In Tennessee, the number of Hispanics grew by almost 900 percent from 1990 to 2000, ranking it sixth in Hispanic population growth.
"The Latino population is the largest minority in the U.S., but when we are looking at statistics, we have sort of the lump statistics," said Eileen Robertson-Rehberg of the Ochs Center for Metropolitan Studies. "What we are talking about is exponential growth ... with certain characteristics, including that it's a young population with needs in the school system, many of them newcomers, many with different sounding names," with multiple languages being spoken.
Ms. Robertson-Rehberg spoke Monday about the growth of Hispanics in the area and the diversity within the community to a group of agency and business representatives during the La Paz de Dios monthly luncheon meeting.
As Chattanooga's population diversifies, there are certain needs that must be addressed, said Councilman Manny Rico and Councilman-elect Andraé McGary, both present at the luncheon. For example, the city needs more bilingual police officers and 911 and 311 operators, Mr. Rico said.
And there is a need for more partnerships between the city and social service agencies, Mr. McGary said.
"Our social service agencies are important, they play a vital role in keeping our neighborhoods safe and providing services that wouldn't be available otherwise," he said.
Ultimately, however, the budget will dictate what can and can't be done, Mr. Rico said.
Dr. Robertson-Rehberg attributed the Hispanic growth not only to the incoming foreign-born population, but also to their children born here.
Although most of the growth is seen in Hamilton County - specifically in the South Chattanooga, Ridgedale, Oak Grove/Clifton Hills and Bushtown/Highland Park neighborhoods - Walker and Catoosa counties in Georgia also saw an increase in the number of Hispanic children born, she said.
Stacy Johnson, director of La Paz de Dios, a social service agency that works closely with the Hispanic community, said she hopes the numbers bring awareness to the needs of Hispanics in the region.
"I think the majority of the population doesn't see the Latino person, so I think they're kind of forgotten, and a lot of times that means the resources are not available to help them when they are in need," she said.
"Many are newcomers, some are born here, (but all are characterized as) Latino and bring diverse energies," Dr. Robertson-Rehberg said. "We need to know how to capitalize on that, not to alienate it but to integrate people well into the community and diversity that is already here."