Communication Is Key As Latino Population Grows

By Robin Hertel
Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. – Imagine you’re having a heart attack in the backyard, and your wife can’t tell the EMTs where you are. Or say you just went into labor while shopping, and you can’t get anyone to help you. Or maybe your house is on fire, and you can’t tell the firefighters that your children are still in their rooms.

Such crisis situations complicated by language barriers have become increasingly common as the Latino community in Virginia has grown.

Experts say both immigrants and natives must make efforts to close the language and cultural gap. According to Anita Nadal, Spanish instructor and community liaison for Virginia Commonwealth University, the Richmond community has welcomed the challenge.

She has begun programs, particularly with the Richmond Fire Department, to help teach basic Spanish phrases vital in emergency situations.

“What I promote is, you’re not going to be bilingual,” Nadal said. “But I can walk into any bank, hospital or company and ask, ‘Would you guys like to learn more [Spanish]?’ and 99 percent say yes. I tip my hat to Richmond.”

That kind of outreach has become increasingly important with the increase in the area’s Spanish-speaking population.

The Hispanic population in Virginia has grown 61 percent from 2000 to 2008, according to the latest estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau. That is nearly twice the Hispanic growth rate for the nation as a whole.

Virginia now has more than 530,000 Hispanic residents – almost 7 percent of the statewide population.

In 33 cities and counties in Virginia, the Hispanic population has more than doubled over the past nine years. The biggest increases have been in Frederick and Culpepper counties, which have four times more Latinos now than in 2000.

The Richmond area has seen a dramatic increase in the Hispanic population. Since 2000, the number of Latinos has more than doubled in Chesterfield County and almost doubled in Hanover and Henrico counties and the city of Richmond. Those four localities now have a total of more than 40,500 Latino residents – about 5 percent of the population.

The state’s Hispanic population is concentrated in Northern Virginia. Latinos now make up more than one in four residents of Manassas and Manassas Park – and about one in five residents of Prince William County.

From a business standpoint, the immigrants represent potential customers – and reaching out to the Hispanic culture can be quite lucrative.

Latinos have nearly $1 trillion in buying power in the United States, experts estimate. Companies can tap into this consumer group by making the extra effort of enlightening their staffs about language and cultural differences.

“If you can’t reach out to them in their own language, they won’t buy the product or service. It’s the companies that reach out in their native language – they see a great deal of success in selling their products. This has fostered a lot of economic prosperity,” said Michel Zajur, president of the Virginia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

From television programs to automated telephone instructions to emergency care response, all aspects of community life have been affected by the language introduced by the immigrant influx.

Nadal says the Richmond area has adjusted admirably.

“Richmonders have embraced the opportunity [and are] happy to try and bridge the gap,” she said. “I really believe that more and more Americans are starting to think more globally.”

For more information online, visit:

Virginia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce:

U.S. Census Bureau:

Hispanics and Latinos in Virginia:

Spreadsheet of population trends in Virginia:


Robin Hertel is a journalism student at Virginia Commonwealth University.