By Angel Fernandez-Chaver
It packs a real punch for Connecticut when you learn that Latinos make up more than 50 percent of the enrollment in 154 of our public schools — and that Greenwich, proud avatar of the Gold Coast, has a school on the list. Its New Lebanon School is comfortably over the line: 62.07 percent Hispanic.
I was surprised and not surprised.
Although I wouldn’t have guessed that Greenwich was on the list, Latinos have been in many not-the-usual-suspect communities for years. Norwalk, for example, has four schools on the list with Latino student populations ranging from 54 percent to nearly 60 percent. And Guilford, one of Greater New Haven’s tony suburbs, is one of many towns across the state with an enclave of Latinos.
These numbers mean that the view we’ve always had of Connecticut as a Yankee, Italian, Irish state, with blacks in the cities and Latinos as a people we’ll deal with later, must change substantially.
Yet, Latinos still fall under the radar for Connecticut policymakers and business leaders.
There has always been a lack of embrace by the general public of Latinos, our language and culture. Who doesn’t remember when some state politicians supported an “English only” campaign? Thankfully, that’s behind us and more people are enlightened, but how shortsighted Connecticut has been at times.
On the other hand, when Latinos are not ignored, the resulting attention is not an improvement: We are treated like we are just a needy population that must be forced to assimilate.
If Connecticut is to have a fighting chance for relevance in the global economy, however, we must view the increased Latino school enrollment as providing the state with a terrific opportunity.
Fairness and the best in the American tradition demand that we view one of our newest immigrant communities as possessing assets that we should embrace. Given the Land of Steady Habits’ preference for the pragmatic, I’ll bet we would move more quickly to that end if we stop to recognize that geography matters greatly in the modern global economy.
For all the talk of Asia’s rise and our appropriate focus on that part of the world for our economic future, imagine what would happen if the Americas became a cohesive economic unit. Most Latin American economies aren’t the basket cases they used to be — in fact, many are stronger and growing faster than we are.
According to a World Bank report on Latin America’s economy for 2013, it has been steadily growing, with Paraguay growing at a rate of 11 percent, Panama at 9 percent and Peru projected to grow at 6 percent. The economies of Chile, Colombia and Bolivia are growing by respectable rates of between 4 percent and 5 percent.
Connecticut should make the connection between our current demographics and the economic opportunities these countries have to offer, instead of deferring to our bigger sisters like California, Texas and Florida.
Think about the advantages Connecticut would have in the global marketplace if we embraced the Latino community and culture and our Latino students. We’d be a place that understands Chile, Peru and Panama more than our Asian competitors.
But to do it, Connecticut must adopt policies aimed at making the Latino community an integral part of the state and at using each other’s experiences, culture, history and perspective. If we do that right, and in particular truly understand Latino diversity, which we are uniquely positioned to do because here no one Latino country has an outsized influence like, say, Mexico or Cuba do in California or Florida respectively, we can trump our bigger sisters and build strong economic ties with our Latin American neighbors.
We have the labor force of tomorrow in our schools. Many Latino students have a unique perspective and understanding of these countries, their customs and culture. We can take advantage of that knowledge now, and help them take us to a higher level in the future.
As the old adage goes, the children are our future. Well, in the global marketplace, Connecticut’s Latino children may be the key to our economic vitality.
Angel Fernandez-Chavero, is managing director of Aspire Praxis, a philanthropy and community development consulting firm. .