Growing Hispanic population brings challenges, opportunity to Central Texas

Panelists at the Engage Breakfast on April 4 discussed education, community involvement and the region's business climate as it pertains to the growing Hispanic population in Austin and Central Texas.

"I think there's a lot of entrepreneurs and a lot of opportunity," said Geronimo Rodriguez, chairman of the Greater Austin Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. "It's very exciting."

Panelists included Perla Cavazos, legislative director with state Sen. Sylvia Garcia, D-Houston; Paul Cruz, chief schools officer with Austin Independent School District; Mando Rayo, vice president of engagement with Cultural Strategies—a marketing and communications firm; and Rodriguez. The discussion was moderated by KXAN-TV morning anchor Sally Hernandez.

Rodriguez said that 65 percent of the growth for the past 10 years in Central Texas has been in the Hispanic population. By 2020, projections show that 52 percent of the Central Texas population will be Hispanic, he said.

One challenge recognized by the panel was of engaging the Hispanic community to be involved in both politics and nonprofits.

"A lot of Latinos are hungry," Rayo said. "They want to help out. They want to volunteer. They want to serve on your board, and the main thing that I see out there is that they're not being asked. What's the number one reason why people don't volunteer or get involved? They're not asked."

Rodriguez said engaging the Hispanic community in business and planning for the projected continued growth of that demographic is something that could lead to business success.

"If you want your business to grow, if you want profits, if you want to have your business be successful in the future, you've got to have a Hispanic growth strategy somewhere in there," Rodriguez said. "If not, you just won't be as successful as you are."

Cruz said education was another key opportunity and challenge for the growing Hispanic population. He said 60 percent of AISD's student population is Hispanic, and the Hispanic graduation rate is around 75 percent. A few of the ways the district is tailoring education to fit the needs of the Hispanic community include in-district charter schools, opening schools after hours for students and having two-way dual language programs, which is open to both English-speaking students and Spanish-speaking students.

"A student who comes in as an English native speaker will speak English and Spanish, and that's listening, speaking, reading and writing," Cruz said. "A student who comes as a Spanish native [speaker] will continue with their Spanish, but will also be fluent in English. It really is trying to get students to be bilingual and bi-literate in at least two languages."

Another facet of the issue panelists discussed was the upcoming Austin City Council shift to geographic representation. Cavazos, who ran for City Council in 2009, said she thinks representation change will lead to greater diversity on the council and make it easier for interested residents to run for a seat on council.

"I think we kind of personally believe we should have more representation at City Council and honestly, geographic too, because City Council members tend to be historically elected from the city center," Cavazos said. "I think this is a great opportunity to have more representation, not just of Latinos, but from different neighborhoods, people from different backgrounds [and] younger people because it's not going to take the tremendous amount of financial resources that it takes to run at large now."

The next Engage Breakfast is scheduled for May 1 and will cover the topic of housing. For more information, visit