For the last day of National Hispanic American Heritage Month, Karla Ronquillo shared tales of her experiences living in Franklin after growing up in Central America.
Ronquillo, the financial center manager at First Tennessee Bank, is originally from Costa Rica. She moved to the U.S. 18 years ago and has lived in Franklin for the past decade.
While the U.S. Census Bureau estimated in 2018 that 4.9% of Williamson County’s population was Hispanic or Latino, making it the second-largest racial group in the county, Ronquillo said this was not always the case, or at least it didn’t feel like it.
“When I moved 10 years ago, I didn’t see that many Hispanic or Latino businesses — around like three or four Mexican restaurants, but that’s it. Now, I can see it’s growing,” she said.
The fact is, the Hispanic and Latino population is only about 0.5% higher than it was in 2010, but even with this marginal increase, recent research may provide a reason why Hispanic- and Latino-run businesses are cropping up more.
The Kaufmann Indicators of Entrepreneurship show that Hispanics and Latinos are more than 1.5 times more likely to start a business than the average U.S. citizen, and a 2016 Geoscape study indicates that one in five entrepreneurs in the U.S. is Hispanic or Latino.
The Kaufmann Indicators of Entrepreneurship also show that immigrants of all races and ethnicities are nearly twice as likely to start a business as native-born Americans. Ronquillo said this could be because those moving to the U.S. are often actively seeking better opportunities.
“I think when we move to United States from our countries, everybody comes with a dream to do better,” she said. “That’s one of the things that I think our background has. We come with a dream, and we come with goals, and we try to achieve every single dream that we have, and we try to find the resources to help us to succeed in what we want to do.”
Ronquillo came to Tennessee with a scholarship to study at Vanderbilt, and after completing her schooling, the opportunities made her stay.
“You have everything here,” she said.
She explained that living here has allowed her to develop a broad perspective on the immigration issues impacting American politics. She said that having lived outside and within the U.S. borders, she understands different sides of the argument.
“I respect everybody’s politics and religious views, and I know where (Trump’s) coming from and how hard it is for the U.S. citizens to understand why Hispanic or Latinos are crossing the border,” she said. “It’s super hard to understand that if you don’t live in a terrible country, you weren’t born in a terrible country.”
She explained, while many Central American residents come to the U.S. to pursue new opportunities, some come out of impoverished conditions. Growing up, there were times Ronquillo would go one or two weeks at a time without electricity or water. She said some flee because of violence as well.
However, she said she also understands why many Americans are upset about outsiders coming in. She said it’s nearly impossible to explain the conditions that push people to flee their country; people just have to see for themselves.
“I can say 100 million things to you — how hard it is to live in my country, how hard it is to come from Mexico, how hard it is to come from any country in Central America — but it’s not the same thing if you don’t go and see it by yourself,” she said.
However, she also knows that in the land of opportunity, opportunities are not endless. So, she encourages those who can’t travel to engage in international cultures that have infiltrated the U.S.
“Just be more involved in Latino events so you can better understand the culture, the values of the Latino and Hispanic culture,” she said. “You will see the value also that they can bring to the community.”
She also acknowledged that some residents’ frustrations stem from immigrants not adapting to American culture.
“I don’t know why, if we come to the United States, we don’t try to learn the language, No. 1, and we don’t try to adjust to your culture,” she said. “I think we should, and it’s one of the things that, probably, Americans don’t understand.”
She said it was tricky to learn a new language and culture, learning to resort to a handshake when first meeting someone rather than a hug, but it was important to her to adapt.
“I adjust myself to you because I’m living in your country that now is my country,” she said.
She said working at a bank and being bilingual gives her the opportunity to help newcomers adapt to the U.S., and she has made that part of her mission.
“When I have a Latino or Hispanic client, I try to explain everything that I didn’t know when I came,” she said. “If I knew that it was that important to build your credit, I would’ve done it the first day that I came here. So, now I try to educate (others) why it is important to save, why it is important to have credit, how to buy a house.”
She clarified, though, that she loves serving all her clients and helping them achieve their goals. She said she loves when students come to her saying they want to buy their first cars and then return excitedly to the bank to show her when they make their purchase.
Through her career, she is able to help others seize opportunities in a country where she found hers.
“I love everything about the American culture, people,” she said. “I learn so many things.”
Editor's note: Ronquillo wished to emphasize that "Costa Rica is an amazing country with an amazing culture." She explained her statements are not meant to paint a negative picture of Central America but, rather, provide context for why some residents may wish to migrate to a different country.