Sometimes, it’s the small milestones that can be most significant and symbolic. For most Connecticut Latinos recently, it was having Gov. Dannel Malloy and key legislative leaders stand with us at the Capitol at the Latino Advocacy Day and acknowledge the role of state’s rapidly growing Latino community. Their presence, and most importantly their words, signaled a long awaited and welcomed acknowledgement that the Latino voice in Connecticut is finally recognized and is being heard in the halls of power.

The casual observer might wonder what the big deal is. Everyone knows, that unlike his predecessor, Gov. Malloy has perfected the art of seeming to appear everywhere and talking to everyone.

But this wasn’t the condescending wave, smile and awkward greeting from the Spanish phrase book that Latinos have become accustomed to since they began to make their presence felt in Connecticut more than 60 years ago. This time, a new tone was set by both sides.

On Latino Advocacy Day, the governor and legislative leaders were clearer and stronger in their messages than in the past, particularly when they spoke of the importance of supporting the agencies that offer services to the most vulnerable among Connecticut’s Latinos. And then they acknowledged a fact that recently released U.S. Census data has rendered undeniable: that Latinos are the fastest growing ethnic group in our state.

The governor and legislators seem to understand this funding social services for this group is not a handout. It’s an investment to ensure the long-term health of our state’s economic future. Latino agencies are not a drain on the state; rather they are part of the “safety net” that is part of a cost-effective solution in moving our state forward. Education, job-training, health and business development programs offered by these agencies are for the most part preventive in nature and help keep down skyrocketing costs for programs such as Medicaid, unemployment Insurance and prisons.

And conversely, with new U.S. Census numbers indicating Latinos are almost 500,000 strong in Connecticut, Latinos were not at the Capitol with a tin cup. Instead they were there to say recognize us, support us, and allow us to support you. Data from the United States Hispanic Leadership Institute’s Latino Index released in 2008 confirms that Latinos are not only a growing segment of Connecticut’s economy, they are important players. There were 1,281 Latino businesses with 8,762 paid employees with an annual payroll of $224 million in 2002. In 2009, Latino purchasing power in Connecticut was $9 billion, and the Pew Hispanic Center’s 2008 data shows that Hispanic homeownership in the state has reached 33%. Latinos are without a doubt reshaping our communities and culture throughout Connecticut.

Latinos in our state are consumers, business-owners and, most importantly, a growing segment of the workforce. The growth of the Latino community offers a great opportunity to strengthen our state. These numbers show we are an integral part of the future of Connecticut and a significant factor in the future economic growth of our state. As such, economic and state policies have to ensure our community’s continued success, which the governor and legislative leaders acknowledged.

As Rep. Andres Ayala, D-Bridgeport, who initiated the Latino Advocacy Day at the Capitol, said, “I don’t know if you noticed, but Latinos are in Connecticut.” We are, and we accept this warm welcome– a welcome that was 60 years in the making. As proud residents of our state, we know we are and must be part of the solution.

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