In the entertainment industry, they are everywhere. But if you live in the United States, chances are you have met a Colombian at some point. This should not be a surprise: in 2019, the Pew Research Center revealed that the number of Hispanics of Colombian origin in the United States had reached almost 1.2 million.
On a broader scale, this number might seem small compared to the other 59 million Hispanics that live in the U.S; however, the Colombian community grew by an impressive 148% in the last 20 years. What is so attractive about the U.S. for Colombians? What has made them leave? And how have they fared far from their home?
Studies have identified that the first Colombian community in the United States settled in New York City, specifically in the Queens borough, after World War I. Many of them were professionals who established residency and others were students looking to complete their education in an American university.
However, scholars consider that a first wave of Colombian immigrants actually started in 1945, when the civil war in Colombia (a period known as La Violencia) and the increased poverty that ensued caused many to leave the country. In this period, thousands of Colombians lost their rural lands and were forced to move to major cities, thus adding to the internal crisis.
The second wave of Colombian migration into the U.S. went from 1965 to 1989 and was caused by several factors. In 1965, the American government passed the Immigration and Naturalization Act, resulting in an influx of foreign population in general. Besides, the civil war in Colombia had left the country in financial instability, in a situation where only a small number of families controlled a large percentage of the national revenue.
Furthermore, Colombia became known as the top contributor in drug manufacturing and trafficking not just to the United States but to many parts of the world. These factors resulted in the second wave of Colombian immigration. New York was still their main destination, but Los Angeles, Houston, Philadelphia and Washington, DC began to receive smaller Colombian communities. By the 1980s, however, they began settling primarily in Miami and South Florida, due to its proximity and the presence of other Latin American communities.
By the beginning of the 1990s, drug cartels, cocaine trafficking and the acts of guerrilla and paramilitary groups had brought about some of the most violent years of Colombia’s recent history. During this period, many professionals, wealthy people and even relatives of politicians were kidnapped. Extortion, murder, street bombings and an overall state of escalated violence were the biggest reason for the third wave of Colombian immigration to the United States. The situation began to improve after the mid 2000s, when the activity of guerilla groups decreased substantially and the country enjoyed, at last, a renewed sense of safety and security; thus, 2008 marked the end of the third wave.
Cease-fires, the disarmament of guerrilla groups, an increase in tourism and overall stability in Colombia have given the country a fresh, more attractive reputation. Still, Colombians continued to immigrate after 2008. In fact, today they are the largest group of South Americans in the United States with 1.2 million, almost twice as the 679,000 Peruvians, the second group on the list. Why is the U.S. so appealing?
Aside from “the promise of jobs, peace and stability,” Colombians have sought, since the beginning of the crisis, an escape from the political violence and civil unrest. At the same time, they have also found economic opportunities and cultural magnetism in the United States. Some of those who migrated during the third wave likely had a relative living there, which facilitated their settling in. And in more recent times, a higher frequency and affordability of flights between the two countries may have contributed to the numbers that we see now.
The chart from Pew Research Center shows that in 2017 there were at least 763,000 foreign-born and 482,000 Colombians in the U.S. So where do they go? The New York-New Jersey area is currently home to the largest group of Colombian immigrants. Many have left Queens slowly and spread out to the suburbs, but even so, it is possible to find large Colombian communities. Paterson, NJ, is home to at least 5,000 Colombians and, as a recognition of their presence and contribution to the city, it renamed one of its streets the “Colombian Corridor.” The corridor now covers an area with plenty of Colombian-owned restaurants, bakeries, coffee shops and bars. Dover, NJ, has the Club Colombia, an initiative that intends to teach and preserve the country’s history and promote and maintain the friendship between both countries.
Jackson Heights, in Queens, NY, is widely known as a multi-ethnic neighborhood, but it is sometimes called “Little Colombia” due to its high concentration of Colombian population and businesses. Although it was occupied with gangs and drug dealers in the 1990s, Jackson Heights is now a lively hub of Colombian culture. It will be easy to hear cumbia and salsa music playing in the streets and see a variety of Colombian restaurants like Arepa Lady or Pollos a la Brasa Mario, a white-walled, Antioquia-style, 24-hour restaurant.
This Colombian-house restaurant is located in the heart of Jackson Heights, Queens, NY.
