On the Ground: Covington's growing Latino community

Soapbox and NKY Thrives were On The Ground in Covington late spring to early fall, 2017. You can read an archive of stories from the #OTG Covington series here. With more community stories to tell celebrating growth and change in Northern Kentucky's largest city, we're back with another series of On the Ground.

After a divorce, Claudio Gutierrez was trying to figure things out, working some construction, sort of bouncing from job to job.

When he was married, Claudio, who had moved to the U.S. from a small town in Mexico at the age of 13, had helped run a little Mexican carryout in Florence that was owned by his wife’s parents. The breakup ended that job, but the idea of running an ethnic store like stuck with him.

In pursuit of his dream, he was getting ready to move to Lexington to buy a friend’s bakery there when he learned of a carryout closing at 1131 Lee St. in Covington and the owners selling all their equipment. He decided to stay in Northern Kentucky and open Gutierrez Deli there.

The year was 2012. Since then, the little deli at the corner of Martin Luther King Drive and Lee has become a gathering place for Covington’s growing Latino population and a resource for Hispanic immigrants who need a little help navigating life in a new country – as well as some comfort food.

“They would come to the store and ask us for help,” says Claudio’s son, Sergio Gutierrez, who related his dad’s story. “Maybe with translating, if they got a letter they didn’t understand. We always helped them.”

As Covington’s Latino population grew, the word spread about the friendly, bilingual people at the deli. So much so, that Sergio is planning to branch out with a Mexican restaurant nearby, joining a handful of other Latino businesses that have cropped up to serve this expanding ethnic population.

Covington is home to about 2,220 Latino residents, according to the latest estimates in July 2018 from the U.S. Census Bureau. That’s roughly 5.5 percent of the city’s overall population, and is a number that has grown steadily, from 3.9 percent of the population in 2015 and from less than a half-percent in 1980.

When new figures are tallied from the 2020 census now under way, Reid Yearwood expects that number will have grown again.

“We know that the growth is a lot larger than that,” Yearwood says.

Yearwood is director of the Esperanza Latino Center in Covington, a central resource for Latino immigrants in Covington and the rest of Northern Kentucky.

Read more here from our archive about the Esperanza Center.

The growth is evident simply by driving or walking around, he says.

“You can see new restaurants, you can see new stores, you can see all sorts of different people,” he says.

It’s a trend that has changed the face of Northern Kentucky’s largest city.

A Latino district of sorts has emerged on Madison Street, where Tercer Dia Gautemala restaurant is at 10th and Madison, Tielda Maya Tikal grocery is at Eighth and San Miguel grocery is at Seventh. 

Sergio Gutierrez is planning to add to the mix with his restaurant at the corner of Martin Luther King and Holman Drive. It’ll be a Mexican street food eatery called Olla (the name means “cooking pot” in Spanish), serving fast, but quality tacos, burritos, empanadas.

“I want this to be simple and good,” he says.

He had planned for the restaurant to open in May, but the coronavirus pandemic has pushed that back to an indefinite date.

Sergio, 24, was born in the States, but moved to Mexico shortly after he was born until he was moved back to the U.S. at the age of 10.

His father Claudio emigrated from Mexico to the U.S. at a young age and began working. “School wasn’t an option,” Sergio says.

He married and moved to Northern Kentucky, as a relative lived here and recommended it.

When the Gutierrez family opened the deli eight years ago, they expected most of their customers would be from Mexico, as they were. They soon realized that most of the Latino population in Covington hails from Central American countries, mainly Guatemala.

That prompted a change in the products and brands they carried to cater to Guatemalan tastes.

“We didn’t know anything about Central American products,” Sergio says. “We had to start adjusting to their products. We know more about Central American products now than we do about Mexican products.”

The Guatemalan population grew organically as people who had moved to Covington spread the word to friends and family back home, Yearwood says.

“Once people have family in a specific place, that encourages and leads to an increase in more people coming here,” he says. “Maybe they don’t go to Miami or New York and come here instead.”

In February 2019, the Esperanza Center opened to serve the growing population. It was started by Leo Calderon and Irene Encarnacion, two professionals who work at Northern Kentucky University and have long held interests in social justice issues.

“They noticed an increase in the Latino population and decided to open the Center,” Yearwood says.

The Center is also temporarily closed due to the pandemic, but when open, it offers weekly English classes for adults and tutoring sessions for children. It also offers summer camps for children, including a weekend math camp for high schoolers.

It also provides help in translation and in locating services and resources in the community.

“We’re just a big, giant bilingual resource center for people,” Yearwood says. “People can come in and feel welcome and comfortable.”

Yearwood is the Center’s new director and a Cincinnati native who has lived and taught English in Panama City, Bogota, Colombia and the Dominican Republic.

Esperanza (which means “hope” in Spanish) is a place where Latino immigrants can seek help to overcome the obstacles that come with locating in a new country with a new language.

One of the biggest obstacles is fear, Yearwood says.

“Some of the difficulties come down to fear, because of the current political climate and fear of how welcome some immigrants feel in the community and in the country as a whole,” he says.

He cited Kentucky Senate Bill 1 as an example of why some Latinos feel afraid.

The bill, which passed the state Senate in February, would ban state and local public agencies from enacting so-called sanctuary policies. He says it would also require local police agencies to assist federal immigration agents in locating undocumented immigrants. The bill is now before a Kentucky House committee.

Despite the obstacles, Gutierrez says Covington and the U.S. hold great opportunity for immigrants.

“Sadly, you don’t have the same opportunities as you do here,” he says.

“Every time we get an opportunity, we hop on it because where we come from you don’t see opportunities like that. You have to take advantage of everything you get a chance to do.”

The On The Ground: Covington feature series is made possible by a grant from
The Carol Ann and Ralph
V. Haile, Jr. / U. S. Bank Foundation.


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Read more articles by David Holthaus.

David Holthaus is the managing editor of NKY Thrives, an award-winning journalist, and a Cincinnati native. When not writing or editing, he's likely to be bicycling, hiking, reading or watching classic movies.