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Where do Latinos live? The census shows population growth where you least expect it

The swift growth of U.S. Latinos is reshaping big states and small towns. Meet the faces of a new era.
Illustration of Alfredo Corona, Samantha Suazo, Waded Cruzado, Chef Omar Pereney, Dr. Veronica Calles Torrez, and Rafael Alamonte.
Chelsea Stahl / NBC News

In New Hampshire, a Roman Catholic church where Irish and French Canadian immigrants used to worship now has the state’s largest Latino congregation. In the Deep South, a county in Georgia is one of the nation’s top 10 in diversity.

Hispanics accounted for over half of the nation’s population growth in the last decade. This is not just reflected in larger cities, but in mountain towns, Southern neighborhoods and Midwestern prairies.

“The Latino population has been dispersing across the United States for years — a reflection of where the nation’s population is moving and where opportunities are located,” said Mark Hugo Lopez, director of race and ethnicity research at the Pew Research Center.

Lopez, whose Mexican American family has been in California for over a century, has seen dispersion in his own family, with relatives moving to Washington state, Nevada, North Carolina and New Jersey as they followed job, educational and military opportunities, mirroring some of the data he and his team have recorded over the years.

Though a majority of Latinos — almost 70 percent — are U.S. born, Lopez noted that as “you see Hispanics pursuing opportunity around the country, oftentimes immigrants are leading the way” in terms of moving to places with new economic opportunities.

Amid Western mountains, new possibilities

Lissy Samantha Suazo in Bozeman, Mont., on Aug. 25.Adrian Sanchez-Gonzalez for NBC News

For Lissy Samantha Suazo, 18, the open space of Big Sky, Montana — a small town near Yellowstone National Park — has been a beginning to wider, bigger possibilities.

“When I arrived here in Big Sky, I was the second person of color and Spanish-speaking person in the school and the first one who didn’t know how to speak English,” said Suazo, who was 12 when her family came from Honduras.

Waded Cruzado’s journey through Montana started a few years earlier than Suazo’s. She was hired in 2010 as president of Montana State University in Bozeman.

“I remember saying, ‘You know, I have never been to Montana. … Do you know what I look like? I don’t look like and sound like anyone in Montana,’” said Cruzado, 61, who was born and raised in Puerto Rico. “But I was wrong.”

Waded Cruzado, the president of Montana State University, welcomes freshmen students at Bobcat Stadium on Aug. 24.Courtesy of MSU Communications

Hispanics have been in Montana since the early 1800s as fur traders, ranchers, rail workers and laborers in beet fields, according to Bridget Kevane, professor of Latin American and Latino Studies at Montana State University.

But in the last two decades, Montana has been among the states with the fastest growing Latino populations in the country. Though the 45,199 Latinos who live in Montana are minuscule compared to the 15.6 million Hispanics who live in California, the state’s 58.2 percent jump in Latino residents since 2010 leads all U.S. western states over the last decade.

The timber industry in the northern part of the state and oil jobs in the east have drawn Latino workers, as have resorts in Bozeman and Big Sky, Kevane said.

“Scholars say this is a non-gateway state, meaning there wasn’t already a settled community,” Kevane said of North Dakota. “But it might be in the next 20 years.”

Suazo and Cruzado became part of that last decade of Latino growth amid the majestic outdoors — and the bracing winters.

“I’m not going to lie, that’s one of the things I had a hard time adjusting to, but now I love the cold and now I love the snow,” said Suazo, who regularly enjoys hiking and walking.

Suazo’s family was in New York after coming from Honduras when her father got a call to come work in Big Sky. Since then, Suazo has taken advantage of the opportunities available to her.

Now in her senior year in high school, the straight-A student is spending a semester at a leadership academy in South Africa and has found meaning beyond academics, starting with when she helped a fellow Honduran student learn English and get her bearings.

Suazo expanded on that by starting a Latino student union in her high school, creating a nonprofit group, GLAM, to assist people in other countries, including Honduras, and starting a Spanish-language newspaper, Noticias Montaña, with friends that among other things keeps Montana Latinos informed on local issues, including Covid-related information.