Right there in Queens, 40 years ago a group of Colombian immigrants started meeting periodically as simple social gatherings. These meetings evolved into the Centro Cívico Colombiano, a US-government-recognized, non-profit organization. They work for the country’s good image through promoting culture, traditions and patriotic values. And it is not just Colombians that they help; this community center has been offering English, Spanish, guitar, dancing and even computer classes for new immigrants and young Hispanics no matter their heritage. As their mission says, the Centro Cívico Colombiano wants to “enhance Latinos and improve their quality of life” with education and community services as they adapt to a different society.
What about Florida? The Colombian population in the southern state (which constitutes 30% of the total Colombian population) is mostly concentrated in three areas: Miami-Fort Lauderdale-Pompano Beach, Orlando-Kissimmee-Sanford and the Tampa Bay Area. Miami, the city with the most foreign-born population in the U.S., has seen a growth in Colombian immigration dating back to the 1980s. Today, the number of Colombians in the South Florida area is almost 250,000. In Central Florida, it is estimated that 85,0000 of them live in the Tampa Bay and Greater Orlando metropolitan areas, making these cities the second largest agglomeration of Colombians after Miami.
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Colombian Independence festival in Miami.
Despite the increase of Colombians settling in the West Kendall, Doral and Weston neighborhoods of South Florida recently, Colombian businesses, restaurants and bars can be found all around the metro area. La Ventana, shown below, opened in 2003 and is now the most popular Colombian restaurant in the South Beach neighborhood. Colombian bakeries and coffee shops can also be found everywhere in the Miami-Dade county.
But it is not only the food industry that they depend on: In the last decade, trade between the two countries has grown, and so has the number of shipping companies that, due to geographical advantage, base their operations near the Miami International Airport. Before Valentine’s Day, for example, there are more than twice the amount of regular cargo flights between Colombia and Miami, and upon arriving, freshly-cut flowers from Andean farms are distributed all across the United States. Another important date is Colombia’s Independence Day (July 20th), when thousands of attendees, regardless of their origin, come together in the Miramar Amphitheater to see salsa and vallenato groups, solo singers, dancers and even comedians.
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How do they feel in the United States? This is a more complex issue. On one hand, they might go to the U.S. with hopes of finding employment and stability, but they are often faced with the tasks of learning English, obtaining a permanent work visa, passing licensing examinations in their field, and some have ultimately accepted lower-paying jobs. In some cases, there are those that, seeing Colombia’s recovery and improvement in the last decade, have returned.
Others, after years of hard work, have managed to pull through and make their own life in the U.S. María Cano, for example, is the founder of Arepa Lady, the restaurant mentioned above. Originally from Medellín, she arrived in the United States more than 30 years ago with three of her four children. Cano, now retired from the business, earned the nickname “Arepa Lady” when she began to sell arepas from a food cart in Jackson Heights, NY. Today, the restaurant is run by her family and operates in two other locations. They have welcomed Mayor Bill de Blasio, Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and other public figures as their customers.
And we must not forget Catalina Cruz. She is the first individual under the Dream Act and Colombian-born politician elected to the New York Assembly. Cruz oversees District 39—the most diverse in the nation—encompassing Corona, Elmhurst and Jackson Heights. She arrived in Queens when she was nine years old and was undocumented for more than 10 years. Her mother, like many immigrants, had to work tirelessly in multiple jobs. Inspired by her mother’s dedication, Cruz pursued a career in Law and is now serving her community and ensuring that it not only survives, but thrives.
As the numbers show, the Colombian community in the United States is growing year by year. Location, ties to family and friends, a refuge from violence and prospects of better economic stability are some of the factors that, for more than 50 years, have made the U.S. an ideal destination for Colombian immigrants. And though some come and go and others stay for good, what is certain is that, beyond any previous reputation, Colombians have made a name for themselves by caring for their community and ultimately strengthening the bond between the two countries.
My name is Javier Cataño García and I am pursuing a M.A. in Spanish, with focus on linguistics and literature, at the University of South Florida, Tampa, where I also teach undergraduate Spanish courses. I was born and raised in Colombia, but I have lived in the United States since August 2021. I have always had a special interest in foreign languages and geography, and I am looking to channel that interest through Latina Republic. I also have some training and experience in English-Spanish translation and interpretation. Although my professional career has been centered in teaching, I enjoy delving into other areas such as music, cooking and journalism. I hope to find new directions in my career through Latina Republic.