ith still-fresh wounds from the WLW ad campaign in 2007 that thoughtlessly touted the radio giant as “The Big Juan” — with its cartoonishly stereotypical imagery on billboards — and a suburban sheriff constantly in the headlines railing against immigrants, Cincinnati is hardly the city you would think would be embraced by a national group that represents the Hispanic community.
This week, though, the Queen City is hosting the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), as the organization comes to town for its 82nd annual national convention. With an estimated 20,000 participants, the group is calling Cincinnati its temporary home as the convention continues through Saturday.
“It’s a big deal not only for the local Latin community,” says Hispanic Chamber of Commerce president Alfonso Cornejo, “it’s a big deal for Cincinnati. A very big deal.”
Expected to pump nearly $2 million into the local economy, and with its 300 corporate partners including government agencies, labor unions and universities, the convention is sure to be a financial and public relations boon for the city.
But organizers hope it’s an eye-opener as well.
Events will include a three-day business expo, a job fair and entertainment. Speakers will include former Mexican president Vincente Fox — whose grandfather emigrated to Mexico from Cincinnati — and his wife, Marta, and national figures such as Health and Human Services Department Secretary Kathleen Sibelius and Labor Secretary Hilda Solis.
More importantly, according to LULAC national Executive Director Brent Wilkes, the convention will serve as a forum for issues important not just to the Latino community. They include the upcoming Census and presidential election along with education and immigration reform, among others.
“These are issues that affect us all and it’s important that they’re out there, that they are discussed,” Wilkes says. And, for some of the issues, Cincinnati was the perfect place to open the dialogue, he adds.
“We could have gone to Orlando or Houston, or the other cities we looked at, but there was a feeling that we should go where we’re needed,” Wilkes says. “Cincinnati has had its issues, but the Latin community is growing here and this is where we felt we needed to come.
“Cincinnati presents the perfect opportunity to bring them to the forefront and really bridge the gap between the Latino community and the community at-large,” he continues.
In fact, the theme of the convention is “Bridging the Gap: Expanding the Latino Agenda Into New Frontiers.”
With one of the fastest-growing Hispanic communities in the nation — some estimates place Greater Cincinnati’s at 125,000-strong, with the potential to double by 2030 — the local Latino population is also important to the area’s survival. According to an economic impact study conducted by the University of Cincinnati last year, Latinos not only continue to provide more of the area’s economic punch as consumers but they also are rising dramatically in production output figures.
According to Cornejo, the numbers are encouraging.
“We have a strong Latino population, and we hope that will translate into a better economic situation,” he says. “But Cincinnati can do better than it has been. Cities that are more open to immigrants are in better shape, economically. There’s the lesson.”
And that, according to organizers, was a big reason Cincinnati was attractive to the convention.
Local activists, including LULAC’s chapter president and City Council candidate Jason Riveiro, began working to bring the convention here shortly after the “Big Juan” brush-up with WLW, seeing it as a way to highlight the power of the local Latino community.
The city’s detractors, Riveiro says, were a selling point.
“We told them, ‘You could go to other cities and move the agenda a few inches, or you could come to Cincinnati and make a real difference,’” says Riveiro, who was CityBeat’s 2007 “Person of the Year.”
While the area generally has become more accepting of immigrants and the Latino community, Riveiro agrees with Cornejo that there’s room for improvement.
“We’ve come a long way in just a few years,” Riveiro says. “We’ve worked to build strong ties with the police and city government. But we haven’t fully realized our potential for economic development.”
Part of the reason has been a lack of a productive dialogue, Riveiro adds, which is why this week’s convention could be a watershed moment.
“If you look to cities around us, not far away, like Columbus, they’ve had intentional efforts and conversations on how to better serve the Latino community,” Riveiro says. “Things have improved in Cincinnati but it’s been more organic — there hasn’t been that intentional dialogue that I think it’s important to have. My hope is that the convention helps spark that dialogue.”