Since being named Consul General of the Mexican Consulate in Atlanta last summer, Javier Diaz admits he wanted to know more about this place called Gainesville in which more than 41 percent of the city’s population is Hispanic — and of which 80 percent are Mexicans.
Diaz got his wish Tuesday when Mayor Danny Dunagan, Councilman Zack Thompson, other city officials, employees and members of the Vision 2030 Committee welcomed the diplomat.
City Manager Bryan Lackey offered Diaz a sense of how rapidly the Hispanic population has grown since the 1990 census, when just 8 percent of the city’s total population of almost 18,000 was Latino.
“The next 10 years we saw an explosion of the Hispanic community,” Lackey said. “By the next census in 2000, it was 32 percent. That’s incredible, four times total increase in Hispanics here. In the census of 2010 we were 41 percent of 38,000 residents. That’s a huge increase. ... The city had to change the way we think about reaching out to all our citizens so we can serve everyone.”
Diaz said that in his 20 years serving Mexican Consulates in different parts of the United States, he understands the pressure that such rapid population growth places on city officials and resources.
“You can tell pretty fast when you are in contact with a place where they get it,” Diaz said. “Demographic changes present a great challenge. Some communities may react to that challenge as trying to resist it, trying to get away from it. That’s still going on in some places and it’s human nature. There are some places that have gone through the process and they get it. They are embracing this new diversity. ... It is pretty easy to tell that Gainesville is in that case. Thank you so much for everything you’re doing.”
Diaz told the gathering that Mexican immigrants should be proud of who they are and of their roots, but he said the consulate also reminds them that they should be proud of being a citizen of Gainesville or wherever they happen to be.
“You can be both, but unfortunately in the mind of some of them, they think it’s a choice,” Diaz said. “They think they have to leave something behind in order to be accepted. We tell them, you don’t. You can be a very proud Mexican, you can have your rights as Mexicans ... but at the same time make you understand that you need to take the steps that you need to take in order to be a functioning, active part of the community you are in.”
Dunagan said the city is committed to embracing the entire community.
“I can tell you we want to work together,” the mayor said. “We want to make this a success for everybody. We want the Latino population to feel comfortable in our city, we want them to communicate with us and we also want them to get involved.”
Gainesville Tourism Director Catiel Felts arranged for Diaz to visit several businesses on Atlanta Highway — the thriving Latino business district.
Ramon Arteaga, who opened the supermarket La Flor de Jalisco in 1991, said it was important for the consul general to visit the community.
“The future is uncertain,” Arteaga said. “People are fearful because of the politics.”
Diaz also visited restaurateur Gustavo Godinez at El Griton restaurant, spoke with the mostly Mexican employees at the Atlanta Highway Seafood Market, and met with Ivan Medrano and staff at the ice cream parlor, La Mejor de Michoacan.
Maria Gordillo, an employee at the Seafood Market for five years, said she was pleased that Diaz took time to visit the community.
“It’s good that he came to visit and got to know us,” she said.