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KBIA's special series ¿Dónde está mi gente? (Where are my people?) features Engagement Producer and reporter Kassidy Arena as she investigates where Hispanic and Latino people are throughout mid-Missouri and why the state has one of the lowest percentages of Hispanic and Latino people in the Midwest. ¿Dónde está mi gente? documents her journey in a six-part, narrative that highlights successes and gaps in demographics, business, community outreach, higher education and identity.

Living in mid-Missouri redefines Latinidad

Courtesy Laura Gutiérrez Pérez
Laura Gutiérrez Pérez poses for a photo with her husband Luís and two daughters Zoë and Lillie. The girls know a few words in Spanish like huevito and agua, but now that they are not surrounded by the language, Gutiérrez Pérez wonders if they'll ever be fluent like she is. "Like, one of the only Spanish experiences that they'll get in a while will probably be from us. Whereas, when we were in Detroit, they got it from all of their family and from us just going to stores and stuff," Gutiérrez Pérez said.

Throughout my journey to answer the question of ¿Dónde está mi gente?, I literally asked people I met.

Sometimes they answered literally.

Like Maria Sanchez in Carthage:

“Mi gente está aquí en Carthage. Mi gente está aquí, amo a mi gente. Esta comunidad touches my heart.”

Translated: "My people are here in Carthage. My people are here, I love my people. This community touches my heart."

Sometimes they simply agreed with the proposition and repeated it with emphasis.

Like Jonathan Verdejo in Columbia:

"Yeah, everybody pretty much asks themselves that question when they come over here."

Sometimes, they added to the question.

Like Ilsi Palacios in Jefferson City:

"Lo que se me vino a la mente fue identificar donde estamos, pero no solamente en el área geográfica del mapa de Missouri, sino también cómo va avanzando nuestra comunidad en cuanto a educación, en cuanto al acceso, también en lo que es el área médica".

Translated: “What came to my mind when asking where we are, was not just where we are on the geographic map of Missouri, but also how are we going to advance our community in terms of education, access and healthcare.”

And sometimes, people are still trying to find the answer.

“I want to know where our gente is in Missouri!” Laura Gutiérrez Pérez said as she waved her hands in the air.

I was afraid that I wouldn't find a community here.
Laura Gutiérrez Pérez

She is relatively new to mid-Missouri. Originally from Mexico City, she moved to Columbia last year from Detroit – the place she grew up, and even attended a Spanish dual language school.

"I felt very, I remember, just like, feeling very emotional, and just like, really sad about leaving," Gutiérrez Pérez said. "The first few months, I just felt super, like, just in shock. And I feel like I kind of have gotten out of it, but I still occasionally feel like, 'Oh, wait, we're not. I'm not.' And I feel like I want to just kind of go back and visit as much as possible."

It was pretty easy to pick out her house from her neighbors’. A big sign stood by the door with bienvenidos painted on it – or 'welcome' in Spanish.

Dogs barked and their tails wagged in greeting, two cats quietly waited by the stairs and two little girls stomped on the wood floors and swished around their "oceans" – mason jars filled with water and seashells.

Kassidy Arena
Laura Gutiérrez Pérez's front door is adorned with a 'Be Proud' mat and a sign with 'Bienvenidos' painted on it, which means welcome in Spanish. The mother of two said as she was house hunting, neighborhood diversity was one of her priorities.

Gutiérrez Pérez quickly wrangled everyone and got them to quiet down so she could reflect on her first few days in mid-Missouri and how they compared to her diverse neighborhood in Detroit.

"I just was really overwhelmed. And I was afraid that I wouldn't find a community here to be a part of because I had been so part of the previous community," she said.

The mother of two said a new question she’ll have to ask herself in Missouri is: How will she raise her children?

Will she teach them Spanish in a place where they wouldn’t have a place to practice outside the house? (Currently, their favorite word in Spanish is huevito or egg.) How will she explain to them their culture may be different from other little girls?

She said she’s very aware that the future conversations she’ll have with Zoë and Lillie may be different now that they will grow up in central Missouri – a state with less than five percent of Latinos.

"I think it's difficult because in this country, because of the history of racism in this country, I think that kind of is something that we need to acknowledge," Gutiérrez Pérez said.

As far as when the inevitable "what is your race/ethnicity'" checkbox coming up in the girls' future, Gutiérrez Pérez said she isn't sure about what to put down. She described herself as "white passing," which means her Mexican identity isn't as outwardly apparent.

So in the past, she has marked white and Hispanic, since that was how others would define her.

Since then, she has come to the conclusion that her life experience, especially in Missouri, does not reflect that of the white American experience.

So, she's started thinking of checking all the boxes she identifies as – the ones that best encompass her identity. Those are white (under race, since there isn't another race to describe her), Hispanic (under ethnicity) and Indigenous (to reflect her Mestiza identity).

Courtesy Elijah Brown
Elijah Brown poses for a photo in his graduation cap under the St. Louis arch. Brown is from the city and went to school at the University of Missouri in Columbia, about two hours away.

“And just letting them know that they can be themselves and be authentically themselves," Gutiérrez Pérez reflected. "Obviously, we experience our culture in a particular way, because of the way where [my husband and I] grew up. But with them growing up away from that kind of same environment, they're going to experience it differently. And that's okay.”

But sometimes it’s hard to be authentically yourself when you have to constantly explain yourself, said Elijah Brown.

He’s Afro-Latino, which means he identifies as both Black and Puerto Rican. He said he still has to explain himself and his identity to many mid-Missourians.

“It can get exhausting trying to explain this whole spectrum, this whole intersectionality thing of being Black and being Latino at the same time, because here in Missouri, it's like astrophysics, trying to explain that to some people," Brown said.

In the future, it may not be astrophysics anymore.

According to Saint Louis University professor of demography and sociology Ness Sandoval, Missouri needs Latinos in the state, as it's a population that continues to grow. But he clarified this is different from changing immigration policies. Most Latinos in the U.S. are American-born.

“You need to encourage other Americans to move to Missouri, and they happen to be Black Americans, Latino Americans and Asian Americans," he said.

Since 2010, Missouri had one of the largest increases in Latino people living here compared to other Midwestern states. Although it’s still behind the national growth trend, Sandoval said it would benefit the state to make people like Brown and Gutiérrez Pérez feel more at home.

¿Dónde está mi gente? will continue with one last special segment.

For the audio transcript, click here.

Kassidy Arena is the Engagement Producer for KBIA. In her role, she reports and produces stories highlighting underrepresented communities, focuses on community outreach and promoting media literacy. She was born in Berkeley, California, raised in Omaha, Nebraska and graduated with a degree in Journalism at the University of Missouri, Columbia.
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