Hispanic and Latino residents make up about a quarter of Umatilla County’s population, but business ownership in the county doesn’t reflect that number. Some local organizations are working to make owning and operating a business easier by overcoming cultural and language barriers.

The Latino Business Network is one such organization. Run through the Hermiston Chamber of Commerce, the group was started about six years ago by chamber members and Latino business owners.

The group brings in speakers each month, including financial advisors, lawyers and medical providers. They also aim to bridge the gap some Latino business owners may feel when operating businesses.

“Some business owners have mentioned how they feel a little bit of distance, or a barrier with the city,” said Jonathan Lopez, a member of the Latino Business Network. He said for some businesses, there’s a language barrier which can limit them from asking questions about laws or codes for their businesses.

“It can be tough if they have questions or concerns and don’t know how to go about that because of a language barrier,” he said.

Lopez said local business owners have come to the Latino Business Network with a variety of requests — from questions about codes to physical issues with their businesses.

“There was a gentleman not too long ago, who said the street his business is on gets pretty dark, and gets broken into.”

Lopez said the man requested some assistance with getting some better outside lighting for his business.

According to numbers from a U.S. Census survey of Umatilla County business owners in 2012, there were 4,648 businesses in the county. Of those, 339 — about 7 percent — were Hispanic-owned. According to a 2017 Census population estimate, 26.8 percent of the county’s residents are Hispanic or Latino.

Another organization based in Salem, the Latino Business Alliance, provides similar services — networking and education for business owners. The group’s website stated that while the number of Latino business owners is growing throughout the state, many of those owners aren’t versed in filing business taxes or employment law, and don’t take advantage of — or are unaware of — resources to help them grow their businesses.

“These knowledge gaps not only put Latino small business owners in a vulnerable position, but threatened the future health and prosperity of the Latino community,” the website stated.

Roy Barron, a Hermiston city councilor, said he wasn’t surprised by the disparity.

“It tends to go all the way up,” he said. “Especially in business, with permits, it creates bigger obstacles.”

Barron said he hasn’t heard directly from any business owners, but he has observed some that he feels could use more assistance.

“If they knew a little bit more about resources — part of it is that they may not be very familiar,” he said.

The network’s biggest project has been the annual career and resource fair, which the group has organized for the last four years.

“The goal was really to help agricultural workers on the front end,” said Debbie Pedro, former director of the Chamber of Commerce.

But the fair has since expanded to be a more general job fair, open to any vendor or potential employee. The group, too, has expanded to include more than just Latino business owners.

“Anyone that works for a business or organization can participate in the Latino Business Network,” Pedro said.

Martin Villanueva, owner of El Rodeo Club restaurant and Quality Inn Hotel, both in Umatilla, has been a part of the Latino Business Network for a couple of years. He said the group has been helpful to both Latino and non-Latino businesses.

“It’s a liaison to Latino business owners or any immigrant business owners,” he said.

He added that while people from immigrant communities often have thriving businesses, it doesn’t always translate to civic participation.

“Sometimes, the police department or the fire department might have a meeting,” he said. “Latinos don’t show up because there’s no information, no organization for them. Some Latinos are afraid or don’t feel welcome sometimes.”

The knowledge that there will be Latino leadership, he said, may encourage more participation.

“The community is one,” he said. “I think American businesses should embrace it — it’s a connection to the Latino market for them.”

He said the network is a connection to resources and a chance to share ideas and events with other businesses.

“It’s very positive,” he said. “It can show the Latino community and other immigrant communities that there’s programs to help them. Jobs, things they might not know about.”

He said that as it develops, he sees the potential to serve as a model for other local communities.

“Boardman, Stanfield, Hermiston, Umatilla — all these little cities, we all benefit from each other,” he said.

The city of Umatilla does not have a specific group for Latino business owners, but Umatilla Chamber of Commerce treasurer Salud Campos said some business owners, like those at restaurants Novedades Cruz and Fruteria Piqui, would like to have more communication about what resources are available.

She said the owner of Novedades Cruz, who has owned the business for 15 years, did not have any problems opening a business, but said she’d like more help from the city with promotion or advertising. The owner of Fruteria Piqui, she said, would have benefited from knowing if there were programs that would help new businesses financially.

Villanueva said he would like to see the network expand to have some more focused business training about safety in the agricultural industry, as well as training about good business practices.

“It would be helpful to everyone to know where there are federal funds for small businesses,” he said.

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