Hispanic Heritage Month begins today and runs through Oct. 15. Recognizing the histories, cultures, and contributions of Latin Americans, the month celebrates Latino culture and the ever-growing population in the U.S. In Evansville, the influx of jobs, opportunities, festivals, and Latin American-inspired restaurants fueled an increase in the local Latino population.
Abraham Brown, director of the Evansville Latino and American Center and co-owner of La Campirana restaurant, says the Latino community first started arriving in the area about 30 years ago. At the time, migrant workers would move from town to town for seasonal jobs.
“Business organizations in the area did not focus on reaching out to the Latino community because it seemed so small,” Brown says. “Then, between Year 15 and Year 20, the Latino community started to shift a little bit more into a permanent community.”
Brown says after about 10 years, a welcoming community and an increase in job opportunities caused the shift to a more established Latino population. The late 1990s and early 2000s saw an increase in Latino businesses along with higher enrollment at local universities, expanded cultural institutions, and the creation of new museums. The expansion of the Latin American community in Evansville made it ideal for more Latinos to settle in the city and surrounding area.
“What I mean by ‘welcoming’ is not just about saying hi and smiling,” he says. “Being welcoming also depends on opening resources in their own language. A lot of agencies, especially in the health care industry, started reacting to that growth and started having more bilingual information and hiring bilingual staff.”
Local nonprofits and government agencies began collaborating with the growing Latino community. Since 2012, the Latino Advisory Board — on which Brown serves — has counseled Evansville Mayor Lloyd Winnecke on issues affecting the Latino community and takes steps to help the city embrace the area’s Latino population.
Nine years ago, the city hosted its inaugural Latino festival, Fiesta Evansville, at Wesselman Park, with close to 1,200 people attending. In 2019, nearly 6,000 people attended. After a two-year hiatus because of the COVID-19 pandemic, this year’s festival is set to take place on Oct. 9.
“It’s amazing seeing Latinos celebrating their culture, knowing they can be proud of where they come from, proud of the language they speak, proud of their music and food and everything that makes Latin American culture so colorful and vibrant,” Brown says.
Brown estimates the Latino population in Evansville doubled within the past five years, though he adds those numbers are not exact and come from a community needs assessment conducted in 2015. The assessment showed Evansville’s Latino community itself is also diverse, with backgrounds in different countries throughout Central and South America, including Venezuela, El Salvador, Honduras, Argentina, and Cuba. That list also includes Puerto Rico, which is a U.S. territory. Brown says Evansville also has a larger percentage of Latinos migrating from other states such as Texas, California, and Colorado.
An influx of second-generation Latinos, including offspring of the people who arrived in the area 20 years ago, also likely contributed to the increase in the local Latin American population.
“I feel Evansville is well prepared because now there are a lot of services for the Latino community, and the growth is a bigger measurement of welcoming a Latino community that’s growing,” Brown says.
Evansvillians can support their Latino neighbors, Brown says, by getting to know them through various events and opportunities like Fiesta Evansville on Oct. 9, respecting their culture, and partnering with community groups like HOLA Evansville. He says more ways to support the Latino community in Evansville include being open to different forms of communication — and, of course, supporting Latino-owned businesses and restaurants.
Evansville Latino and American Center