Power and Progress were on full display recently as community leaders worked together to dazzle the visiting Mexico and Guatemala consulates.
Consul of Mexico Jorge Ernesto Espejel Montes and Consul of Guatemala Billy Muñoz, along with representatives of the Nebraska Hispanic Chamber Foundation, were given a whirlwind glimpse into what the community has to offer its residents and those who have relocated to America and want to make Columbus home.
The visit, orchestrated by the Columbus Area Chamber of Commerce in partnership with the Nebraska Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, required a call to action from community leaders to help show the guests what Columbus has to offer. And Columbus rose to the occasion.
Community leaders from all walks of life made time on July 20th and 21st for the consulates, including those from the Chamber, City of Columbus, Loup Power District, Nebraska Public Power District, Centro Hispano, Columbus Community Hospital, Behlen Mfg. Co., Platte County and Central Community College.
On July 20th, the two chambers of commerce hosted a meet-and-greet event with Consul of Mexico Jorge Ernesto Espejel Montes at the Columbus office. Local leaders in attendance included Columbus Area Chamber of Commerce President Dawson Brunswick, Mayor Jim Bulkley, Columbus Community Hospital President and CEO Mike Hansen, Loup Power District Vice President of Services Todd Duren (also a former chairman of the local Chamber Board of Directors), current Columbus Area Chamber Board Chairman Jake Gable (of Commonwealth Electric Company), Centro Hispano Executive Director Karina Perez, CCC-Columbus Campus President Kathy Fuchser, Nebraska Game and Parks Commission District 3 Representative Ken Curry and City Planning and Economic Development Coordinator Jean Van Iperen. (See the photo of Mayor Bulkley, Consul of Mexico Jorge Ernesto Espejel Montes and Columbus Area Chamber President Dawson Brunswick at larger size by clicking here.)
The Mexican consulate took some time to discuss his office’s role, which focuses on helping Mexican citizens living or traveling in the United States who need assistance from their home government. The Consulate, located in Omaha, serves an estimated 330,000 Mexican citizens throughout Nebraska and Iowa, according to the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services.
The gathering turned into a fruitful discussion about Columbus’ growing immigrant population and the importance of making people from all backgrounds feel welcome. There was talk about the need for housing, as well as the strong manufacturing, health care and education offerings in Columbus.
The group even discussed bridging the gap between cultures in town, with Mayor Bulkley pointing out a need for everyone to be more understanding and patient of simple cultural barriers. The mayor cited lawn care as an example, noting how he grew up learning how it was custom to tidy up your yard and take constant care of it. On the other hand, he said, people who are native to other countries and have relocated here may have grown up in places where lawn care isn’t as important.
Many in attendance nodded in agreement with the mayor, with there being much laughter in the room when one attendee suggested “snow and grass” were at the top of the list of things newer Nebraskans from outside the U.S. have to get used to over time.
Brunswick said he was pleased with the productive dialogue among everyone in attendance, noting it was a great opportunity to learn more about what the Consulate of Mexico does to aid those who have relocated to Nebraska and ask questions.
“Truly, it was fantastic,” Brunswick said after the meet-and-greet finished up at the Chamber office before moving over to El Tapatio Mexican Restaurant for dinner.
On July 21st, the visit continued with Consul of Guatemala Billy Muñoz joining the fold (the Guatemalan consulate brings tons of support to Guatemalans living in Nebraska and also has an office in Omaha). Muñoz, who noted the Latino population continues to climb throughout Nebraska, was engaged from the beginning.
He, Consulate Espejel Montes and the other visitors first stopped at Central Community College-Columbus, where Campus President Kathy Fuchser, CCC President Matt Gotschall and campus staff members talked about the vast education opportunities offered there while showing off the Columbus Community Hospital Center for Science and Technology.
“We always love bringing people to campus to see really what they’re investing in and what we’re investing in in our community. This is especially exciting because we have at least a 23% population that is Hispanic and Latino of our students,” Fuchser said. “So, to have a partnership with the consulates … that’s really important.”
The group then had a chance to visit Behlen Mfg. Co. in Columbus, where they met with company leaders and many employees of all backgrounds. There, the consulates saw firsthand the professional opportunities those from their respective nations have and continue to receive in a strong manufacturing industry.
Next was a trip to Nebraska Public Power District for a luncheon that included an array of community members, including Mayor Bulkley, Brunswick, City Administrator Tara Vasicek, Keep Columbus Beautiful Executive Director Vanessa Oceguera, Duren and Perez.
Much like on the 20th at the Chamber, the luncheon was a chance for another pointed conversation about breaking down barriers between people of different backgrounds. There was encouragement among those in attendance to be unafraid to greet neighbors who don’t look like you. There was also a debate about what Columbus can do to be more welcoming to people of diverse ethnicities.
City leaders were happy to be part of the conversation.
“The consulates are trusted by those who come from Guatemalan and Mexican backgrounds in our community, who we want to make sure feel like Columbus is welcoming and inclusive. It’s important for us to have a strong relationship with any entity that those people trust,” Vasicek said. “We’re not going to build trust with citizens in our community alone. We have to use partnerships to become a trusted source by those citizens.”
The mayor had a similar perspective, sharing that communication is the key to making the community more inclusive for everyone.
“As our Hispanic and Latino population continues to grow, it was a great opportunity to have the Mexican and Guatemalan consulates in Columbus to learn more about our community. Because of the growth of their citizens in our region, the need for these consulates has grown,” Bulkley said. “We are constantly working to improve our diversity and inclusion. It is good to know people and organizations that can help us as we try and make our new citizens feel welcome.”
Most notable about the meet-and-greet gatherings was that approximately 30 people attended each one, but that there were plenty of different faces each day. The Columbus Area Chamber of Commerce president took notice.
“It was fantastic to see different people come out to listen and learn,” Brunswick said, adding that promoting and encouraging diversity in the community is important. “Columbus is between 20% and 25% Hispanic and Latino population, honestly our fastest-growing demographic. That’s why Columbus is growing.”
Sarah Ehlers, Columbus Area Chamber talent and workforce development director, gave the guests a guided tour of Columbus in addition to the other gatherings.
“It was a great honor to host Consul Jorge and Consul Billy. Their presence created a remarkable occasion for the people of our city to participate in meaningful discussions surrounding diversity. Moreover, the visit provided a special chance for our Mexican and Guatemalan residents to personally connect with their esteemed representatives,” Ehlers said. “The impact of this visit extends far beyond the immediate effects. It serves as an inspiring catalyst for others to actively engage in fostering diversity and creating a positive atmosphere within our city …”
Brunswick said he’s appreciative of the consulates for making the trip to town and the community for being invested in making Columbus a place where everyone can thrive.
“We want to help Columbus continue to grow and continue to be a place where people want to live,” Brunswick said. “We’ve built a strong foundation with government officials from other nations that realize Columbus is ‘Something Good.’”