By Rita Rousseau
Established amidst the rise of Hispanics to national visibility and power in the mid-1970s, the host Chamber for the 40th annual U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce convention has grown to become one of the largest, most active and most visible community-based Hispanic business organizations in the country.
Since its founding 44 years ago, the Albuquerque Hispano Chamber of Commerce has expanded to some 1,000 members, about two-thirds Hispanic and a third non-Hispanics, says president and CEO Ernie C’de Baca. And it’s truly a small-business organization: 80% of members represent companies with 30 or fewer employees, and 60% represent firms with no more than 10 workers.
The Hispano Chamber—one of the oldest Hispanic Chambers of Commerce in the U.S.—was born when Hispanic business leaders “became frustrated with not getting what they wanted out of the previous Chamber and decided to form their own,” the CEO explains. “I don’t think they could have seen what it would accomplish in 44 years.”
A major milestone came in 2001, when President George W. Bush cut the ribbon to open the group’s new building in Barelas, Albuquerque’s oldest neighborhood. “At the time, Barelas was the biggest pocket of poverty in the Albuquerque region,” de Baca explains. “The Chamber leaders wanted to boost economic development in that historically Hispanic community.” With plenty of room for classes and business and social functions (many catered by local restaurants), the center soon became an important part of community life. A second building opened in 2010, bringing the complex to 22,000 square feet. The Hispano Chamber, and the National Hispanic Cultural Center a few blocks away, have turned the once-forlorn neighborhood into a high-traffic center filled with successful eateries and small businesses.
Taking seriously its mission statement to enhance economic opportunity and provide workforce education to small businesses, the Hispano Chamber provides classes in English and Spanish to help would-be entrepreneurs explore the pros and cons of becoming their own boss. Of the 900 or so who have completed the course, many have taken the plunge. The Chamber also advocates for small businesses with the state legislature in Santa Fe. (It’s currently working on a bill that would mandate that state agencies match contract hires and procurement deals to the state’s demographics.) And it receives funds from the city for its role in boosting Albuquerque as a destination for Hispanic and Native American events and conferences.
Honoring the decades-long history of a successful Hispanic C of C isn’t the only reason national convention attendees will want to come to Albuquerque. With a population that’s 48% Hispanic and 12% Native American, “New Mexico is the first majority-minority state, apart from Hawaii,” de Baca says. “Our demographics are what the whole country is going to look like in 10, 20 or 30 years. We really are the testbed for Hispanics in the rest of the country.”
Besides, de Baca argues, late September will be an “especially cool” time to visit because convention will be followed a few days later by what he calls “the most photographed event in the world”—the Albuquerque Hot Air Balloon Festival. “We believe many people will want to come to the convention and also stay longer,” he says. “We believe some of these businesspeople, once they see Albuquerque, will want to move here. We have a great tradition, a great legacy. We would love to showcase Albuquerque as a destination for future business growth.”