October 30, 2005
By Paul R. Kopenkoskey
Sienis Avila has no problem deciding if he would rather stretch his entrepreneurial wings in the United States or his homeland, Cuba.
The land of opportunity wins hands down.
"It's because of the freedom, the democracy and the opportunity to grow and to develop," said Avila, a native of Havana who immigrated to the U.S. in 1997.
Avila and 73 other businesspeople were seeking to fulfill dreams of their own Saturday as vendors at the West Michigan Hispanic Business Expo.
"The United States is not something closed," said Avila, who started a Web design and computer repair business six months ago in Wyoming and employs three.
"You don't have to do what they tell you. There's a lot of freedom here to do your own dream, and not one way but different ways."
The third annual expo, held at the DeltaPlex Entertainment and Expo Center, is an example of new territory Latinos have gained within the mainstream business sector, said Dina Gonzalez, president of the 100-member West Michigan Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.
As proof, Gonzalez noted about half the vendors were not Hispanic businesses.
"They're looking to partner up with the Hispanic community," she said.
Area businesses have demonstrated a willingness to shake off the prejudice Grand Rapids' Hispanics, last counted at 25,720, have encountered, she said.
"As we continue to grow in the community, I see change," she said.
"Welcoming Latinos is all hot right now," she said. "We have a very strong family concept. That really does break down the barriers. It's more, 'What can we do for you?' instead of 'What can I do for myself?'"
Hispanics' presence is growing in local media as well, Gonzalez said.
Four local Hispanic newspapers, three radio stations and four cable TV shows are available in Grand Rapids.
But another media component -- the Internet -- eludes Hispanic-owned businesses, Avila said.
Latinos could gain a bigger market share through Web sites -- a prospect Avila hopes he can help remedy.
"We've got Hispanic businesses that have not integrated their businesses with technology," Avila said. "With a Web page, they got an opportunity to show their business beyond Grand Rapids.
An estimated 800 people attended this year's expo almost doubling last year's attendance, Gonzalez said.
Source: The Grand Rapids Press