Theresa Agonia: Rhode Island Underestimates Its Latino Community

Wednesday, August 21, 2013
Theresa Agonia, GoLocalProv Guest MINDSETTERâ„¢

According to Guest MINDSETTERâ„¢ Theresa Agonia, RI immigrants are make real contributions to the economy by starting new businesses.
As a First-generation Portuguese-American, I was recently caught off guard when The White House released a report entitled “The Economic Benefits of Fixing Our Broken Immigration System: Impacts for Rhode Island Families.” In this report, I learned that 14.4% of RI business owners are immigrants. According to the report, “these businessmen and women generate $360 million in income for Rhode Island each year." This made me think about my late father, Manuel Agonia, who ran a successful construction company for 27 years before falling ill with cancer. My father, the same man who came to this country in the 1970’s with a fourth-grade education, a suitcase, no knowledge on the English language, and a dream, was part of a percentage benefiting the future work-force of RI. This made me think of others in the state with the same impact but who might have had a different immigration road to travel.

The times are changing and the jobs that were here when my father arrived in the United States are disappearing or are gone altogether. Still, immigrants like my father are part of this wave of demographics that are changing Rhode Island. I had not really thought of this as deeply until my recent graduation from Roger Williams University and after taking on a job at the school's Latino Policy Institute. LPI is committed to generating and communicating non-partisan data of Latinos in Rhode Island.

Turning the tides

I read in The White House report that in 2011, “immigrants started 28% of all new U.S. businesses in 2001, despite accounting for only 13% of the U.S. population”. Specific to the smallest state in the nation, the Census showed us that from 2000-2010 there was a 47% increase in Latinos. The Census also declared that Central Falls had the largest number of Latinos and became the first Latino majority city in Rhode Island. Central Falls: the same city that provided my father his first home in America. The Latino Policy Institute at Roger Williams University is in the process of developing an infographic on workforce participation due for release in early September. I think many Rhode Islanders will be surprised at the findings related to labor participation and Latinos in RI.

As the percentages of Latinos increase in Rhode Island and immigrants continue to pass the “Welcome to Rhode Island” sign on the highway for the first time or as they pass it again, I’m left with the uncertainty of whether or not our state has noticed the same change. Do they really know who their neighbors are? Do people make the connection between demographic changes and economic development? If not, why not? Do they lack credible information and data to tell the whole story? I am happy that I stumbled upon my experience at the Latino Policy Institute at RWU, where I am learning that Latinos are young business owners, state contributors, scholars, and people changing the face of our neighborhoods..

The bottom line is this: demographics are changing in Rhode Island, but do we really know what that means?