OMAHA, Nebraska — When state Senator Tony Vargas moved with his future wife to Nebraska from New York City in 2012, he was surprised at the diversity in Omaha, the state's largest city.
“It’s a hidden gem here — we have a confluence of identities that people don’t usually think of when they come to Nebraska," said Vargas, 32, the son of Peruvian immigrants. "South Omaha in particular has had a rich immigrant experience. It’s not just Latinos, but Irish, Polish and Italian-Americans who have set up shop here,” Vargas said.
Last November, the Democrat was elected to represent a district where Hispanics make up close to 50 percent of the 38,000 population. He’s also the only Latino member of the Nebraska Legislature.
At 190,000 residents, Latinos make up 10 percent of Nebraska's population, according to the Pew Research Center. Visitors might be surprised to know that the state enjoys a Hispanic museum and that thousands of Hispanics own businesses here. And the Latino presence is growing; the number of Hispanics is expected to triple by 2050, according to a study by the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s Center for Public Affairs Research (CPAR).
"There are a lot of Latinos because the cost of living is low and there are many job opportunities,” said Vargas.
The surge in population could also lead to a rise in entrepreneurs. A 2014 article cited a study that found that in 2007, there were 3,000 Latino-owned businesses in Nebraska. More recent statistics were not available.
Yesenia Peck, president of the Nebraska Hispanic Chamber of Commerce based in Omaha, said Latinos are drawn to the Cornhusker State because “the cost of living is cheaper than Chicago, New York and other big cities. It’s a good place to raise kids, too — Nebraska is the state of opportunities. We're blessed to not just be able to open a business, but to train ourselves and conduct business in our own languages.”
South Omaha alone is home to more than 60 Latino-owned small businesses, Peck said. Some proprietors start off small, often sharing spaces with other businesses. Peck spoke about a tailor who rented a space inside a gift shop before she was able to afford her own store.
“Many people say Latinos are entrepreneurs by nature; we are entrepreneurs because of the needs that we have in our countries; we start businesses in different ways than traditional communities,” explained Peck, who moved from Lima, Peru, 13 years ago after meeting her Nebraska-born future husband through a friend in her home country.
“When you don't have a history here, you don’t know resources like small-business loans that are available to you. Many folks in South Omaha have started businesses inside other businesses and eventually become independent. And we are contributing to the city,” Peck added.
Businesses in the greater Omaha area range from child-care services to restaurants, according to the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s Office of Latino/Latin American Studies, which researched Hispanic-owned businesses in the state.
At Gusto Cuban Café in Ralston, Neb., the steak sandwich with French fries and the lechón, or roasted pig are the more popular items, said Duncan Spraling, 21, whose Cuban father and stepmother, Roberto and Ana Meireles, own the restaurant.
“People hear about us through social media and word of mouth. We’ve had folks who are from places like Miami who say this food reminds them of their abuela,” Spraling said. “We’re also known for our mojitos.”
The restaurant is 11 years old, but the Latino presence in the Omaha area spans decades. That’s something that the state's El Museo Latino makes sure to highlight.
There is a permanent collection, titled “Los últimos de los primeros,” or “The last of the first,” that features photographs and audio recordings of older city residents from the late 1990s. They detail their parents and grandparents’ move from Mexican cities to Omaha from the last century, said Magdalena García, the founder and executive director of the museum.
“We didn’t want to lose that oral history… it’s important not just for Latinos, but for others in our community to know we’ve been here for a long time,” García said.
She herself was born in Mexico City but moved to Omaha at age nine. García, 63, had a corporate career before deciding more than two decades ago to return to college to seek a Master’s degree in museum studies at Syracuse University in the 1990s. She returned to Nebraska to start the museum in 1993 because she felt it was important to “tell our story — I came back because I knew It was going to be a major commitment to get this project off the ground.”
The space where the 18,000-square-foot museum is located on South 25th Street used to be a Polish social hall. It is now one of only 17 Latino museums in the United States, according to García.
Some exhibitions change every few months. In April, García said the museum, which averages more than 60,000 visitors a year, will focus on the tradition of baking, and how immigrants preserve aspects of the cooking culture in the U.S. while continuing to evolve in their home countries.
“We’ll have photos and some samples of food made here that are no longer made in Mexico,” she said.
While she now lives in Chicago, a city with a large Latino population, Lourdes “Lulu” Almazan grew up in Lincoln, Nebraska’s capital, where her maternal family has lived since the 1970s. Almazan said her upbringing was bicultural and bilingual.
The 32-year-old Mexican-American spent her Sundays attending Spanish-language Mass and visiting her grandmother for dinner.
“I grew up in the Catholic Church in Lincoln. There’s a Hispanic Catholic community there that’s very strong,” said Almazan, adding that her father is a choir director at their local church.
“I had my two worlds — in school I was more shy and then I was more outgoing,” Almazan said. But she said every time she returns to her hometown, she learns about more Latinos who have migrated there.
“It makes me feel great for my parents, who are both teachers who have lived there so long and put so much work into helping the community," said Almazan.
State Sen. Vargas said he appreciates that people in his district, "both Hispanic and non-Hispanic – embrace our diversity."