WARNER ROBINS -- Paulina Medina moved from Mexico to Warner Robins about 14 years ago, and she doesn’t think she’ll move back.
Now 24, she’s studying early childhood education so she can help other youths in English as a Second Language classes, much as she was.
“When I started, there were probably two Hispanics in the school. Now there are a bunch,” she said.
Medina works at Hispano American Multiservice in Warner Robins, which sells insurance, helps with tax filings and provides other services to Middle Georgia’s burgeoning Hispanic population. Other Hispanic-oriented businesses have opened up along Warner Robins’ two main commercial streets and in Macon’s Rocky Creek Road area. The business of serving Hispanics is a growth industry.
U.S. Census Bureau estimates released recently show that most Middle Georgia counties lost non-Hispanic residents over the last few years, while 10 of 11 counties added Hispanic residents.
In some cases, the population shift has been stark. Between July 2010 and July 2013, the Census Bureau estimates, Bibb County lost 1,374 non-Hispanic people but gained 460 Hispanics. Put another way: In a typical week, Bibb County added three Hispanic residents and lost nearly nine residents who weren’t Hispanic.
Mathew Hauer, director of applied demography at the University of Georgia’s Carl Vinson Institute of Government, said most of the state, except Atlanta, is experiencing a similar trend. The number of Hispanic people seems to be growing, while the number of non-Hispanic white, black and Asian people is growing more unevenly, he said.
Hispanics tend to be younger. They may be able to move more and tend to have a higher birth rate because of their age.
It’s not yet clear how much that explains the changes seen in the Census Bureau population estimates.
“This is a brand-new trend, and the bad thing about a new trend is you don’t know what’s going on until afterward. We’re in the middle of what could be change, but we just don’t know at this point” Hauer said.
The new estimates suggest that the populations of some Middle Georgia counties continue to increase. In the latest three years, for example, the estimates say Houston County has added 5,989 non-Hispanic residents and 932 Hispanic residents. In Monroe County, some 443 non-Hispanic residents were added along with 89 Hispanic residents.
In other communities, however, there are stark differences. The estimates suggest that Peach County lost 863 non-Hispanic residents and added 100 Hispanics. Twiggs County added just 24 Hispanics but lost 510 non-Hispanics.
Numbers growing quickly, but still modest
The latest Census Bureau estimates put Middle Georgia’s Hispanic population at 20,682 in an 11-county area that has 522,172 residents. As a share of the population, those numbers remain small, at just 4 percent.
But the numbers are also growing quickly. Since the year 2000, the Hispanic population increased 139 percent, while the area’s overall population increased just 11 percent.
Sometimes the changes were striking. In Bleckley County at the turn of the century, for example, there were 108 non-Hispanic people for every Hispanic. By 2013, the number had fallen to 38 non-Hispanics for every Hispanic.
The Telegraph looked at the population estimates in Baldwin, Bibb, Bleckley, Crawford, Houston, Jones, Laurens, Monroe, Peach, Twiggs and Wilkinson counties. The lowest rate was in Peach County, where there were 12.5 non-Hispanics for every Hispanic. Houston County wasn’t far behind, at 14.5 non-Hispanics for every Hispanic resident.
The latest estimates suggest that in the last several years, Crawford County lost 154 non-Hispanic residents and gained 69 Hispanic residents.
“If that is the case, I would imagine it would have to do with all of our agriculture areas, peaches and pecans,” County Manager Pat Kelly said.
But Middle Georgia’s Hispanics aren’t a single, unified bloc with ties to one country or one line of work.
Moises Velez, editor of ¿Qué Pasa?, said the newcomers see opportunities.
“I think that the reason why Hispanics are moving in is job opportunities,” said Velez, a native of Puerto Rico. “More people are willing to hire Hispanics because of their work ethic. Also the housing is not very expensive.”
That bloc is diverse. Medina said most of the customers she’s encountered lately are from Guatemala, not her native Mexico. She guessed the area’s rapid growth years ago drew more construction workers.
“There was a lot of work,” she said.
Velez pointed to entrepreneurs who opened Cuban and Salvadorean restaurants as an example of the diversity. But there is also strength in numbers that are growing.
Velez pointed out that on a recent Friday night, a Macon comedy station at 1280 AM converted to a full-time Spanish-language radio station.
“Everything is in place, the stores, the jobs and all that,” he said.