East of the railroad tracks in West Hartford, in a multicultural shopping plaza stands a former McDonald’s restaurant with a banner hanging outside that reads “Cora Cora Restaurant Peruvian Cuisine.” Like many Latino-owned businesses, Cora Cora signals that here there are numerous families who have risen into the ranks of the middle class. This restaurant is different from many others in this well-heeled suburb, in that the clientele is almost entirely Latino. Inside, paying $16-$22 for an entree, $100+ per dinner per family, prosperous, well-fed patrons come through by the hundreds. If the Latino middle class is anywhere, it’s here, but you’d never guess it from the outside.
All over the state, the Latino middle class is growing while at the same time largely hiding in plain sight.
“We have a growing stake in the economy and the electorate in Connecticut,” said Catherine Medina, outgoing director of the University of Connecticut’s Puerto Rican and Latin@ Studies Project. “In 2012, the purchasing power of Latinos in Connecticut was $13.4 billion, which is an increase of 481 percent since 1990.” Medina also adds, “While the Latino population is very large, it is in many ways very invisible.”
One reason that this is especially true of the middle class is that those who move out of the cities and into the suburbs usually aren’t represented by Latinos members of the state Legislature, although that appears to be changing.
CTLatinoNews interviewed people from around Connecticut, asking them where they think the Latino middle class lives, and while some responses yielded clues, many revealed why the answer is so hard to pin down. One big reason for this is that the economic status of Latinos on the whole is changing faster than most people’s perceptions. A close look at national Census data points to Latinos as the fastest-growing segment of the population earning between $50,000 to $75,000 annually per household. But when asked about specific towns – Stratford, Greenwich, West Hartford – and whether they could be regarded as Latino middle class enclaves, Connecticut residents respond in the negative.
These are just some of the very places, however, where the population of Latinos doubled between 2000 and 2010, which means that thousands of new Latino residents settled in each of these relatively affluent communities. Such towns are becoming more cosmopolitan, outgrowing their whitewashed images. Wherever you look, from the poorest cities like Hartford, to well-heeled communities such as Glastonbury, Cheshire, Darien and New Canaan, the Latino population continues to grow. There are places where the Latino population was so small to begin with, like in CheshireVillage, that a 159 percent population increase was exactly 44 individuals, and a 75 percent increase in Glastonbury and Darien meant 50 and 314 people respectively.
“My parents were from Cuba, and there are a handful of other Latinos here,” said Micaela Porta, a nonprofit executive who lives in New Canaan. “Mostly working professionals of Latin American descent or coming directly from South America,” is how she describes other Latinos in her town.
“In places like Argentina, Chile and Spain, class – where you were born and what you were born into – matters a lot more than it does in the States,” Porta said. Perhaps for this reason, there are no statistics that tell the socioeconomic status of new arrivals to a town. This past spring, a New York Times article about the diversity of upscale Greenwich painted a picture of the growing Latino population as domestic workers concentrated into low-income areas. However, given that the poverty rate in this and other upscale towns remains well below the state average of 9.5 percent, then mathematically, this wave of recent arrivals can’t all be poor.
“There’s definitely a Latino middle class in Greenwich. The Latino population is a mix. That’s the sense that I have,” said Stuart Adelberg, president of the Greenwich United Way, “The New York Times article definitely oversimplified it. They always do that.” Indeed, with the Latino percentage of Greenwich residents at 13.9 percent, higher than the 13.4 percent statewide, Greenwich boasts a median household income of over $97,000 per year and a poverty rate of 6.6 percent versus the state’s 9.5 percent.
In addition to being less concentrated into small areas than are poorer populations, more upscale Latinos are harder to track because of self-identification issues. Of the Latinos in New Canaan, said Porta, “It’s not that they don’t identify as Latino, but it’s not the first thing they would use to describe themselves. They would sooner say, ‘I’m a banker’ or ‘I’m an architect,’ rather than ‘I’m from Peru’.”
Another difficulty in tracking the Latino middle class is that they do not uniformly leave the cities when their economic situation improves. People do associate New Haven, Bridgeport, and East Hartford with large and growing Latino populations, but they don’t necessarily imagine them as places for the Latino middle class.
The average household income in New Haven in 2010 was $39,094, well under the state average of $69,243, while the poverty rate stood at a whopping 26.3 percent; however, former New Haven Alderman Gerry Garcia said that within city limits are significant numbers of middle class Latinos, such as in the Fair Haven neighborhood. Garcia himself recently looked at a number of suburban communities when buying a new home, but ultimately decided to buy in New Haven.
“We chose to remain in New Haven because we wanted to live in an urban center,” Garcia said. “People like to have diversity, being able to walk places and be close to your neighbors. We looked at Woodbridge, and realized that we hadn’t contemplated having a septic tank, or well water, and what happens to your water supply when you lose electricity.”
On the other hand, significant numbers of Latinos are willing to move to places devoid of Latino clusters, where they undergo varied levels of assimilation. “With greater education and income comes greater mobility and choice,” said Garcia. “Whereas in the past, we have seen Latinos concentrated in urban centers, with greater choice, naturally we will see Latinos choosing to move elsewhere.”
Nefris Quiterio came from the Dominican Republic 4½ years ago to live with an aunt who had settled in Glastonbury, a community with a median household income of $78,710 and a reputation as an upscale bedroom suburb of Hartford. “My aunt is definitely middle class, but she doesn’t exactly blend in there in Glastonbury,” said Quiterio.
