The News-Times (Sunday)
Steep rise in city’s Hispanic, Latino population
DANBURY — Elvis Novas moved to Danbury at the recommendation of a friend.
He had immigrated to the United States from the Dominican Republic in 1992 and was commuting from Brooklyn, N.Y., to Stamford, but knew little about the Hat City.
“We moved just blindly,” he said.
That was 2005. Since then, Novas has convinced other friends and family, including his wife’s parents and cousins, to move to Danbury.
“For Latino, Hispanic people, we follow our community, our people,” said
Novas, who is the president of the Dominican Community Center in Danbury.
The share of Hispanic and Latino residents in Danbury grew by 8.2 percentage points between 2010 to 2020, according to data released last week from the U.S Census Bureau. This was one of the largest increases in the state.
In 2020, there were almost 28,700 Hispanic and Latino residents counted in Danbury, up 42.1 percent from the nearly 20,200 in 2010, the data shows. The city’s population is about 86,500.
“I think the numbers continue to trend up in a way that we’re going to be a majority-minority,” said Emanuela Palmares, who immigrated from Brazil to Danbury as a child. “We’re already there.”
Danbury was ranked the 10th most diverse city in the country by WalletHub earlier this year.
Nearby towns saw their Hispanic and Latino population grow. The state and country did, too.
“We’re a local interpretation of a global issue,” said Palmares, vice president of the New American Dream Foundation and editor of the Tribuna, an English, Spanish and Portuguese newspaper. “We’re not the only place that’s this diverse and has become this kind of a beacon of immigration.”
The city’s business community and employment force has grown along with the increase in this community, Mayor Joe Cavo said.
“We have diverse restaurants,” he said. “We have diverse entertainment. We have diverse recreational opportunity. It's all part and parcel to what makes us a thriving city.”
The coronavirus pandemic has cast doubt, however, on the accuracy of the numbers locally and across the country because it affected efforts to encourage minority communities to fill out the census.
“It’s impossible to say this is an accurate count,” said Palmares, co-chair of Danbury’s Complete Count Committee. “But it’s very reflective, still, of the trend we’ve seen in Danbury for the past 20 years of the increase of the Latino population, of our diversity.”
Why the increase
Immigrants feel comfortable moving to Danbury because they know others share their experiences, said Allison Ruiz, whose parents sought asylum from Nicaragua in the United States.
“Danbury is a melting pot,” said Ruiz, who was born in Danbury and is president of the Latino Scholarship Fund. “We have immigrants coming from all over who are trying to build their futures here, and they don’t have that feeling of being judged or they’re alone.”
The city’s proximity to New York and New Jersey is another factor, said Yasmin Ortiz, vice president of the Latino Scholarship Fund. Danbury offers residents more land and safe neighborhoods at a more affordable price, she said.
Ortiz’s family is from the Dominican Republican, but she was born in New York.
She and her extended family moved to Danbury in part because of Candlewood Lake, which reminded them of their part of the Dominican Republic.
Danbury’s size, atmosphere and job opportunities are attractive, said Wilson Hernandez, an immigrant from Ecuador who owns La Mitad Del Mundo restaurant in Danbury.
“It’s not a place where people can get lost like in the big cities,” he said.
Local events celebrating their home countries help this community feel connected to Danbury, Ortiz said.
“Those little things that take place really lets the Latino community know that we’re being seen, we’re being noticed and more is being done for our needs to be heard,” she said.
More Latinos are becoming financially secure and buying homes, including in the suburbs, Palamares said. That’s led to this community’s growth in towns near Danbury, she said.
“I see it as a beautiful sign of growth and access,” she said.
Immigrants’ entrepreneurial spirit has led to more local businesses, too, she said.
Residents who have established themselves in the city then try to educate newer immigrants to do the same, Ruiz and Ortiz said.
In addition to providing scholarships to Latino students in the region, their organization offers seminars on finance, employment and more. The sessions are offered in English with a Spanish translator.
The growth in the Latino and Hispanic population has been evident in the schools. Students from these backgrounds made up 52.5 percent of the school district in 2020-21, compared to 46 percent in 2015-16, according to state data.
In some classrooms, the majority of students are learning English as their second language. The district has a coaching program to work with these students.
Danbury aims to provide one English learner teacher for every 65 English learning students, Augusto Gomes, curriculum administrator for the ESL, bilingual and world language program, has told the school board.
That’s fewer teachers per student than Norwalk and New Haven, but better than a few years ago, when these Danbury teachers, particularly at the elementary level, had 100 or more students, he has said.
Danbury hasn’t kept up with its overall student population growth, frequently needing to add classrooms.
“I would much rather be a growing community than a shrinking or dying community,” Cavo said. “It’s just a testament to our diversity and the attractiveness that Danbury has to it.”
Novas said his daughter struggled when she started at Danbury High School at 15 in 2005. His daughter had been living in the Dominican Republican until he moved to Danbury and she didn’t know English well.
“For her, it was really, really hard integrating with the community as a whole in high school because there was no plan for that,” Novas said.
For Novas’ son, moving to Danbury was traumatic, the father said. More sports and cultural activities, as well as programs to support young immigrant children, should be available, he said.
“The city should be working with community organizations to provide those kinds of activities for kids, for the youngest to integrate in the community, especially for the Spanish community,” he said.
What Danbury should do
Novas said immigrants are meant to feel like it’s their “fault” that Danbury is growing, creating a “problem” for the city.
“We should be welcome here,” he said.
Immigrants are eager to work hard and could benefit from employment and vocational programs, Hernandez said. Many are unaware of existing services and won’t ask for help, he said.
“We should not leave them alone,” he said.
The community should take advantage of new immigrants’ skills, Novas said. Many are highly educated, but cannot work in their professions because of the language barrier.
“What about finding some way to use those talents and use that contribution in the best way possible?” Novas said.
Danbury’s political leaders do not represent the majority of the population, Hernandez said. There are three Latino men on the 21-member City Council. This includes Democratic mayoral candidate Roberto Alves, who is of Portuguese and Brazilian descent.
“If we have some representation in the City Council, that will mean that somebody is our voice, that somebody expresses our needs,” Hernandez said.
More bilingual employees are needed in City Hall, too, he said.
Leaders need to see Danbury “not for the town it was but for the city it has become” and to view the city’s diversity as the “economic and cultural asset” that it is, Palmares said.
Danbury’s health department did this throughout the coronavirus pandemic by hiring bilingual community health workers and reached out directly to the Hispanic and Latino community, she said.
There’s vast diversity within the Hispanic and Latino community. Each country has different cultural expectations of what the American dream means to them, Palmares said.
“There is not one-size fits all,” she said.
But the city needs to provide more services for immigrants and change its perspective on English learners, who are not an additional budget cost but a chance to expose students to other cultures, she said. After all, many families have said they moved to Danbury because it’s diverse, she said.
“We’re all Danbury residents,” Palmares said. “Let’s work together to achieve equity for all Danbury residents.”
This would lift up the whole city, she said.
“Imagine the things we can achieve if we bring everyone with us,” she said.