“At the end of the day, it is the impact that I make that makes me feel successful,” Suazo said.

Lissy and her father, Marvin Suazo, in Bozeman, Mont., on Aug. 25.Adrian Sanchez-Gonzalez for NBC News

Although most Latinos in Montana are of Mexican origin, numbering around 30,000, about 2,000 are Puerto Rican, according to 2019 census population estimates.

Cruzado, born in Mayagüez, Puerto Rico, left the U.S. territory to be dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at New Mexico State University. In 2009, after a national search, she landed MSU’s lead job.

Eleven years since taking the helm, Cruzado has put her stamp on the institution, helping ensure it lives up to its mission as a land grant university, originally intended to educate the children of America’s working families.

“At MSU, we are not going to chase privilege. We are going to choose promise,” Cruzado said, a phrase she regularly emphasizes. “If we are able to convey that message to anyone out there — our Native American students or Latino students or African American students or Asian students, our students from rural communities in Montana, what happens if we give them the chance?”

Cruzado has launched a campaign to increase the average course credits taken by first-year students as well as a program to enroll more young people who are on the fence about college.

Although she wishes she could see her granddaughters in Puerto Rico more often, Cruzado said she’s found a kinship in the work ethic of the state’s residents.

She shares her Puerto Rican cooking with fellow Montanans and loves camping, soaking up the state’s stunning natural sites.

“I don’t focus on the differences,” she said. “I focus on what we can we accomplish together.”

Graphic: Joe Murphy / NBC News
Graphic: Monica Hersher / NBC News

In a New England town, forging community

Rafael Almonte with a customer at La Fama, his barbershop, in Nashua, N.H, on Sept. 11.Philip Keith for NBC News

Rafael Almonte frequently found himself in his grandfather’s barber shop as a little kid in the Dominican Republic. Decades later, he established his own in one of the nation’s least diverse states, New Hampshire.

At La Fama barber shop in Nashua, Fridays and Saturdays are busy, especially in the evenings, when many clients come by after they’re done with work.

The business that Almonte, 50, opened in 2004 has become “like the station for the community,” he said, where newcomers can learn what companies have job postings and what apartments are available.

“A lot of the construction guys, they also come to the barber shop and say, ‘I need five guys, or I need three guys,’” he said.

The barber shop even served as a pop-up Covid-19 vaccination center this past summer. In collaboration with the state’s Health Department, the shop helped to vaccinate up to 30 people a day, many of them Spanish speakers with no access to vaccine information in their native language, Almonte said.

Almonte was 14 when his family moved to southern New Hampshire in the mid-1980s, after his father was recruited to work for a company as a “tallador” — someone who designs and carves wooden coffins.

Rafael Almonte cuts a customers hair at La Fama in Nashua, N.H. on Sept. 11.Philip Keith for NBC News

When Almonte started school, there were essentially no Latinos in his community; he was among nearly 6,000 Hispanics in the state at the time. Now, he’s one of the more than 59,000 Latinos living in the state, according to the 2020 census.

As the second-largest racial or ethnic group in New Hampshire, Latinos were pivotal to the state’s recent milestone: For the first time, the percentage of people of color reached double digits, with nearly 12 percent of the state’s 1.38 million people identifying as Hispanic or nonwhite in the 2020 census count.

Around the time Almonte’s family moved to New Hampshire, Latinos of Mexican descent were also moving to work in construction, landscaping and service industries; in the 1990s, migrant workers from Guatemala and Mexico came to work on dairy farms.

There’s also been movement from nearby Massachusetts: Latinos from the more urban, heavily Hispanic cities of Lawrence and Lowell also started moving to New Hampshire for employment opportunities and more affordable housing. These included Dominicans and Puerto Ricans who settled mostly in Nashua and Manchester in Hillsborough County, where more than half of the state’s Latinos live.