Today, Quiterio, 22, lives in East Hartford, where she has purchased a two-family home, living with her family in one half while renting to another family in the other. Along with being a property owner, Quintario smiles through a mouthful of braces, once considered a classic hallmark of the middle class. Quiterio amassed her capital by pooling with her family and working three jobs — at McDonald’s, the Spicy Green Bean restaurant in Glastonbury, and at her aunt’s tax-preparation business, while she studies at Capital Community College. She said that she hopes some day to have her own home in Glastonbury. If working at McDonald’s or attending community college disqualifies Quiterio from being considered middle class right now, then like with many of Connecticut’s Latinos, it seems a good bet that she will get there soon.
CTLatino News asked Gov. Dannel P. Malloy about what constitutes the middle class, and he responded, “Good jobs, education and business ownership.” Historically, the middle class in Connecticut has changed from being a mass phenomenon driven by unionized manufacturing jobs to a class that forms one family at a time. Today, a middle class job is usually one requiring a high degree of education, or it means owning a business. For many Latinos, entrepreneurialism has been their ticket.
“My father got started by opening a PartyCity in Orange, Conn.,” said Art Linares, a state senator from Westbrook. “He started a business from scratch, and I grew up watching him do that, seeing what it had done for an immigrant to be able to support himself and his family. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, I guess. I started a business myself, and he was able to teach me.”
Education has also been a massive pipeline for Latinos to join the middle class. In the past, community colleges and state universities were overwhelmingly the most popular routes to college degrees, but today, with a maturing middle class in this state, the numbers of Latinos applying to and attending UConn and private colleges are swelling. In the past two years, UConn has seen a 10 percent increase in Latino students both applying and enrolling at the University.
The state’s top Catholic universities are definitely seeing an increase. At Fairfield University, Latino applicants have increased by 45 percent over the past five years, and admissions have increased by 12 percent. Latino students comprise approximately 8 percent of the class of 2016.
The same is true at other top universities in the state. At Trinity College in Hartford, an independent, nonsectarian college. over a 10-year period, applications nearly quadrupled, and the number of matriculated Latino students rose from around 20 to 47 per class.
The Puerto Rican and Latin@ Studies Project at the UConn School of Social work has channeled a number of the state’s most successful Latinos onto public service, nonprofit management and skilled professions. Among their ranks is Hartford Mayor Pedro Segarra, who sees himself as representative of a trend. “You are seeing a larger middle class that’s unprecedented,” said Segarra with conviction. “You are speaking to someone who a generation ago wasn’t in this income bracket, and now there’s a lot of people who are there.”
“Keep in mind that we’re a very young population. We have a median age of 28, as opposed to 42 in the white population,” said UConn’s Catherine Medina, indicating that for much of the Latino population, their peak earning years are still ahead of them. However, Medina cautions against painting too rosy a picture.
“There’s a lot of economic insecurity, and a pretty high poverty rate among Latinos. I wouldn’t forget about that disparity. Just as there has been an increase of Latinos moving into the middle class, there has been an increase of poverty in the Latino community because of the economic downturn we’ve had since 2008.”
“The distinguishing characteristic of the last decade is that nobody did well,” said Rakesh Kochar. “The last decade was the first period in modern U.S. economic history when household incomes at the end of the decade were lower than at the start of the decade,” said Rakesh Kochar, associate director for research at the PewHispanicCenter. However, if nationally the Latino population could be said to be treading water in terms of economic status, that is a better average than the middle class overall. As a matter of fact, the $50,000-$75,000 household income group grew .3 percent as a percentage of the overall Latino population in the decade from 2000 to 2010, even though that total population pool grew by 43 percent, four times the nation’s growth rate.
In other words, the Latino middle class has defied the odds, and this has made the Latino population in the U.S. and Connecticut more visible – to an extent. Media outlets have begun to notice the emergence of affluent Latinos, particularly the Huffington Post, with its focus on “The New Hispanic Yuppies.” However, the Latino middle class is hidden in some ways by what it shares with the mainstream American middle class: the persistent values of
modesty and thrift that have contributed to achieving prosperity. There is no middle class uniform, and those “Hispanic Yuppies” are surely just the visible tip of the iceberg of a huge economic groundswell. There’s also the fact that when you go looking for where middle class Latinos live, they are very likely to be at work.
As far as where the Latino middle class lives in Connecticut, the following fuzzy picture emerges:
● Many choose to remain in the cities of Hartford, New Haven, Bridgeport and New Britain
● Suburbs adjacent to the cities, like East and West Haven, East and West Hartford, and Stratford are the fastest growing areas
● An unknown number significant in total are fanning out into bedroom communities along the Greenwich to New Haven
to Hartford corridor
Statistically and anecdotally, Norwalk appears to be the most fertile spot in the state for middle class Latinos. With a median household income of $76,384 and a population of over 85,000 and growing, its Latino community is well established. In 2000, it was already over 15percent of the total population and has since grown to over 25 percent, partially due to Norwalk’s proximity to New York City as well as Bridgeport.
Aside from the numbers, Norwalk is one of the places where the changes brought this growth are most visible: “There are a lot of Latino-themed restaurants in Norwalk, a multitude of cultures. It’s clear to me that the Latino population is very connected to our growing visual and performing arts scene,” said Tad Diesel, the director of business development for the city of Norwalk. “Norwalk retains a youthful vitality that I think is very attractive to all incoming population.” He added that the Latino population, younger on average than that of the state as a whole, reinforces this same vitality.