young father and business owner is among Hispanics who flexed their buying power last year even as the worse financial turmoil since the Great Depression emerged and then tightened its grip.
Hispanic buying power in Idaho grew 11.3 percent last year, faster than the purchasing of Hispanics nationwide and the state’s non-Hispanic population, according to a new report from the Selig Center for Economic Growth at the University of Georgia.
The largest ethnic minority in Idaho is spending 486 percent more on things like food, clothing, housing and vacations than in 1990, said Jeffrey Humphreys, director of the Selig Center for Economic Growth. Hispanics now account for a $2.3 billion share of the state’s total $43.9 billion purchasing strength, compared to $398 million twenty years ago.
In nearby Washington, the buying power of Hispanics has increased 495 percent since 1990 to $12.2 billion last year, Humphreys said, and in Oregon Latino purchasing jumped 661 percent during the same time period to $6.6 billion.
“These markets are very compelling to U.S. businesses, they promise above-average growth in our own backyard,” Humphreys said.
In Idaho, where the U.S. Census Bureau estimates Hispanics made up about 10 percent of the total 1.5 million population, the increasing popularity of all things Latino has proven impossible to ignore.
State Farm Insurance and high-tech employers Micron Technology and Hewlett-Packard are among companies that have sought guidance from the Idaho Commission on Hispanic Affairs during the past five years while attempting to tap into the market, said Margie Gonzalez, the agency’s executive director.
“They really wanted to sell themselves to our population,” Gonzalez said.
In Boise, the state’s most populous city, a television station announced in January it would offer a new channel devoted solely to the region’s Hispanic community. KIVI-Channel 6, the ABC affiliate, launched the new channel Mexicanal, which features programming from central and southern Mexico.
Within the past year, big chains like Blockbuster and Burger King have signed on to advertise with KWEI Spanish Radio in Boise, said station sales manager Debra Patterson.
“Companies that have never aired on Hispanic radio before are starting to look at this market,” Patterson said.
At El Centro in Canyon County, one of 10 Idaho counties where Hispanics represent more than 10 percent of the total disposable income spent, business president David Cahoon also relies heavily on radio advertisements.
The center now has about 10,700 clients, most of whom work at local cheese and meatpacking plants, dairies, and farms.
While a handful of workers who rely on El Centro to prepare their taxes lost jobs in the past year and contemplated moving back to Mexico, Cahoon said, he also noticed another trend — more were buying homes and taking advantage of the growing number of businesses like his that cater specifically to the Hispanic community.
“I thought we would get a lot of people getting their tax returns and then taking off,” said Cahoon, a 31-year-old from Alabama who started as a loan officer at the business six months after it opened in 2001 and bought it last year.
The business has became ingrained in the Hispanic community, considered an ally by first-generation immigrants in their struggle to understand a culture and government system completely different than their own.
In a tiny office with mustard-colored walls, Cahoon recalls a client who called on El Centro for help when she couldn’t find the phone number for a local store. Another man who went to Cahoon for a home loan came back for help after he accidentally signed up for a magazine subscription and couldn’t understand why he was being billed.
“We don’t charge them for stuff like that,” Cahoon said.
Hispanic advocates like Cahoon and the state Commission on Hispanic Affairs were encouraged by the Selig Center report showing the girth of Latino buying power, citing proof of the economic significance of the population.
But groups that work with some of the state’s poorest residents were also alarmed to learn nearly a quarter of Latinos in the state are still living in poverty.
“Let’s not forgot the population is still poorer than the overall Anglo population, let’s not lose focus that there’s still barriers the community needs to overcome,” said Sonia Martinez, community economic development director for Partners for Prosperity, an eastern Idaho nonprofit focused on helping the impoverished.
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