In Manchester, the St. Anne-St. Augustin Catholic Parish houses the state’s largest Spanish-speaking congregation, with around 2,000 Latino members. Generations before, the church used to serve Irish and French-Canadian immigrants.

The first group of Hispanics to immigrate to New Hampshire were Uruguayans, who came to the state about 40 years ago to work in textile mills, according to Eva Castillo, a longtime Latina and immigrant rights advocate who has lived in the state for nearly three decades. They were followed by Colombians, who moved to New Hampshire after missionaries from the church visited the South American nation.

“Most of these families settled here, and they’re in their third and even fourth generation — they have completely assimilated,” Castillo, who’s originally from Venezuela, said in her native Spanish.

When Almonte opened his barber shop, it was one of the few Latino-owned businesses in Nashua.

Rafael Almonte cuts a customers hair at La Fama in Nashua, N.H. on Sept. 11.Philip Keith for NBC News

“Right now, we have a lot of restaurants — Mexican, Honduran, Dominican,” he said. “They’re getting used to us.”

Almonte’s adult children, from 19 to 27 years old, have come to appreciate their New England upbringing. Despite living in other places — Almonte lived in New Jersey and Florida before returning to New Hampshire — they tell their dad that they want to set roots in the city his dad moved to as a teen. It’s a place where they can get a good job and live an affordable life.

“That's what has continuously brought people back to Nashua,” he said.

In the Southwest, growing Latino diversity

Chef and entrepreneur Omar Pereney places fish onto a tray at his test kitchen in Houston on Sept. 13.Sergio Flores for NBC News

Houston resident Omar Pereney started cooking in Venezuelan restaurants at age 13. He had his own TV cooking show in the Argentinian El Gourmet cable channel by 14, became the youngest instructor at Le Cordon Bleu in Mexico at 18 and by his early 20s was a chef to former President George H.W. Bush.

Pereney, 27, born in Caracas, Venezuela, moved to Texas from Mexico in 2010. He’s certainly adopted the idea that in Texas, you go big.

“I think I’m in the early days of an empire,” Pereney said about his latest undertaking, Culinary Matters, a consulting business he opened in March. The company works with restaurateurs to build their businesses, from concepts and menus to interior design and labor and location advice.

Texas is the state with the largest absolute growth of Latinos in the last decade, almost 2 million more than in 2010. That has pushed the number of Hispanics in the state — which was once a part of Mexico along with nine other states in the West, Southwest and Midwest — to being nearly even with non-Hispanic whites.

Mexican Americans are the border state’s largest Latino group — including families who have been there longer than Texas has been a state.

But in 2000, 17 percent of Texas Latinos were not of Mexican descent, according to Pew Research Center. In the last two decades, a growing number of Texas Hispanics have included Salvadorans, Puerto Ricans, Cubans, people who tie their origins to Spain and many South Americans, all drawn by the state’s booming economy, tech hubs and proximity to the Mexican border.

Pereney describes himself as "a Doogie Howser of Hispanic cooking."Sergio Flores for NBC News

Venezuelans leaving their country’s political and economic turmoil were the fastest-growing Latino group in the U.S. during the last decade, said Lopez, of the Pew Research Center.

Many ended up in Texas, mostly in the Houston area, drawn by the oil and gas industry. In fact, so many Venezuelans can be found in the suburban city of Katy that it came to be called Katyzuela over the past decade.

Texas has the second-largest Venezuelan American population, behind Florida, going from 20,162 in 2010 to about 73,000, according to the 2010 census and 2019 population estimates.

Pereney said many of his Venezuelan friends, with whom he gathers with regularly for rounds of Truco, a card game popular in South America, are engineers or other employees in the oil and gas business.

Pereney, who described himself as “a Doogie Howser of Hispanic cooking,” first traveled to the U.S. at 17 to cook and learn from acclaimed Cuban American chef and restaurateur Douglas Rodriguez in several cities. He followed that with a tapas restaurant in Cancún, Mexico, and later working as a corporate chef in Mexico City. His employers moved him to Houston to cook at Peska, a seafood restaurant.

