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Hispanic Heritage Month: Latinos in Nevada have much to celebrate, but still face challenges

Nancy Brune
Nancy Brune
A group in chairs in the East Las Vegas Community Center

Sept. 15th kicked off Hispanic Heritage Month. What should normally be a joyous month filled with festivities has been marred by COVID-19 and the somber fact that the virus has disproportionately affected Latinos in Nevada (and elsewhere). Latinos now account for 45 percent of COVID-19 cases in the Silver State. Additionally, Latinos in Nevada have been economically battered by the pandemic — a trend that bears out nationally. However, these current challenges should not preclude Latinos from finding a moment to celebrate the community’s substantial achievements in Nevada.  

Nevada’s Latino population – which accounts for 30 percent of our total population – has increased significantly from 53,879 in 1980 to 716,501 in 2010. Nationally, Nevada has the fifth largest percentage of Latinos, ranking behind New Mexico, California, Texas, and Arizona. We also have the highest number of unauthorized immigrants as a share of the total population (7.1 percent); unauthorized immigrants account for more than one-third of all immigrants in Nevada. The growth of Latinos in Nevada is not an entirely urban phenomenon: the growth rate of the Latino population was higher in Lyon and Nye Counties than Clark County over the period 2000-2010.  

Locally, Latinos have made tremendous gains in electoral politics within the legislative and executive branches. There are now nine Latino/a legislators in the Legislature. Nevada has elected a Latino governor and, more recently, the nation’s first Latina U.S. Senator.

There are signs that Latino influence in Nevada is growing beyond electoral politics. Two of our community colleges have their first Latino presidents. A Hispanic woman served at the helm of University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV) for the past two years and the Nevada System of Higher Education (NSHE) Board of Regents has just selected a Latino (and former governor) to lead University of Nevada, Reno (UNR). Nevada has its second Latino mayor, Daniel Corona of West Wendover; the first was Cruz Olague of Henderson in the 1970s. And the Silver State has its first Latino mayor pro-tem, Isaac Barron of North Las Vegas.

Clark County School District, the fifth largest in the country with a student population that is more than 45 percent Latino, has its second Latino superintendent. National organizations such as Mi Familia Vota have started local chapters and maintained their investments in Nevada over several election cycles. When the pandemic hit, the Nevada Hispanic Legislative Caucus quickly mobilized itself and others to organize impressive statewide efforts to provide affected communities with food, devices, and other supplies. Recently, local political leaders and community organizations in Clark County mobilized to execute the Esta en Tus Manos campaign to address the high incidence of COVID-19 among Latinos.

Latinos have advanced in Nevada despite having to overcome the very real barriers imposed by historic and ongoing discrimination. A 2017 national survey of Latinos, conducted by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard School of Public Health, found that at least one-third of all Latinos in the United States had personally experienced discrimination in their workplace or when purchasing a house or renting an apartment. Approximately, 37 percent have had ethnic slurs personally directed at them by others. The achievements of Latinos in Nevada are all the more remarkable when considered in the context of this nation’s continuing struggle for equality.

Not surprisingly, there are still pockets of influence and power where Latinos remain largely absent. Latinos have never held a seat on the NSHE Board of Regents even when five of our institutions are now Hispanic-serving Institutions. Latinos also are missing from boardrooms. Nationally, only 20 percent of Fortune 500 companies have a Latino board member; of the top 15 publicly traded companies headquartered in Nevada, less than 3 percent of board directors are Latino. Latinos are missing from the boards and executive leadership rosters of the Silver State’s largest nonprofits.

Latinos in Nevada have also struggled to economically advance and build wealth. They are overrepresented in some low-wage sectors. They continue to lag their peers in educational attainment: less than 12 percent of Latinos have a bachelor’s degree. Almost one-fifth (17 percent) of Latinos live below the poverty line. While Latinos drive small business growth (accounting now for 37 percent of Las Vegas’ small businesses), low average levels of education contribute to lower levels of business income relative to their peers.

But looking just at economic or wealth measures does not tell the whole story of Latinos in Nevada. It is also important to acknowledge the ways in which patterns of local political development and the woven tapestry of institutions, social structures, and networks in Nevada have mediated and shaped the political reality and infrastructure of Latinos today. 

First, we ought to remember that the growth of Latinos in Nevada is a relatively new phenomenon. The Nevada Latino population increased by 1,230 percent over a 30-year period (1980-2010). The political and organizational infrastructure created by the Chicano civil rights movement throughout the Southwest in the 1960s-1970s largely missed Nevada.

Second, as Latinos have moved to Nevada, they did not participate in or were not integrated into the social and cultural institutions that have historically played a significant role in mobilizing people and translating numbers into political influence. For example, churches in historic West Las Vegas have long served as power centers among African Americans. Historically, “black ministers used the pulpit for rallying their congregations, and churches served as community centers for identifying the problem and formulating a plan of action.” Many Latinos are members of the Catholic Church; however, the Catholic Church in Nevada has not played the same role that African American churches have.  

Similarly, Latinos have not historically participated in formal partisan political structures to the same extent as their peers. Nor have they often been able to sustain broad-based political mobilizing organizations. As a 13-year resident of Nevada, I need two hands to count the number of homegrown Latino political organizations that have started and faded — with an average shelf life of two years. Serious efforts to organize Latinos began in 2008 with the orchestration of U.S. Sen. Harry Reid and his team.

Third, organizations that build social capital and promote public service and political engagement (e.g., sororities, fraternities, Rotary Club, etc.) have not been part of the local social fabric among Latinos until recently. For example, Alpha Kappa Alpha, founded in 1908, and Delta Sigma Theta, founded in 1913, are national African American sororities with local chapters that have been active in Nevada for more than 50 years. These sororities have a mission of promoting public service, which includes a history of “fighting for voting rights” and encouraging “its members to be active in the political process.” While fraternal organizations and sororities among Latinos are growing, they are relatively new: Sigma Omega Nu was chartered at UNLV in 1996 and at UNR in 2017. Local Latino associations, such as Federacion Mexicana and Federacion Hidalguense, focus more on cultural promotion and social assistance for their members and less on broader political engagement.

While the recent disproportionate impact of COVID-19 has understandably muted festivities for Hispanic Heritage month, Latinos have much to celebrate about their accomplishments here in Nevada. And while the Latinos continue to face challenges, there is so much more that they can and will achieve.

Nancy Brune, Ph.D. is the founding Executive Director of the Guinn Center, a statewide, independent, nonpartisan policy research center. She is a Senior Fellow at the Boyd School of Law and serves on the Law and Leadership Program Advisory Council. Dr. Brune received her Ph.D. from Yale University and her Master of Public Policy and B.A. degrees from Harvard University. Prior to joining the Guinn Center, she was a Senior Policy Analyst at Sandia National Laboratories, where she worked on issues of national security. You can follow her on Twitter @NancyBrune or email her at [email protected]


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