The Long History of Latin American Business and Commerce in Northern Louisiana

This essay from the American Latino Themes Study explores the growth of Latino businesses and commerce in the United States. From the Spanish and Mexican colonial periods to the 20th and 21st centuries, the growth of Latino-owned companies and the data collected by the U. S. government agencies that surround them have led to a wave of scholarship that has characterized Latino entrepreneurs as members of their communities of central importance, although little studied.

As a country, we have focused on the heated debates about labor migration in Latin America, rather than on entrepreneurs who have created markets, played a fundamental role in the development of their communities, and have become organizers and political leaders. Commemorating the long history of Latino business and commercial activities—through their designation as historically significant or simply through greater awareness of them—poses several challenges. Such a process could involve the recognition that established establishments already recognized, such as the religious missions of the Spanish colonial period, were of broader business and commercial importance. Alternatively, it could involve figuring out how to locate the precise sites of ephemeral activities.

For example, how could street corners and parking lots where self-employed day laborers meet to look for work be recognized as historically important? Even more broadly, designate those sites, since many of those who meet there are not Americans,. Citizens would require recognition that non-citizens are capable of carrying out productive economic activity that is historically significant. Similarly, while Latino entrepreneurship has often involved temporary activities or extremely small operations, only the largest and most enduring companies have received recognition for their historic importance. Finally, how could the historical importance of companies started by returning migrants who saved money in the United States be affirmed? And did they learn successful business practices here, which allowed them to participate in business activities in their countries of origin in Latin America?While these issues pose certain challenges to the project of designating historically significant Latino business and commercial activities, finding ways to properly recognize those initiatives would promote a richer understanding of the role that Latinos have played in the history of American businesses and the economy.

The establishment and growth of Latino businesses and commerce have reflected the expansion of the Latino population itself. Until the end of the 19th century, the vast majority of these activities took place between Mexicans and Americans of Mexican origin in the United States. Other Latin American merchants did business during this period in other parts of the United States. For the most part, their stay in these places was temporary and their businesses did not contribute to the formation, settlement, or progress of Latino communities.

Rather, they were limited to trade and other commercial activities. Then, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, immigration from Latin America to the United States increased significantly. In addition, their exile from international conflicts, including independence movements in Latin America, Spanish-American War and Mexican Revolution led to a wave of growth and diversification in Latino businesses including grocery stores, clothing stores and medical offices that provided services to these new communities. By the end of World War II, Latino business and commerce had spread across all parts of United States.

While incorporation into broader social, political and economic patterns increased after World War II, most Latino businesses continued to serve mainly Latino communities. Starting in 1965 after Immigration and Nationality Act (Hart-Celler Act), Cuban Revolution (1959) and violent anti-democratic repressions in Central & South America during 1970s & 1980s led to dramatic increase in number of Americans with Latin American origins: Latino businesses & commerce skyrocketed & became fastest growing sector in US economy. Most companies continued providing services to local Latino communities but others reached larger non-Latino communities too. At end of 20th century thousands businesses opened by recent Latin American immigrants joined those opened by previous generations & their activities represented hemispheric & global reach during 21st century.

The economies of northern New Spain since its inception were a business enterprise: Spanish mapped land & exploited indigenous labor force that made it productive; they also extracted minerals sent to crown which increased their own wealth; from Florida to California they established missions & ranches that became extremely profitable as missionaries, soldiers & ordinary citizens raised livestock & crops then sold meat, skins, tallow grains & vegetables both locally & throughout empire; among these men were first Latino businessmen; Spanish established cattle ranches as early as 16th century first near St John's River from east Florida to Gulf Mexico produced more than third Florida's cattle during 17th century; Tomás Menéndez Márquez owned La Chua ranch which extended thousands square miles from St John's River provided hides jerky & tallow to Spanish colonies Florida as well as Havana demonstrating how businesses & commercial activities Latinos reached distant markets since inception; once Márquez established his livestock business he also diversified into other commercial activities traveling by boat to Havana & returning with products he traded in Florida; Francisco Javier Sánchez became his successor owner & operator stores plantations & ranches Florida supplied Spanish & British officials; following paths traced & traveled for first time by indigenous communities men like Márquez & Sánchez established some first commercial routes trading posts & stores Florida as did other Spaniards other parts northern border Spanish Empire.

Willem Vermeulen
Willem Vermeulen

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