He was soon recruited to be chef to the first President Bush and his wife, Barbara, who were Houston residents after they left the White House.

Chef and entrepreneur Omar Pereney squeezes lemon onto a fish in a pan at his test kitchen in Houston on Sept. 13.Sergio Flores for NBC News

“They lived down the street from Peska, so they’d order food from my restaurant, which I didn’t know,” said Pereney. “ I basically worked with them until they passed. It was an awesome experience.”

Pereney currently owns a home and two businesses in Texas, but recognizes there’s always the possibility of change. “Life is a matter of moments and where you’re at that moment,” he said. “I have high hopes for the future, but I try not to lose sight of where I am today.”

Following the jobs, a Southern spread

Alfredo Corona in his car at Rhodes Jordan Park in Lawrenceville, Ga., on Sept 10.Piera Moore for NBC News

When Alfredo Corona, 26, is not working at his mother’s commercial cleaning business, he’s either making Chicano rap music or attending lowrider car shows in the Atlanta metropolitan area, where he was born and raised.

“When we drive our cars, we always play our music,” Corona, 26, said. “It's so intertwined.”

The states from the Southwest to the Southeast have accounted for nearly half of the Latino population growth nationwide since 2010. In the southeastern states, the Latino population has grown by 29 percent.

Young U.S.-born Latinos such as Corona have been the driving force behind this growth.

“Today, only about 32 percent of all Latinos were born outside the United States,” Pew Research’s Lopez said.

Corona grew up immersed in Mexican culture; though his mother was born in El Salvador, she embraced his father’s Mexican heritage. Corona learned Spanish at home and English at school, like other multicultural families who were increasingly settling in Gwinnett County, a suburb of Atlanta.

Alfredo Corona with his car at Rhodes Jordan Park in Lawrenceville, Ga., on Sept 10.Piera Moore for NBC News

“We were kind of starting to be that wave of brown folks who moved to Lawrenceville,” Corona said. He remembers classmates from the Caribbean, Latin America and even Bosnia.

Gwinnett County is now among the nation’s top 10 counties for diversity, based on an index that measures the probability that two people chosen at random will be from different racial and ethnic groups, according to the 2020 census. It’s also the county with the largest number of Latinos in the state, about 220,460.

Somewhere between home and school, Corona was exposed to Chicano rap — a subgenre of hip-hop that centers around the experiences of people of Mexican descent born in the U.S. — as well as lowrider culture, derived from the vibrant customized vintage cars with low-to-the-ground hydraulic suspension.

“It was music that helped me open my eyes to a culture that was above me and that I wanted to get to know more,” he said. For Corona, Chicano rap is a vehicle to tackle issues that matter to him, such as toxic masculinity or cultural identity.

In Georgia, Latinos are the third-largest racial or ethnic group, now 1.1 million, according to the 2020 census. Nearly half live in five Atlanta-area counties — Fulton, Clayton, Cobb, DeKalb and Gwinnett.

A growing number of Latino communities emerged from the state’s construction boom to prepare for the 1996 Summer Olympic, which is how Corona’s Salvadoran mother and Mexican father met. Latinos also settled in the area after poultry companies recruited workers from Texas, California and northern Mexico, while the Atlanta metro area’s flourishing business hub has drawn Latino professionals.

Corona’s mother started her first cleaning business in 1999 after working at the Four Seasons Hotel in Atlanta. While there, she started paying attention to little details such as how clean towels were placed in the rooms in neat designs. She applied what she learned selling that first business in 2012 and starting her own commercial cleaning business.

“We cleaned for Tyler Perry for a time. And now, we're cleaning for studios as well,” said Corona. He hopes to grow the business and build something he can pass down to his children.

Alfredo Corona drinks Topo Chico, a mineral water, in his car at Rhodes Jordan Park in Lawrenceville, Ga., on Sept 10.Piera Moore for NBC News

Corona learned about the Chicano civil rights movement while studying U.S. history at Georgia Gwinnett College, motivating him to volunteer with groups to register Latino voters in the 2020 election.

