September 11, 2014
By Alva James-Johnson
When Harold "Lefty" Encarnacion and his wife, Millie, moved to Columbus 30 years ago, they had to send money to New York for ethnic foods and seasonings. The couple soon sensed a business opportunity and opened their own grocery store to serve the growing Hispanic population.
"The day I opened the market is the day I realized how many Hispanics there actually were in Columbus because they were all spread out," said Encarnacion, co-owner of Millie's International Food Market on South Lumpkin Road. "When we opened the store, we did a grand opening and it attracted all kinds of Latinos, the majority being Mexicans."
Today the store is at the center of a Hispanic community that is much more diverse, representing 21 different nationalities. In addition to selling products from Latin America and the Caribbean, the store is also home to UNIDOS 107.7 FM, a local radio station that serves the Spanish-speaking population through Latin music and other cultural offerings.
While the population in the tri-city area has mainly consisted of Mexicans, Puerto Ricans and Cubans, the area is now seeing more people from countries like the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Panama and Venezuela, said community leaders. On Saturday, the cultural variety will be on full display at the second annual Tri-cities Latino Festival, which is expected to draw 8,000 to 10,000 people.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the Hispanic population in the tri-city area is growing rapidly. In Columbus, people of Hispanic origin increased by 44.6 percent from 2000 to 2010, jumping from 8,372 to 12,110 over the 10-year period. The population across the river in Phenix City, Ala., grew from 426 in 2000 to 1,316 in 2010.
Last year, Hispanics accounted for 7.3 percent of the residents in Muscogee County and 4.9 percent of those in Russell County, according to census estimates.
Matthew Hauer, a demographer with the Carl Vinson Institute of Government at the University of Georgia, said the rapid growth of Hispanic residents in the tri-city area is on par with the rest of the state, which is seeing a significant increase in the population. In Georgia, the Hispanic population jumped 96 percent from 435,227 in 2000 to 853,689 in 2010. By 2013, the census estimated the percentage of Hispanics living in the state at about 9.2 percent.
Hauer said people of Hispanic origin may be more visible in Atlanta and other big urban centers, but mid-sized cities like Columbus are also getting their share. "Even since the decennial census we're seeing population growth," he said. "It's just that in Columbus it's a very small base to start with."
Doris Brown is the lead teacher for the Muscogee County School District's English for Speakers of Other Languages, or ESOL, program. She said her office provides services to 900 students, and 75 percent of them are Spanish-speaking.
There are 200 more students in the program than last year, she said, and the numbers don't include Hispanic children that don't need ESOL services.
Brown said the services are available at 13 elementary, three middle and two high schools. Seven hundred students are active in the program and another 200 are monitored for academic progress as required by federal law. Most of the Hispanic students are U.S. citizens who were born in the country.
"In the last few years it had been kind of flat, but this year we're seeing an increase of all immigrants," she said, referring also to more students from Africa, Haiti and other places. "It's our highest number ever."
The Rev. Luis Scott, pastor of Embajadores de Cristo on Milgen Road, said there are 29 Spanish-speaking churches and one bilingual Latino church in Columbus. His church has a membership of about 250 people. It provides both English and Spanish services, with the Spanish service attracting about 80 people.
"The census says there are like 14,000 Latinos in Columbus, but obviously that doesn't account for people who are here undocumented who may not have participated in the census," he said. "Some of the estimates of people who have been here for a while, me included, are that the population is probably twice that size -- maybe 25,000 to 28,000 Latinos in the area."
A welcoming community
Councilwoman Evelyn "Mimi" Woodson, the city's only female Hispanic elected official, said Hispanics migrate to the tri-city area for a number of reasons. Some are laborers who are recruited by local companies. Others are affiliated with the military, and some are professionals who decide to migrate to the area after visiting family and friends. She said most are coming from other areas like Atlanta, Chicago, South Carolina, Arizona and New York. They like the slower pace and local hospitality.
"Columbus has a welcoming feeling when you come into it -- it's warm," said Woodson, who settled in the area in 1992 after serving in the military. "You come here and you just tend to love that. You want to come back."
Woodson said many people are surprised to learn that the tri-city area has such a vibrant Hispanic community because of the size of the city and the fact that there's no one location where the population exists. She said most Hispanic residents in the area are just focused on raising their families and living the American dream.
"I think what's going on with Columbus is that it's very different than in other communities," she said. "The Latinos here don't want to be stereotyped. You hear so much negativity in reference to, like, immigration and things like that. So we're all spread out."
Indhira Nino, a native of Venezuela, said she and her family moved to the area three years ago after living in Boston and Lexington, Ky. Her husband, Hector Garcia, has an MBA. He was recruited by W.C. Bradley and is now marketing director at Char-Broil. They have three children ages, 10, 9 and 2, and are getting more involved in the local community.
"I came on a Saturday and fell in love with the city," said Nino. "I liked the idea that it was close to Atlanta where I have relatives and there's an airport so I can go to Venezuela and visit my family when I want to. It's a perfect fit."
Nino said it helps to have people like Woodson and the Encarnacions already established in the community when new Hispanic families move to the area. Woodson owned a candy store when she was recruited to run for city council in 1994. She has been in office ever since, and is now the longest serving Hispanic city councilor/county commissioner in the state of Georgia, she said.
Encarnacion was born in New York, the son of Puerto Rican immigrants. He was maintenance supervisor for Fort Hamilton Army post and owned a small nightclub in New York before leaving the area.
Prior to coming to Columbus, his wife wanted to get away from crime and the nightlife. They moved to Puerto Rico but found the same scenario there. So they began looking for other options.
In 1983, they came to Columbus to visit his sister-in-law, and his wife fell in love with the place. They moved to the area six months later.
"It took me a while to get used to it because of the surroundings that I had in New York," Encarnacion said. "I was more accustomed to going out all the time and doing whatever I wanted at whatever time I wanted. Here was more like a slow pace and quieter and a better place to raise a family. The people were friendlier."
Encarnacion drove a cab and worked other jobs when he first arrived. His wife was manager of a food market. They saved up their money and opened the grocery store on Feb. 2, 1986.
Encarnacion said he came up with the idea for the Tri-city Latino Festival two years ago. He and his wife had been having block parties at their store to show appreciation for soldiers and other customers, and they wanted to make it bigger. They contacted Woodson and began making plans for the first city-wide event, which attracted nearly 4,000 people in the pouring rain.
As marketing coordinator for the festival, Nino said she's seeing more and more businesses and organizations cater to the Hispanic population.
Encarnacion and Woodson said it's a nonprofit event co-sponsored by Columbus State University and the Urban League of Greater Columbus. Proceeds will go to the Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness and Urban League scholarships to Latino students, they said.
Brooke Burgess, president of the local Urban League, said supporting the festival is part of the organization's mission to provide Columbus' diverse community with educational, health, housing and employment services.
"This is an untapped community for our organization and I thought it was just the perfect opportunity to highlight and work with them from the ground up," she said. "We're actually looking at doing more Latino initiatives targeting this particular audience."