“Seeing that I could potentially help and be a part of that same history is what pushed me,” Corona said.

He also joined a coalition advocating for the rights of former immigrant detainees at the Irwin County Detention Center, which is set to close. Irwin County is one of two small, southern rural counties that saw its Latino population almost triple, according to the 2020 census. About 660 Latinos now live there.

The other county is Charlton County, bordering Florida, where about 2,000 Latinos now live compared to 310 a decade ago. It’s also home to another immigration detention facility, the Folkston ICE Processing Center.

For Corona, a multifaceted man who considers himself “a conscious Chicano rapper,” living in Georgia often means cruising on a lowrider car one minute and enjoying a nature hike in Mount Yonah the next.

“That’s Georgia!” he said.

Moving to the Midwest

Veronica Calles Torrez at an entomology lab at North Dakota State University in Fargo on Sept. 10.Ann Arbor Miller for NBC News

Trapping and studying the corn rootworm has been Verónica Calles Torrez’s route to exploring North Dakota.

Calles Torrez, 36, originally from La Paz, Bolivia, is an entomologist with the North Dakota State University Agricultural Extension Service in Fargo, whose work revolves around keeping insect pests under control.

“In North Dakota, there is always a need for any research because they have big agricultural production, so there’s always insects eating their crop,” she said. “They want to know about it.”

North Dakota had the highest rate of Hispanic population growth of all states — it boomed 148 percent over the last decade.

Latino workers from around the country arrived amid the last decade’s oil and construction boom, though it has since declined. Counties in western North Dakota, where the Bakken oil field is, saw much of the Latino growth.

The county of McKenzie led with a 1,002.2 percent increase, a jump of 1,393 Latinos since 2010.

But there also was Latino growth in other counties throughout the state. In Cass County, where Fargo is, it rose 105 percent — or 3,167 more Hispanics.

Amazon is building a 1-million-square-foot fulfillment center on former farmland in West Fargo, and Microsoft has its second-largest nonheadquarters campus in Fargo, said Kevin Iverson, North Dakota’s state demographer.

The region’s Latino population has jumped 28 percent in 12 states in the last decade.

From meat plants in Iowa, Nebraska and South Dakota to farm fields and oil refineries, Hispanic growth in urban, suburban and rural areas has been a mix of new immigrant arrivals, births and domestic migration.

Calles Torrez grew up on a small Bolivian farm where her family cultivated coffee, mandarins, lemons and other citrus by hand. They grew corn only one year, when the native remnant land they had converted for agricultural use was rich in nutrients. Corn requires nutrient-rich soil and most small Bolivian farms don’t use fertilizer, she said.

Knowledgeable about plants, she saw an opportunity in combining that with entomology, the study of insects. In Bolivia, her family dealt with beetle pests and moths that damaged coffee and cocoa plants.

Veronica Calles Torrez holds a European corn borer.Ann Arbor Miller for NBC News

Calles Torrez said North Dakotans are learning to appreciate their state’s growing diversity.

She’s found common ground with non-Hispanic residents through her Christian faith, which she discusses and shares in a mostly white group.

“I believe in God, like them,” she said. “I feel like everything that I do or where I am right now is because God helped me.”

Calles Torrez has also connected to the area through music, learning to dance to country music and becoming a fan of a local rapper and guitarist, Diane Miller.

She’s come to know the farmers whose property she traverses as she sets traps. Many approach her, curious about her work, and she uses the opportunity to show them what the pests look like and how they damage their corn.

Veronica Calles Torrez demonstrates how to set up a trap to collect European corn borers near Casselton, N.D.Ann Arbor Miller for NBC News

“I remember one grower would wait for me to stop by his field, and he made sure to catch me to chat for a long while every week. He knew that Thursday was my day to visit his field,” she said.

Calles Torrez and her husband, who’s finishing his doctorate, have a 7 month old. Whether they will raise their child and set roots in North Dakota boils down to employment opportunities for both after her three-year research program ends.

“We are going to move wherever we find a job,” she said.